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South Jordan Journal

Solution to misbehavior is sensory stimulation

Sep 11, 2023 03:11PM ● By Jet Burnham

At Advantage Arts Academy, a free arts integration charter school in Herriman, staff members respond to student misbehavior with an untraditional method—they send the student to play.

“Most kids who have extraordinary behavior issues are dysregulated,” AAA Special Education Director Jennifer Evans said. “Their proprioceptive systems are out of whack and there they are overstimulated. If you don't flesh out these systems, then what you're doing all day long is you're putting out fires. If they are emotionally dysregulated, they're not even in your classroom. They're off volcanoing in the hallway or in the administrator's office.”

To address students’ sensory needs, Evans implemented two systems at AAA: Sensory Pathway and Sensory Lunch.

The Sensory Pathway is an obstacle course with a series of physical exercises that provide proprioceptive input to kids’ vestibular systems and calms their anxiety and frustration.

Evans said when students are able to move their bodies and get the sensory input they need, they can regulate their emotions, and are able to spend more time learning in the classroom.

“You'd have to see it to believe it,” Evans said. “They just feel so much better and they can go back to class and focus until they get their next break. And then there's no volcano going,  which is what I call it. So it's like heading up the mountain to the explosion, and we head it off before we get up to the top.”

Jennifer Jolly’s 9-year-old son, who struggles with undiagnosed ADHD and emotional issues, participates regularly in the Sensory Pathway.

“Our son has taken advantage of this as a way to escape when he feels overwhelmed or out of control of his body,” Jolly said. “This has often led to a very successful return to a classroom instead of being sent home for aggressive behaviors.”

Evans works with teachers and parents to identify patterns in a student’s behavior, which could be triggered by anxiety, overstimulation, hunger or strong emotions, and schedules a visit to the Sensory Pathway before the time of day they tend to act up.

First-grade teacher Addison Bowcutt said it has “saved her life” as a teacher.

“I had a lot of students last year that really needed some sort of sensory stimulation,” she said. “Had they not had the chance to get it out, it would've been a complete disaster. While in the Sensory Room, they would complete an obstacle course, jump on a trampoline, or whatever else they needed at the time to just fulfill their sensory needs. Anytime a student would come back from the Sensory Room, it was like they could take a breath of air as a relief, and they were ready to learn again. Rather than hyperfocusing on their overstimulation, they could actually focus on the task at hand.”

The other program which has made a huge difference for overstimulated students is Sensory Lunch, which is an alternative location for lunch, held in a small room, with fewer people, less noise and dimmed lights.

“The lunchroom is a very loud, chaotic place for a student,” third-grade teacher Annie Rose said. “There are lots of kids and they have to make choices. I get stressed going in there sometimes because there's so much going on.”

 Last year, she had a student who was agitated every day after lunch.

“They would have such a hard time coming down to do math right after lunch, that it caused a behavior problem almost every day, so I'd have to calm them down and it was a whole process,” she said.

When Sensory Lunch was implemented midyear, select students were invited to eat their lunches in the less stimulating environment.

“The sensory lunchtime allows for a less chaotic experience, where eating is encouraged with a small amount of friends and then a break period to be physical without all the stimulation of a playground recess,” Jolly said. “This has worked very well for our son so far, as we have had fewer phone calls from the school to come and get him during this particularly hard time of day.”

Melissa Tryon said the school’s systematic approach to addressing her extremely shy son’s behavior has been a game changer. At the beginning of last year, he didn’t want to go to school and he wouldn’t interact with the other kids. He would call several times throughout the day asking to come home. 

Once he began participating in the Sensory Lunch and Sensory Pathway, his school experience changed.

“By the end of the year, he was happy to go to school every day, eating lunch with the kids in the lunchroom again and playing soccer with others at recess,” Tryon said. “He would come home with fun stories every day and was in much better spirits overall.”

AAA Principal Kelly Simonsen said students and parents are much happier because of the way behaviors are being addressed at school.

“We’re not labeling behaviors as proof of negative worth of a student, but we’re helping students understand this behavior happens when you feel dysregulated and here's how we're going to help you calm yourself, here's some things that you can do,” Simonsen said. “We’re helping students understand their own behavior and their own brains.” 

She said it has been a relief to parents who’ve been told for years that their child had a behavior problem.

“We're saying we recognize that your student has this need and here's how we're going to help to meet it, and you just see a lot of parents feel validated,” Simonsen said.

Jolly's son previously disliked school but now loves it.

“He knows now he has options instead of being labeled the ‘hard’ kid or the ‘problem’ child,” she said. “He loves being in school and has a few friends. We have had so much respect for some of the teachers at AAA who are willing to, not only accept, but to favor these strategies and systems.”

Bowcutt said changing the mindset of seeing “naughty” students as kids who are overstimulated, has made a huge difference in her class.

“I saved myself a lot of phone calls, emails and visits to the office because these kids got a chance to help themselves,” she said. “Overall, it has created a better learning environment for the school as a whole.” λ