Safe Spaces by Clive Smith
Problems arise for everyone when trying to learn anything we all know that but just why do we struggle. Generally one of the obvious problems is the brain needs to prioritise all the aspects of the new tasks and we tend to learn in complex and busy environments. Remember the classroom where you were taught, all those bright wall displays, around thirty or more other children, talking whispering moving. How did we manage? Well for most of us it is because our brains have a very good system of ignoring unnecessary stimuli, the ability to self regulate. This means the brain can ignore sensory stimuli that is unimportant. That is how we can listen to people in busy locations like cafes restaurants and focus just upon what they say.
However, many of the children and adults who have a range of special needs also have specific issues with with sensory processing and sensory regulation.
These problems are further compounded when the individual has actual poor sensory skills in other areas, such as vision or hearing or has physical and mobility issues. For these individuals making sense of their environment is difficult enough but if there is an overload of sensory information they may become over anxious setting in chain the whole sequences of hormonal changes that are discussed in detail in the section on hormones and their effect on behaviour. If nothing is done to reduce these anxieties the individual will be unable to focus upon the activities in hand. The anxiety may be even severe enough to provoke a fight, flight or freeze response. See the section on fight, flight or freeze. We all know about fight or flight and will deal with its consequences often in our working lives but freeze is as important. It often doesn’t impact upon us, causes no management problems, doesn’t upset the rest of the class or people we are caring for. If you replace the word freeze with ‘give up’ which is what the individual is doing when they freeze you can see how detrimental this action is for those who need to learn such basic skills. Consider how often individuals with profound and complex needs often appear to have switched off, gone to sleep and consider that just maybe they have chosen to opt out of an activity that creates anxiety for them.
Teachers have always prided themselves on the quality of their classroom displays and often feel that their teaching skills are directly reflected by the quality of their wall displays. In our homes we use pictures and ornaments to create an atmosphere and in community settings rooms are humanised with the same collection of pictures but generally not ornaments! Whilst not suggesting that properly considered displays that enrich an individuals environment should be removed be aware that there is a point where that enrichment just becomes a confusion, jostling for prominence. The brain struggles to decide which stimuli is important and which can be ignored. Anxiety increases and stress hormones start to be released. Examine the environment for excess visual clutter and make a decision about what should remain and what should be removed. It may be possible to restructure and keep the majority of the material but present in a less confusing way. Try and maintain a distraction free area so that individuals can focus upon the learning activity or the individual they are communicating with.
You may want to keep the wall display but can use material to temporarily cover the distraction. Any colour will do but black has the added advantage of absorbing light so making all objects stand out.
Sheets are just one fantastic way to create a back drop, or draped over stands can create a sensory space; just laid on the floor they provide an instant contrast for lighter objects. Fibre optics on a black sheet will show up even in a brightly lit room. We can’t always black out our classrooms or living spaces. A black sheet over a table will even help with normal curriculum or life skill sessions. It makes the individuals focus totally upon the materials that they should be using.
Use coloured sheets to create a theme for sensory storytelling, blue sheets for water based stories, such as ‘The Rainbow Fish’. Back project appropriate digital images to enhance the story telling. Fibre optics draped over the blue sheet creates a shimmering waterfall or river.
Green sheets, provide a back drop to jungle or forest tales, add some bird sounds or leaves rustling from sound files, maybe off your iPad to enhance the moods or to help the individuals’ imagination along. A fan placed behind the sheet adds movement and atmosphere to the scene by blowing the sheets.
Of course white sheets become multi coloured with appropriate back projection, and not just using rotary or pico projectors. There are now available, for around £40, 12v LED lighting strips with remote controls enabling you to select any colour. Placed behind a white sheet they are safe and allow the story teller to select from white to green to red to blue at the press of a button. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Auraglow-5050-Strip-Light-Complete/dp/B009E9TPCW
Check out your nearest curtain shop who will probably have a range of cotton fabric in all colours and most importantly for school or centre use they can provided as certified flame retardant materials.
Last bit of kit, have a box or bin to keep your sheets and artefacts in so you can catch that moment. Enjoy your sheets!!
We are becoming much more aware of sensory processing disorder and how sensory regulation difficulties can affect the individuals that we work with. In the sensory room we can have a great degree of control of visual, auditory, tactile and the other sensory stimuli. In the classroom, day room or even living room or kitchen we have much less control. This doesn’t mean we can’t work in these areas, we just have to give some thought to the process. Strangely enough we don’t have to cut out the extraneous stimuli it appears from experience to be enough to reduce it. One very easy way to do this in any location is to us umbrellas.
Black or white is ideal but coloured will work. The umbrella provides a good screen that isolates the student from other activities reducing the anxiety caused by other students moving close by. A black ‘brolley’ will provide a good contrast for visual effects. Fibre optics which lose their impact in the classroom will have good visual impact laid underneath a black brolly. Fluorescent objects will light up with just the light from a small UV blacklight torch. Small battery operated lighting effects such as torches, hand held fibre optics, glowballs, will stand out really well under a black ‘brolley’. You can use a white ‘brolley’ for projection effects, whether it be shining coloured torches from outside the ‘brolley’. Placing a rotating projector such as the Solar 250 so that its light shines onto the umbrella allows the student to access a strong colourful and moving image with no worries about shining bright lights directly into their eyes. You can use small data projectors to project any recorded video favourite cartoons, films or incredibly effective video of the student themselves. Most digital compact cameras can record video that can be played through a projector and never underestimate the power of children seeing images of themselves, their family or favourite pets as a sensory stimulus.
This is only a brief taste of how the humble ‘brolley’ can open up visual work with our students for more ideas and some helpful background information look at “Using Umbrellas for Sensory work” for some pictures to start you off visit the Hirstwood Training page on Facebook.
In most establishments the sensory room is timetabled to allow equal access for all students but for your students your allocated time may not be when they are ready to work on a particular sensory issue. Yet your classroom is too bright, to busy for focused work. What you need is a temporary mini sensory room. Well with a bit of ingenuity it is easily achieved. What we need to develop is a small environment with clear boundaries, some sort of screen to cut out the visual background of the classroom and distraction of other students. You can create areas with screens and blackout material that create the right sort of space but a very easy and quickly achieved solution as we have discussed is to use the humble ‘brolley’
Little Room Concept
Lilli Nielsen was a Danish psychologist specialising in working with children with multi-sensory impairment, children both deaf and blind. She was also a strong advocate of ‘Active Learning’. Active learning embraced a widespread notion that the adult’s role in learning is to provide a safe and stimulating environment in which children enjoy exploring. Not an environment in which the adult prompts the child to explore by hand over hand guiding. Obviously for those children with visual and auditory impairments becomes difficult. Combine these impairments with poor movement skills due to weak muscle tone and the ability to relocate objects to allow simple handling and exploring becomes a real challenge. This is a serious issue because handling is an important stage in developing an understanding of objects and the world in which we live. It develops such notions of object permanence an absolute prerequisite of developing preference. Remember those old proper prams. The child lay there with a hood up and some rattles strung across the front. This meant the toys were always there in reach with no other distractions to look at. This concept was utilised by Lilli Nielsen in her ‘Little Room’ structure as part of her ‘Active Learning’ principles. The ‘Little Room’ is a purpose designed box with three wooden sides and a perspex lid allowing the child to be observed. Inside there is provision to attach objects and Lilli was insistent that it was best to use real objects with form and purpose rather than toys. The little room therefore allows freedom and security for the child to explore objects in an environment that is safe and can provide consistent responses. The Little Room is also placed on a resonance board, a large sheet of plywood supported from the ground by wooden battens. This amplifies the sound from any movement and provides a tactile feedback in the form of resonance or vibration. The world famous percussionist Evelyn Glennie who has been deaf since childhood yet performed with a 1000 piece drummer ensemble at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics often played on a resonance board to provide feedback to her percussion works. Have a look at the following video placed on You Tube to see a child, Zoe lying on her resonance board thoroughly enjoying her ‘Little Room’ session.
Whilst Lilli Nielsen was very prescriptive about her ‘Little Rooms’ experience has shown that we can provide a similar degree of security and permanence in our sensory work in many ways by using improvised stands and screens, umbrellas work wonderfully for this and allow the work to continue outside the sensory room. For larger areas, pop up tents or shelters work really well.