A sensory room is a quiet, calming space where a student with overwhelming feelings or emotions can retreat, decompress, and divert or still the mind.

Since March, students in the Chanhassen High School special education and Aspire programs have had access to this safe space. Students with emotional, cognitive and developmental disorders and disabilities can use the room at anytime during the school day for respite and escape.

The sensory room came to be, in part, inspired by a senior Capstone project in 2018, called the Yellow Umbrella. This group of students wanted to remove the stigma attached to mental health issues, and initiated an awareness campaign at the high school.

The campaign prompted a conversation among the school’s teachers, and prompted special education teachers Thomas Szewczyk and Chris Nett to look for ways to meet the needs of their students.

They discussed creating a sensory room in the high school with Assistant Principal Erin Swoboda. She gave the nod, and a room in a quiet corner of the high school was transformed into a simple, but effective, sensory room.

With the financial help of a grant from the District 112 Foundation, the school was able to outfit the room.

CALMING SPACE

Student Nick Hanson, along with Szewczyk, provided a tour of the room near the end of the school year.

With the overhead lights turned off, Nick demonstrated the light machine that projects calming color patterns on the walls and ceiling. An “aquarium” bubbles with plastic fish and water, fun to watch in the darkened room.

On the floor is a liquid dance floor. Each of the blocks of this vinyl mat are filled with colored gel that moves when stepped on. A hammock chair is in one end of the room, capable of soothingly enveloping its occupant.

A small plastic cabinet of drawers on the table contains a variety of fidgets, from those that spin to those that can be squeezed, stretched and bounced. A gaming chair, outfitted with built-in speakers, enables students to plug in their cell phones and play music. A weighted blanket, known for its ability to soothe, is folded up on a chair, ready for use.

Szewczyk works primarily with students in grades 9-12 with autism. He has seven students in his classroom all day, with additional students who come in for certain subjects. Szewczyk teaches reading, writing, math and social skills. He works with each student based on individual needs.

He’s seen a marked difference in his students since the sensory room was created.

“Before kids would walk out of classes and just walk the halls. It’s when they get frustrated, or are looking to avoid a task or a situation, then they’d go out into the hallway to give themselves a bigger space.

“In the sensory room, it’s a quiet place and they can pick an activity and calm down. It teaches them not to go into crisis mode, but learn management and situational control. They learn to take a break and how to intervene before there is a crisis.”

Other teachers in the school have noticed a difference, too, Szewczyk said, mentioning that his and Nett’s students “have really mellowed out a lot.”

“I think the staff, they really look at it favorably,” Nett said. “It’s one more tool in our toolbox for those kids that need to take that break. And when they come back, the difference in demeanor, how they react, act, is notable. There’s been positive feedback in the general education classes.

“If they don’t have supports,” Nett said, “kids are more likely to fail classes, have more behavior problems. Our approach with all teachers and staff is we don’t look at the behavior but what caused or triggered the behavior. That’s the difference between a suspension and a reprimand. “

‘ONE OF THOSE KIDS’

Amy Stone, a paraprofessional working with Szewczyk and Nett has worked at the district for 18 years and has a perspective on the sensory room. “That’s because I was one of those kids,” Stone said. She graduated from Chaska High School, and was diagnosed with intermittent explosive disorder.

“So I’ve come full circle,” Stone said, and laughed. “I feel I’ve been here forever.”

“It’s (sensory room) so needed. I mean, any kid needs a break throughout the day,” Stone said. “And these kids especially just need to get away from everybody, to regroup, to a place to go where they are safe.”

Stone said she dealt with depression as a student. After high school, she attended Hennepin Technical College for child development. “Once I was through, I realized, ‘I’m no dummy ... and now I have a husband and two kids.

“My No. 1 thing here at school is building rapport with the kids. Some don’t have a safe place at home and they need someone who’s there for them day in and day out. I know having that when I went to high school was amazing for me. So I want to make it amazing for other students.

Stone is encouraged to see that over the years, teachers are more mental health aware. She sees how having a student commons and the daily 20-minute break and flex education has helped all students, especially the students in special education.

‘IT’S HEAVEN’

Before the end of the hour, one of Szewczyk’s students wanted to provide his input. He didn’t want to give his name, but did describe his take on the sensory room.

“It is heaven,” he said. “I like everything about it. It puts confidence in myself. It helps me try to think about the lighter side of things. It makes being in school a lot better.”

“This is a school of 1,700 students,” Nett said. “It’s a beehive of activity and it can be a huge amount of sensory overload with noises, sounds and smells. The idea that they can have a spot to take a break or escape? It’s been an awesome addition to the building.”

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Unsie Zuege is an award-winning multimedia journalist, who enjoys community journalism, bibimbop, Netflix, Trivia Mafia and snuggling tiny dogs, not necessarily in that order.

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