Outside Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary school on the morning of Jan. 19, Schenectady police were searching for a man suspected of firing a shot at a young woman in a nearby home. The school had to close to the outside world as police lights flashed along Stanley Street.
But inside the Hamilton Hill elementary school, fourth grader Corrie Sistrunk cuddled into the soft embrace of a boat-shaped sofa.
“He loves this thing, I think it’s like a big hug,” said Jeanne Cox, a paraprofessional working with Corrie.
“A bear but not the bad kind,” Corrie said. “A soft teddy bear, bear hug.”
Corrie was the only student in the school's “sunshine room.” With dimmed lighting, calm atmospheric music, and a variety of activity stations, the school’s sensory room is used to help students riled by everyday trauma, stress and anxiety.
For many students stuck in constant panics of “fight or flight,” the anxiety overwhelms their ability to focus on class work. The stress commonly manifests in behavioral outbursts disruptive to other students as well.
“They are always going, so it’s hard to get themselves to calm down,” said Ed McCorry, a social worker at MLK. “It’s inherent in the room that there is a calming effect.”
The idea for the room has been floating around for a couple of years, but with sixth grade leaving the school this year as part of redistricting, MLK staff knew what they would do with the open space.
“For three years, we’ve been talking about creating this room but haven’t had the space, haven’t had the funds,” Principal Nicki DiLeva said. “With redistricting, we made sure we had a dedicated space to create this room before we did anything else.”
Focusing on students referred by teachers and other staff, the social workers cycle more than a dozen students through the sunshine room every day. Scheduled for the same time most days, the students start their visit to the room by scoring their mood – on a scale of one to 10 – and practicing measured breathing exercises. Corrie said he likes to get creative with the mood scale.
“Sometimes what I’ll do is draw stuff,” he said. “If let’s say I have a headache, I’ll draw a face doing this.” He put his hands to his head and grimaced. “Like I have a headache.”
After the breathing exercises, the students, who work alongside Cox, assigned to the room, or the social workers, usually choose from a variety of different activities. There are building blocks, drawing tables, small trampolines and boxes filled with rice.
But the goal is to instill the students with confidence in their abilities to regulate themselves. They can use how they feel in the sensory room as a touchstone for when they feel stress or anxiety coming on in the future.
“When they leave, ultimately they will be able to use these skills in the classroom and calm themselves,” said Ellen Mueller, the school’s other social worker. “They are developing internal boundaries: ‘I can work through this feeling.’”
The social workers are exploring whether it’s possible to expand use of the room to other students or even create places in classrooms set aside as calming spaces for students. And the teachers wouldn’t mind a calming room of their own, DiLeva said.
The social workers are also looking for ways to tweak the layout and atmosphere of the standalone room, using insights gleaned from the work with students so far this year.
“We are letting the room teach us,” McCorry said.
Across the district, other schools are looking to establish their own sensory rooms. At least four other schools – Hamilton, Lincoln, Zoller and Pleasant Valley elementary schools – have proposed establishing their own sensory room.
But last month, while a stark reminder of the challenges facing Schenectady students unfolded as police searched for a gunman in nearby yards, Corrie had MLK’s sunshine room all to himself. Just him, Cox and a deck of Uno cards.
“Sometimes when I’m really mad, it helps me calm down,” Corrie said. “Sometimes when I’m really calm, it makes me calmer.”