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A better way for a timeout

Sensory rooms are helping St. Albert students master their own emotions.
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JUST HANGIN' AROUND — Matthew Bell, a Grade 2 student at Bertha Kennedy School, relaxes in the hanging chair inside the school's Healthy BobKats Room in St. Albert on Wednesday. The chair was just installed this week. Students in the room will use exercise equipment and the quiet reading corner (behind the trees) to manage their moods.

When Bertha Kennedy student Annika Pearce is feeling stressed, she knows to go to the Healthy BobKats Room.

It’s kind of a cross between a reading room and a really relaxed gym. In one half, kids can hop between stepping-stones, clamber on climbing walls, bounce balls, flip battle ropes, pound a punching post or pedal bikes. In the other, they can sit on comfy cushions beneath shaded lights and curl up with a good book.

Annika, who has autism, said she’s learned to ask to go to this room whenever she feels stressed in class. She prefers reading in the so-called “cosy corner” on a squishy green pillow.

“It kind of makes me relaxed,” she said, and helps her learn.

The BobKats Room is an example of a sensory or therapy room – an emerging mental-health trend in Alberta schools.

Sensory rooms are dedicated spaces meant to help youths, often those with autism, learn to regulate their emotions, said Carole Anne Patenaude of Autism Edmonton.

“It’s a way to make sure a child never gets to a crisis mode.”

Autism is often associated with sensory overload, which can make a person distraught, Patenaude said. A sensory room has specific lights, sounds, smells, textures and activities designed to help a youth calm down.

The old approach to such youths was to take them out of class and put them in an isolation room, said Greater St. Albert Catholic superintendent David Keohane. That’s a form of punishment, and it’s completely against the idea of inclusive education.

“We don’t want to punish students into behaving well. We want students to behave the best they can, period.”

(The province is rewriting its rules for isolation rooms in response to a lawsuit involving a Sherwood Park student with autism who was allegedly locked in one.)

The trend now is to teach students how to recognize and regulate their emotions, Keohane said. Instead of the teacher pulling the student out of class, the student, sometimes with the teacher’s help, decides if they need to use a sensory room.

While most schools now have sensory rooms, their designs vary greatly, said Rhonda Nixon, assistant superintendent with Greater St. Albert Catholic. The idea is to create a space that distracts the youth from whatever’s causing them stress, usually with the help of parents, therapists and students. Music, fish tanks, coloured or reduced lighting, squishy objects and aromatherapy are all frequent features.

While most often used with youths on the autistic spectrum, a sensory room can help any student having a bad day, Keohane said.

Bertha Kennedy opened its sensory room last May and now has all its students spend time in it daily, said learning support facilitator Josie Cancian.

“It’s a proactive piece so we can alleviate the stress of them sitting in a classroom forever,” she said.

The room uses repetitive motions to make students more aware of their bodies and of how different activities shift their emotional state, Cancian said. The school teaches students how to recognize their moods and how to use the room to get into a mood conducive to learning.

“The kids have responded fabulously,” Cancian said, adding that she knew of one cognitively delayed youth who now asks to go to the BobKats room because he does better at math after a trip to it.

“They’re excited because we have a climbing wall in our school now and they can kick or punch a bag safely.”

Lorrianne Pearce, Annika’s mother, said her daughter loves to visit the BobKats room and whirl the battle ropes, and was happier at school because of it.

“My kid is happy and is learning.”

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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