Use of Sensory Programming Calms Children and Enables Them to Learn How to Manage Emotions Positively at ANDRUS
YONKERS, NY May 2015 – In the special-education Orchard School on the ANDRUS campus in Westchester, there is a room that is specially designed to be soothing. Padded mats, wraparound blankets, soft oversized pillows, a cozy corner in which to snuggle and soft toys to squish and hug. This oasis – a state-of-the-art sensory room — has made a huge difference for many of the 155 students in grades K to 9 who struggle with mental and behavioral challenges.
Research is now expanding around the importance of incorporating neuroscience and body-based principles into psychotherapeutic work. This perspective is critical in addressing children who may have experienced stressful, traumatic events and/or exhibit neurodevelopmental problems such as Autism or Attention Deficit Disorder. ANDRUS’ Sensory/Body Regulation Program fosters the mind/body connection to help children cope with stress and trauma. Identifying effective means to manage stress can be transformative for children and provide valuable skills that will serve them well, far beyond their ANDRUS experience.
“Use of sensory and body regulation activities facilitate a more optimal state of calm energy and focus which improves the child’s ability to develop emotional coping tolerance,” states ANDRUS’ Clinical Psychologist and Physical Therapist Andrea DeSantis, PT, MSOT, SEP©, Ph.D.. She continues, “Because it is so effective, our sensory programming permeates every level of the child’s experience at ANDRUS. It is thoroughly integrated into a multidisciplinary model of delivery throughout the different settings in our school and residential and community-based programs.”
Each staff member is taught how to integrate sensory/body based activities with behavior approaches (including the Sanctuary* philosophy and Positive Behavior Intervention Support PBIS) while promoting positive attachment-focused language in their interactions to provide a cohesive approach for children. Dr. DeSantis, who has spearheaded the innovative body-based psychology approach at Andrus, explains, “This sensory-attachment focused approach reflects state-of-the-art brain-based principles that support a child’s developing nervous system and the evolution of trust, security, and prosocial interactions with supportive staff.”
The Sensory/Body Regulation Program began in 2012. Since then, ANDRUS has seen a statistical decrease in incidence reports and out of program behaviors in children using sensory and body regulation tools. Children are not only acquiring motor and problem solving skills through the ANDRUS program, but are eager to seek self-regulation strategies now that their repertoire has been expanded.
ANDRUS offers Sensory Rooms in its Orchard School as well as in several of our residence halls on-campus residential cottages. Additionally, planning is underway to include sensory rooms and sensory therapy programs in ANDRUS’s community-based mental health clinics. Sensory rooms go beyond just “calming” rooms as many children require both active movement to mobilize stress, trauma and emotions, followed by calming activities to bring them back to an optimal state of attention for classroom learning and social skill building. A rich array of suspended equipment such as hammocks, net swings and platform swings provides powerful movement experiences that allow children to build spatial and motor skills which support a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Trained occupational therapists use the equipment to facilitate a calm state while encouraging the children’s sense of empowerment and control over their bodies.
Dr. DeSantis clarifies, “The concept behind the use of the sensory rooms is to provide regular, intermittent organizing activities in a proactive manner so that the child’s nervous system better tolerates stress. The child also learns body self-awareness to tune into early cues of distress so that s/he can make proactive choices to de-escalate potential emotional outbursts.”
Other elements in ANDRUS’ Sensory/Body Regulation Program:
- Each classroom has Classroom Tools/Sensory Boxes that contain an array of items that help children maintain their level of activation and attention regulation during learning. For example, items such as scented lotions, stretch fidgets, weighted stuffed animals, spandex body socks, balance discs and camp chairs can help them feel more alert and grounded while simultaneously discharging anxious feelings. ANDRUS staff members receive ongoing support in the use of tools and communication to help the youth make positive body-based choices to de-escalate emotions and help them remain in class.
- Body Breaks — Teachers and students engage in three-minute “Body Breaks” several times per day to proactively facilitate a calm body state, mindful awareness and focused, but energized attention. The activities are a compilation of sensory integration, yoga, breathing, Brain Gym and Somatic Experiencing.
- Weekly Body Regulation Groups – Dr. DeSantis meets weekly with group leaders (social workers, psychologist and interns) to plan, modify and deliver a classroom curriculum that is rich in expanding children’s repertoire of body regulating strategies. Children learn about their seven body senses and associated activities to promote a calm and positive state of well-being. They also learn about the parts of the brain responsible for emotions, sensations and making wise choices as they relate the activities to their brain-body connection.
- Family and Attachment Support – Dr. DeSantis consults with clinicians and parents to carry over these sensory and body based principles at home. During therapeutic parent planning meetings, information is shared to promote consistency and deliver ANDRUS’ broad-based model between home and school.
- Clinical Integration Dr. DeSantis provides consultations with all disciplines and staff to bring together a unified plan for at-risk children. While her emphasis is on sensory, attachment, and trauma approaches, this model also incorporates aspect of the PBIS and Sanctuary philosophies.
Andrus nurtures the social and emotional well-being in children and their families by delivering a broad range of vital services and by providing research, training and innovative program models that promote standards of excellence for professional performance in and beyond our service community. With programs on campus, in schools and within community-based settings throughout Westchester County, the nonprofit reaches almost 4,500 children and families each year from the New York Metropolitan area. Andrus also operates the Andrus Center for Learning and Innovation (ACLI) and The ANDRUS Sanctuary Institute, which has provided training and consultation to over 300 organizations worldwide in the use of a trauma-sensitive model for treatment and organizational change. Visit www.andrus1928.org to learn more.
*Sanctuary is a way to understand the impact of adversity, create connections and empower people by creating environments and dialogues that promote safety, recovery, respect and partnership.