The use of a sensory space will depend on the users’ needs, either as one to one or whole class sessions. It will respond to the aims set for individual students and the whole class or school. It is important to consider students’ needs prior to, during, and after the activity.
Schools should ensure all adults facilitating the sensory space have the appropriate training and information to use the space safely. This includes collaborating with family systems, a multidisciplinary team (school psychologist, occupational therapist, and other relevant professionals), and local advocacy groups to guarantee the use of the space respecting the best interest of the user.
Before: Plan and Prepare
1. Observe: the students and their levels of alertness or drowsiness throughout the school day. Identify patterns to the time(s) of the day when they get overwhelmed or need a break.
2. Schedule: visits to the sensory space at times that suit the student best.
3. Identify: if the student would benefit from a calming or a stimulating activity?
4. Establish access and exit procedures to use the sensory space. Examples include: verbal request, break cards, self-regulation charts. See more detail below.
5. Timing: You may need to establish time limits on how long a student can stay in the space. Students will need prompts to show them when it is time to leave the space. It is important to have more than one type of indicator for different senses. Examples include: a schedule on display (visual) and a buzzing timer (sound). We have more details below.
6. Breaks: Include breaks that involve proprioceptive, vestibular, tactile, and calming activities. These movement breaks can support students with particular sensory needs. They might also include opportunities for self-regulation in the classroom including breathing activities.
Accessing and using the space
Procedures around entering and exiting the sensory safe space are needed. You may use the space for time-tabled sessions, or for a time-out when things become overwhelming. When things become overwhelming, you need mechanisms to allow students to tell you that they need to use the safe space, and for staff to ask if students need to use that space. You also need mechanisms in place for the student to tell you when they are ready to exit that space. Some students will be able to tell you verbally when they need to enter or leave a space. Other pupils will not be able to verbalise, either because they cannot or because they do not feel confident in doing so. In these situations prompts, such as cards to hold up or some other signals, such as coloured balls to drop in a cup, may allow the pupil to communicate their distress without attracting too much attention from their classmates.
Cards, like those shown above can also be used by the staff to ask a pupil if they need some time out of the classroom. Once the pupil has indicated they need to use the sensory space, you can ask them what they need. Finding out their mood, or asking what they think will help them (quiet time, music, a snack) will help you provide the right support and resolve the issue faster. Again you can ask verbally but often pupils are too upset to verbalise, or even know what they want themselves. In this case, offering a choice of cards or items to choose from may help prompt them.
You may choose a resource that allows the pupil to communicate what they need. You may have a variety of mood cards plus cards indicating different options, such as play, read, lie down, go for a walk, have a snack, or listen to music.
The resource below allows you to agree with the student how long they are going spend in the space or do an activity. This ensures that both you and the student are clear on what is going to happen. You can use this for pre-agreed activities or for calming activities, if the pupil is able to engage in the conversation. Reinforce the time limit using egg timers (the pupil might set this themselves) or pointing to a clock.
- Supervision: students must always be supervised when using the sensory space.
- Guidance: Guide students towards either calming or alerting activities, depending on what they need, but never force a sensory activity. Students’ must choose the sensory input they need.
- Observe: Observe the student’s responses to all activities completed in the sensory space.
Exiting the space
You may have an agreed time that the child will have to leave the space or you may wait until that pupils is calm before they have to exit. Again, a visual representation may be useful, helping to prompt the student and informing you. The resource below allows the child to move the counter along the scale to show when they are feeling calmer.