Joanna Grace explains how schools can get the most out of their sensory rooms
The Department for Education specifies that, in order to be considered adequate provision for children with SEN and disabilities, special schools should have a multi-sensory room (DfE, 2015). Yet “the evidence we have about the effectiveness of multi-sensory rooms universally lacks the scientific rigour required to be counted as significant” (Fava and Strauss, 2010). Recent research (Grace, 2019) reports that many users do not feel they are getting the most out of their multi-sensory room.
Are multi-sensory rooms a waste of time and money? Why do we think they are a “must-have” if research findings are so lacklustre?
Scientifically valid research into the effectiveness of sensory rooms may be absent, or of poor quality, but anecdotal evidence abounds. We cannot argue with the powerful testimony of those who have witnessed how sensory rooms can inspire wonder and transform lives.
“The stressed are relaxing, the silent are speaking, and the withdrawn are coming out of themselves” (Hirstwood and Gray, 1995)
“For the first time my daughter wanted to be a part of the world… our lives have changed completely” (McCormack, 2003).
As is often said, there is “magic” to be found in multi-sensory rooms, but a lot can get in the way of us discovering it. In 2019, I completed a small scale study looking into how multi-sensory rooms are being used in the UK today. In this article, I am going to share some findings of this research and provide practical strategies to help you make the most of your multi-sensory room.
Who, why and when?
Timetabling for use of a shared multi-sensory room is a complicated business, involving careful negotiations and consideration of all who will be using the room, as well as awareness of what their specific needs might be. You could simply allocate every class the same amount of time in the room across the week, or post a sign-up sheet on the door so that people can choose their slots on a first-come, first-served basis. These simple techniques for sharing the resource may initially seem to be fair, but consider this statement from one teacher who took part in the research and you will immediately see the problem: “For half of my class, the sensory room is theonly place where they can access their learning; all the other children in the school get 30 hours in rooms where they can access learning, my class only gets one.”
If the children you support have differing needs, their requirements for access to the multi-sensory room will also differ. So, while everyone having a turn is fair, perhaps some of those turns should be longer than others.
Other teachers in the study spoke of the length of time it took them to get their class to and from the room; for many, this was up to fifteen minutes, meaning that in an hour’s slot they only had 30 minutes of access. They could work around this when their designated hour fell in the middle of the day and they could take time from school breaks or from another lesson to travel, but if they had the 9am slot, many admitted they simply did not use the room.
Use it as it’s intended
How you use your multi-sensory room is crucial if you want to maximise the benefits for pupils. Some teachers in the study reported multi-walled projection rooms being used as glorified cinemas, and rooms with padded walls and furniture being used as containment zones for children who were expressing their difficulties through violent outbursts.
It is true that a multi-walled projection room will make an amazing cinema space but it is unlikely that it was installed so that each class could spend an hour a week watching films. Of course, this can be fun but couldn’t more be done with the room?
It is understandable that when struggling with a student who is being violent staff might, as an emergency measure, put them in the room they consider to be the safest. However, multi-sensory rooms are not designed with this purpose in mind. Metal mounted projectors and Perspex covered equipment can be very dangerous if broken (and very expensive to replace).
If a sensory room is used for this purpose once, that might be acceptable, but if it happens more often or becomes a habit, the school should ask itself some serious questions. Does it need a space for containment? If so, shouldn’t it install one that is designed specifically for this purpose. Does the school need to change how it manages behaviour issues so that this need does not arise in the future? Coming to the multi-sensory room for a session only to discover it blocked by a child in distress is not helpful to either the distressed child or those hoping to have a session in the room.
Design and maintenance
While good suppliers will involve all concerned in the design and planning process, some teachers said companies had designed rooms for them without their input and without meeting their students. Some also reported that they had not fully understood the full cost of maintenance contracts they had entered into. The result is that many people have rooms with broken equipment and design features that limit accessibility. Obviously, there’s no point having these fabulous pieces of technology if you can’t use them. So it is important that all relevant staff, as well as students, are involved in the planning process to ensure you get a facility that meets the individual needs of your students and setting. Here are a few issues to look out for that were raised by participants in my research:
- Are you using padded floors in the design? They can be very useful for some students but they can also limit the mobility of students who are only able to be ambulant on hard surfaces.
- Check if all equipment has to be switched on before it can be adjusted, as this can lead to pupils being overloaded by sensory stimuli as they enter the room, before it can all be turned down.
- Are all sensory areas accessible to those in wheelchairs or hoists? All pupils need to be able to get through the door and around pieces of equipment in the room. Know the turning circle and the hoist footprint of your biggest pieces of mobility equipment and consider these in the design of the room.
- Do you understand the maintenance agreements? It is natural that if you are using your multi-sensory room a lot, as you would want to be if you have such a wonderful thing, it will suffer wear and tear. Some schools had installed equipment believing they would be able to maintain it themselves, or have it replaced under warranty, only to discover that the people installing it had replaced mechanisms within the equipment thus invalidating the warranty and ensuring that only they could maintain it. One school I spoke to had to have a perfectly good sensory room ripped out and replaced because they could not afford the maintenance contract on it. So make sure you understand the full implications of the contracts you are entering into with suppliers.
The right training
Effective training can have a huge impact on how well schools are able to use their sensory rooms. If you just fill up your exciting new room with people and switch everything on, you will probably find everyone gets overwhelmed by sensory overload. Some may display this overload by becoming passive or withdrawn and inexperienced staff might interpret this as relaxation.
Everyone I spoke to in my research had received training in how to switch their rooms on and how to operate the equipment, but only one person had been trained in how to use the room. If you value the outcomes you can create for pupils in your new facility, ensure your staff have access to relevant training. Simply having a multi-sensory room is not enough.
The magic to be found in a multi-sensory room lies beyond the equipment within it. Indeed, the factor most often cited as essential to the effectiveness of their sensory room practice by the people I interviewed was darkness. It was in their sensory rooms that they could create a blackout and the darkness was where pupils could start to get really inspired. From this platform they could then explore the wonderful effects of some of the equipment in the room. The amazing resources we have at our fingertips today are perfect for casting sensory spells, and simple resources and improvised environments can do the same, but all can be rendered pointless by a lack of understanding of the skills involved in casting our spells.
Hulsegge and Verheul (1986) are widely recognised as the staring point for multi-sensory room practice and they were very clear about where the magic lay: it was between people, not in a room or a resource. “Most important are the interpersonal contacts”, they said. “These can never be substituted by machines or effects”.
If you want to see great things happen in your sensory room, look at the people who will share the space. What do they need? How do they connect? How will this room and the resources within it support these connections? It will be a different answer each time. If you have a one-size-fits all approach, it will always be the wrong size. Throw it out and start again, not by flicking through a catalogue of technological wonders, but by looking at the people who will use it and finding that magic spark of connection.
DfE (2015), Area guidelines for SEND and alternative provision.Available online at gov.uk/government/publications/send-and-alternative-provision-area-guidelines
Fava, L., and Strauss, K. (2010) Multi-sensory rooms: Comparing effects of the Snoezelen and the stimulus preference environment on the behaviour of adults with profound mental retardation. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31, 160–171.
Grace, J. (2019) Multiple Multi-sensory Rooms: Mythbusting the Magic. Speechmark, Routledge. Oxon.
Hirstwood, R. and Gray, M. (1995), Practical Guide to the Use of Multi Sensory Rooms. TFH Special Needs.
Hulsegge, J. and Verheul, A. (1986) Snoezelen: Another World. Rompa, England.
McCormack, B. (2003). Snoezelen: A mother’s story. The Exceptional Parent, 33(10), 38-41.
About the author
Joanne Grace is a sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, trainer, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects. She is the author of Multiple Multi Sensory Rooms: Myth Busting tha magic (Routledge, 2020).