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Joanna Grace

Sensory rooms: a sound investment in the right hands

Kitting out your school with the latest technology is no guarantee that your pupils will benefit. Joanna Grace explains why it’s important to invest in people too.

The first sensory rooms in the UK emerged in the mid-1980s. Initially there were just a few of these strange immersive spaces in the country but they quickly proliferated. Now all special schools have them, many have several, mainstream settings are installing them, we find them in adult care, in dementia care, there are community rooms in sure start centres or run as private businesses, there are even touring rooms in buses.

With funds raised by BT Sport and the Premier League Charitable Fund, several football stadiums (Watford, Anfield, Emirates to name but a few) have introduced sensory rooms for fans to use.

The first rooms cost a few thousand pounds to set up. Now it is not unusual to pay a sum equivalent to the price of a small house in order to install the latest and most fashionable technology.

There’s no doubt that sensory rooms are popular. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to work in a sensory room will have witnessed at first hand the smiles, the joy, the ‘wow factor’. However, two questions remain unanswered.

  • Are sensory rooms really cost-effective?
  • How do we measure the impact they have, or how do we know that they work?

Evidence of impact

Research into sensory rooms often attributes their success to strong selling techniques (Longhorn 2011, Ayer 1998, Champagne and Stromberg 2004, Anderson 2010, Ashdown 2013). On the face of it, this is perfectly understandable: if you have a product that you can sell well, all power to you. What’s concerning is that the increase in the number of rooms may have been instigated by something other than their intended benefits.

When we investigate the impact of the rooms, we find that some have a damaging effect and others a positive effect, but many have little to no effect whatsoever. The difference between these three groups is not the equipment in the room, or the people accessing the room, but the people facilitating in the rooms. The most important piece of kit in a sensory room is always the person leading the session (Grace 2018, Ashdown 2013, Orr 2000). Schools might be investing in the rooms, but are they investing in the people?

On my travels, I frequently speak to members of staff who have been shown how to operate the rooms: they know how to switch everything on and off and how to create particular effects. However, they rarely understand the purpose of the rooms. Too often it’s assumed they will be able to figure it all out from the knowledge of the people they are taking into the rooms. But we all know the risk of assumptions!

You can draw many parallels between the sensory room and its outdoor counterpart, the sensory garden. We have seen their impact, we know they can be as effective as multi-sensory rooms (Hussein 2010, Anderson et al 2010, Ashdown 2013, Howard 1990). Seeing their popularity elsewhere, schools are designing their own sensory gardens, with practical considerations such as most suitable space and choosing plants that will survive the longest.

But when they are finally installed, how are they actually used? What impact do they have?

People first

When designing a sensory room or a sensory garden, the last thing that should inform your decision is the prettiness of the picture in the catalogue. Instead, you need to identify who will be using the room, what they will be using it for and what training your staff will need to facilitate sessions properly.

For example, do you intend to provide:

  • a calming space
  • a stimulating space
  • a space to hone particular skills?

However you use a room or garden, It’s no good for the progress you make to be confined to that space. Before any design work begins, you should have a plan in place for transferring learning to the outside world (Anderson et al 2010, Fava and Strauss 2009).

The judicious approach school business managers take to procuring equipment and facilities is exactly how you should go about sourcing training on sensory rooms. In the UK there are several providers of high quality training that will help staff use these spaces to support their pupils, not merely operate them as a facility.

Make it count

When you book the training in how to operate a multi-sensory room be sure to also book training in how to use it. One of the most common ways for a multi-sensory room to be used ineffectually or even worse to be used in a damaging way is to have staff turn everything on and off (Hirstwood & Gray 1995, Mount and Cavet 1995, Orr 2000, Howard 2013, Ashdown 2013). If this is all staff have been trained to do, then what do we expect to happen?

Expect to question trainers rigorously before booking them to train your staff.

  • Is the trainer familiar with the equipment in your room? (You could offer them the chance to come in and explore your room in advance of the training.)
  • Have they worked with pupils like yours before?
  • Do they understand the outcomes you’re working towards for your pupils?

It is very easy to teach us how to create an entertaining experience, and that is a wonderful thing to have. However, schools can pay large amounts of money for a multi-sensory room with the assumption that it will it benefit pupils therapeutically – simple thrills can come at a much cheaper price.

Risks of using a multi-sensory room

  • Trigger-happy facilitators turning all the equipment on.
  • Rewarding undesirable behaviour.
  • Isolating success to the novel environment of the room.
  • Believing that the equipment will do the work for you.

Benefits of using a multi-sensory room

  • Improving a child's wellbeing and willingness to learn.
  • Preventing the need for restraint and seclusion.
  • Enhancing a child's sensory motor skills.
  • Focusing on a learning experience in an immersive environment.
  • Developing a child's social and emotional skills.
  • Fostering social connections.

Further reading

  • Explore the archives of the PMLD link journal, which has featured several articles on multi-sensory rooms.
  • Richard Hirstwood offers sensory room training as well as written free-to-view content about the use of the rooms (subscribe to his YouTube channel for good insights).
  • Look at the Naali Sensory Story, designed to be told in a sensory room and to foster the transference of skills learned during the story in the sensory room out to the classroom environment and beyond. The story booklet also contains a summary of the research around multi-sensory rooms and 10 tips for improving their use.
  • Connect with Becky Lyddon at Sensory Spectacle to find out more about sensory processing and how the use or misuse of sensory rooms can support or thwart individuals who experience difficulties with their sensory processing. Sensory Spectacle’s YouTube channel is another great source of insight into sensory processing difficulties.

References

Anderson et al (2010), 'Findings from a Pilot Investigation of the Effectiveness of a Snoezelen Room in Residential Care: Should We Be Engaging with Our Residents More?', Geriatric Nursing, 32/3.

Ashdown (2013), 'Multi-sensory environments', PMLD link, 25/1.

Ayer (1998), 'Use of multi-sensory rooms for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities', Journal of Intellectual Disabilities, 2/89.

Fava and Strauss (2010), 'Multi-sensory rooms: Comparing effects of the Snoezelen and the Stimulus Preference environment on the behavior of adults with profound mental retardation', Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31.

Hirstwood and Gray (1995), A Practical Guide to the Use of Multi Sensory Rooms, TFH Special Needs.

Howard (1990, reprinted 2013), 'The Hillside School Multisensory Environment', PMLD Link, 25/1.

Howard (2013), 'Reflections on my 1990 article', PMLD Link, 25/1.

Hussein (2010), 'Using the sensory garden as a tool to enhance the educational development and social interaction of children with special needs', Support for Learning, 25/1.

Hussein (2013), 'Patterns of seated activity in sensory gardens among children educated in special schools', Support for Learning, 28/2.

Longhorn (1988), A Sensory Curriculum for Very Special People, Souvenir Press.

Longhorn (2011), 'A short history of Shout, Glow, Jump, Taste, Smell, Touch and Wobble: Multi sensory education', PMLD Link, 23/1.

McCormack (2003), 'Snozelen: A mother’s story', The Exceptional Parent, 33/10.

Mount and Cavet (1995), 'Multi-sensory environments: an exploration of their potential for young people with profound and multiple learning difficulties', British Journal of Special Education, 22/2.

Murray et al (2009), 'Strategies for Supporting the Sensory-Based Learner', Preventing School Failure, 53/4.

Orr (2000), 'Using sensory environments', PMLD Link, 8.

Porter and Miller (2000), 'Developing the use of multisensory environments', PMLD Link, 36.

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