It's all about the senses

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Morenci teacher Tiffany Bennett calls her classroom the Learning Center.

Kids are sitting on inflated rubber balls. Someone else is bouncing on a trampoline. One child is over in the Academic Center with a book, sitting beneath a large umbrella. Some kids are even (gasp!) chewing gum.

There’s a good reason for all of this. The paraphernalia mentioned above—items not found in most classrooms—are tools, says Ms. Bennett. They might look like toys, but even a toy is a useful tool if used in the right way.

This classroom is, after all, a learning center.

The inner tube, the rocking chair, the full-spectrum non-fluorescent lighting—these things will make her students become better learners. She knows the items make a big difference in her childrens’ behavior and the way they interact with the environment.

And that, she’s convinced, is an important step to learning.

The name of the game for Ms. Bennett is “sensory integration.” To put it formally, it’s “the ability to take in information from the senses and respond appropriately to the situation using that input.”

In plain talk, take the child who just can’t sit still in his seat. He squirms around endlessly in his chair and that makes it hard to pay attention.

Take away that kid’s chair and place him on top of a big rubber ball. Now he can twist and turn and softly bounce around all he wants—all day if he needs it. The novelty of the ball doesn’t last long and then you have a student with one less distraction.

“It gives him an avenue to work that out,” Ms. Bennett said. “We all have sensory needs. Some people just don’t know how to respond.”

Once students learn to recognize those sensory needs, they can do what’s necessary—bounce on the ball, collapse into a rocking chair—and then get back to academics.

The focus returns, the learning begins.

Ms. Bennett’s sensory integration program comes through a one-year $5,000 state grant for the purchase of equipment and classroom materials. She started the project back in July by contacting parents and creating an inventory of students’ needs.

From there, she decided what equipment would be needed and how best to put it to use. Students in her classroom cover a span of abilities, ranging from second grade through fifth grade pupils.

Ms. Bennett arranged her room into three sections. The “Kids Power” area features a thick, padded mat with a small trampoline and an inner tube. The trampoline is considered a calming device, but it does more for some students.

“It does help some students calm down, but it helps some kids to become more alert,” she said.

The inner tube also serves as a calming device, but it’s also a confining space that can give a child the feeling of being wrapped up. The large balls aren’t only for sitting. Ms. Bennett rolls the balls over kids’ bodies for a calming massage.

This section of the classroom is important for making the transition from a physical activity such as gym class. For some children, she said, it’s unreasonable to expect a quick transition to their desk for work.

Over in the “Quiet Zone,” students can choose to sit in a rocking chair or lie on a sofa under a weighted blanket—a slight feeling of compression that some children find inviting.

This area is where the umbrella is found—another tool that can give a feeling of confinement.

“Some kids just have to be alone for a while,” Ms. Bennett said. “They aren’t ready to talk to other kids.”

She isn’t forgetting the senses of smell and taste. Monday morning the scent of vanilla wafted through the room—an odor said to have a calming affect. She’ll give citrus a try sometime to see if it really does cause more alertness.

Even bubble gum is a tool, not only for the taste it offers, but for the general oral stimulation.

Ms. Bennett’s classroom is generating a lot of interest from other students and staff members, and she’s hearing some positive comments.

“I’ve noticed from last year to this year that we’ve cut down on the number of behavior problems and wasted time,” she said.

“This is what I love about a special classroom—having the flexibility to try out other methods and seeing the positive results.”

So far, she likes what she’s seen.

    – Sept. 25, 2002 

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