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Bloomington-Normal youth find comfort in new sensory rooms

A student at YouthBuild sits on an exercise ball in YouthBuild McLean County's sensory room.
Melissa Ellin / WGLT
YouthBuild McLean County introduced a sensory room to help students [like Savannah, who is pictured] regulate their emotions.

Some people need music to focus, or complete silence to get a single thing done. These quirks of character might seem insignificant, but science shows the right sensory input can entirely change someone’s mood or productivity.

Bloomington-Normal schools and youth-serving organizations are increasingly working this ideology into child development — through sensory rooms. These are spaces equipped with a variety of tactile, auditory, visual and even olfactory tools that provide stimulation to assist with social and emotional skills.

“We're learning that sensory needs need to come first before anything else,” said Annie McWilliams, a speech pathologist at Stevenson Elementary School in Bloomington. “If you want [students] to talk, if you want [them] to learn in school, follow directions, go through their schedule of the day, we have to get the sensory needs met. It is just essential.”

‘Sensory diet’

However, it takes work to pair people with the right sensory tools.

Lisa Ellis, an occupational therapy assistant at Stevenson, said this is because each student has their own “sensory diet,” and what works for one student might not work for everyone.

“Some students just have a really hard time just kind of being able to sit and tolerate that sitting and be able to have education impact on them,” she explained. “Some students have a lot of difficulties with sensory regulation in general.”

To accommodate, Stevenson has two sensory rooms. One has a platform swing, a crash pad and a trampoline, while the other just has crash pads and floor seats. In the first, wound-up students can work through their hyperactivity or strong emotions. In the other, students can relax.

Other students can get through the day without using either of Stevenson’s sensory rooms at all.

New sensory rooms in town

Across town, YouthBuild McLean County is currently learning all of this, as the high school introduced its own sensory room in April.

Executive director Tracey Polson said the school’s social worker thought it would helpful since students have been “facing significant mental health challenges” since the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it wasn’t until she toured sensory rooms in the area — at Lifelong Access and Eastview Christian Church — and in Chicago that Polson realized how technical and scientific they are.

It cost $20,000 for YouthBuild to get its sensory room that was funded by two $10,000 grants — one from the Normal Township and one from the Meijer grocery store chain.

“I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll get some lights, we’ll get a comfy chair, we’ll get a chair, we’ll call it good,’” said Polson. “I was way off base.”

YouthBuild McLean County Executive Director Tracey Polson is seen using a wall-mounted sensory tool that has blocks that change color with touch.
Melissa Ellin
YouthBuild McLean County Executive Director Tracey Polson is seen using a wall-mounted sensory tool that has blocks that change color with touch.

YouthBuild’s sensory room does have several comfy chairs and fairy lights, but it also has bins full of manipulative handhelds, a wall hanging with all kinds of fidget toys, as well as multiple tubes and wall hangings that light up and are filled with water to create bubbles.

Everything in the room down to the types of seating — a swing chair, exercise balls, a couch — Polson said was selected intentionally.

“They serve specific functions to really tap into a student’s dysregulated status and help them gain control over what they’re feeling and then get focused and re-centered and get back to work, which is our most important thing that we’re trying to accomplish with this,”she said.

There’s already been some success, such as for YouthBuild student Savannah, who said she went in “bawling” with “snot coming out of [her] face,” and left stable enough to go to work. For her, it was bouncing on the exercise balls and experiencing the colored lights that helped.

At the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal, CEO Tony Morstatter said his staff had a similar idea to YouthBuild. He said the nonprofit noticed a need for increased social and emotional learning back in 2018. Since then, the organization has been working to provide trauma-informed care.

Boys and Girls Club Bloomington-Normal CEO Tony Morstatter poses with hands on hips and smiles while standing in front of a tree and greenspace in the ISU Quad.
Melissa Ellin
Boys and Girls Club Bloomington-Normal CEO Tony Morstatter.

At the end of 2023, the nonprofit launched the Zen Den for K-5 youth.

“We’re here to support one another,” Morstatter said.

The Zen Den has two rooms with sensory tools and educational tools, and they double as offices for trained mental health professionals who can help youth work through their emotions.

Chief Operating Officer Liz Holtz said the Zen Den has improved communication for the youth that use it.

“It has provided language for them to be able to state where they're at,” she said.

Angled upward, the view is of the top of the Zen Den. It features the title, and in the left background is the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington-Normal logo near the top of the triangle ceiling in the gym.
Melissa Ellin
The Zen Den, with the view of the Boys & Girls Club logo in the gym, where the Zen Den is located.

Central Illinois Bridge Academy

In Normal, Central Illinois Bridge Academy Director Trisha Malott said she knew from day one that the school would need a sensory room, so she included it in the design plan. Bridge was introduced to the community in 2022 to serve youth with serious mental health conditions.

“We are serving some students who have an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis,” she said. “We are serving some students who have pretty significant trauma in their backgrounds, and we have students who have anxiety, who have depression, who have had rough patches and may be here for less time, but sensory input and output still plays a significant part in their regulation.” [Students are enrolled at Bridge Academy for as long as is necessary for them to learn self-regulation techniques before transitioning back to their public schools].

 Trisha Malott directs Central Illinois Bridge Academy, which is part of the Regional Office of Education #17.
Emily Bollinger
Trisha Malott directs Central Illinois Bridge Academy, which is part of the Regional Office of Education #17.

Bridge’s sensory tools include the crash pads and trampolines seen at other schools, but Malott said there also are compression vests for students who might need “a hug from mom.”

Student Faith Williams said one of her favorite tools is a monkey noodle — a small, flexible rod.

“I can wrap them around my hand and squeeze them,” she said. “If I need to let out anger, I can just stretch them and it helps.”

Williams is one of a few students at Bridge who has a routine for the sensory room. Not only can she recognize when to remove herself from a situation and seek it out, but she can estimate how long she will likely use it.

“I know how to use it,” she said. “I’m not gonna like, just go in there to skip class. I know when I need it and when I don’t.”

Sensory rooms don’t work in every situation, and Williams said there are times when her routine fails her, but to Malott, this type of behavior is a success because the student has learned what she needs to self-regulate.

Central Illinois Bridge Academy's sensory room has a trampoline, a pink box fan and bins with manipulatives. A swing chair and crash pad are there, but not pictured.
Emily Bollinger
Central Illinois Bridge Academy's sensory room.

Resources outside of sensory-specific rooms

Outside of sensory rooms, schools and youth-serving organizations all agree that sensory tools come in handy, and they provide resources. Stevenson even has shopping carts in the halls, so students can push them and feel calm.

Translating these practices to home can prove more difficult, but GBC Autism Services [GBC] in Normal has practice. The organization serves neurodivergent youth and particularly those with autism.

GBC allows clients to rent out sensory tools and games as well, so they can take the therapy home.

Despite GBC’s focus being neurodivergent youth [their brain functions atypically], clinic coordinator Ingrid Streibich said sensory therapy is useful for those who are neurotypical.

“Everybody has a sensory thing that they love,” she said. “For me, it’s vacuuming, because the sound of the vacuum tunes out all the other background noise, and I just hear one sound, and I can see the lines forming and I get the instant gratification of knowing something is clean.”

Daniella Barroquerio, who runs the Little Art School in Bloomington, has been learning all about sensory therapy. She partnered with GBC to offer art classes focused on teaching about families about the sensory experience.

Ingrid Streibich with GBC Autism and Daniella Barroquerio with the Little Art School pose for a photo at the art school. They spoke to WGLT about sensory therapy.
Melissa Ellin
Ingrid Streibich, left, and Daniella Barroquerio.

The Little Art School now has its own art-specific sensory room, with warm lights and tactile resources, such as a miniature sandbox filled with rice — one of many examples of things parents can do at home.

Barroquerio also puts marbles in a box with paint to engage multiple senses. She said it’s about things like “feeling the weight go from one side to the other and hearing the glass marbles, clicking, and then seeing those lines and the paint mix.”

“The projects or the activities that look like art are really not about the finished product that when you hang on a wall,” she said. “It's really about the process.”

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Corrected: May 28, 2024 at 8:14 AM CDT
It was clarified that one of YouthBuiild McLean County's grants for the sensory room came from Normal Township and not Town of Normal.
Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.