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Sensory room planned for CVU

Observer courtesy photo  An image of a sample sensory room, created in 2010 by a UK firm, Mike Ayres Design.
Observer courtesy photo
An image of a sample sensory room, created in 2010 by a UK firm, Mike Ayres Design.

Goal is to help students cope with anxiety

By Jess Wisloski

Observer staff

A high-school sophomore’s English class project has taken on a new life — one with the potential to save other students in moments of crisis.

Emma Lieberman, 15, has been dealing with severe anxiety since she was in middle school and in recent years has learned more about her diagnosis (panic disorder) as she’s navigated all the same overwhelming stressors of high school, from a more complicated perspective.

“I’m on a learning plan,” for the disorder, she said and noted she’s not the only one in her school who is. “In 7th and 8th grade, I started having problems with timed tests and then last year I had a panic attack during midterms,” she said.

She’s missed school due to her debilitating anxiety and then this semester, she came up with the idea of bringing a very simple type of treatment inside the school to keep herself and others from missing out on any more of their high school experience.

Sensory rooms are spaces designed to help people with various types of disorders calm down, alleviate their building anxiety or disassociation (they’re frequently useful to people with autism and Asperger’s) and help them re-set and focus by stimulating the surface senses in a comforting way.

“I’ve been in one before and thought it was a really good place to calm down,” she said. She sees the creation of one, which she proposed for her class in response to an assignment in which they had to develop ideas for innovations, as a way of both helping her cope with her own issue as well as helping fellow students find more peace in their day to day lives.

Ultimately, it was her development of a budget while working on the class project that led her to envision a sensory room as something truly realistic for Champlain Valley Union High School in the near future. She figured out that for a very basic room conversion, they could create a sensory space for $2,500.

That’s what led her to approach administrators at CVU – who in turn, have been quick to jump on board with the idea. Last Thursday, she met with the department of special education at the school to talk about how staffing of the room (which hasn’t been chosen yet) would work.

“We’re just really proud of her,” said Adam Bunting, CVU’s principal. “I think she’s a role model of the best sort in that she’s turned a struggle into a strength. And it’s the best we could hope for from a student.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing where we can find a space for it,” he added.

While sensory rooms can look vastly different depending on the age they’re designed for or the disorders they’re hoping to target, Emma’s idea is to directly serve the 23 identified students in the school with individualized education programs (IEPs) that address panic disorder, as well as to serve students who may suffer from severe anxiety but not be diagnosed, or who have not yet been placed on an IEP.

Emma’s hopes for the room include:

quieter and darker lighting than the buzzing, flourescent lights in classrooms that some students with anxiety find hard to handle; Christmas lights

large, comfortable soft chairs and a small sofa

an indoor swing, “because swings can address special nerves in a body to help it calm a person down,” Emma said.

weighted blankets to calm down a panic attack

a refrigerator and freezer for water bottles and ice packs

a CD/music player for guided meditation or relaxing music or sounds

art supplies, adult coloring books

a chalkboard wall for self-expression and therapeutic writing

calming colors on the walls: blue, green and white

Administrators want the room to be available to all students, Emma said, which worries her, since she fears it could become an unintended hangout space.

Just before meeting with an Observer reporter, Emma said a fellow student who may have seen the project on TV had asked her how someone could qualify as having anxiety, if they wanted to use the room. (Already Emma’s project is being talked about, despite only being in the planning stages.)

When asked if it could help to keep it available to even students who don’t have a diagnosis, as a preventative or awareness measure, she said she realized it could serve a lot of students going through anxiety-triggering transitions, like the one she did in middle school when her first panic attacks appeared.

“I think it might help benefit new students who are really stressed about coming to a new school. We have guidance counselors, we have nurses and we have a sensory room. We have all these places where you can go.”

“I think everyone experiences anxiety,” she said. “The difference [with panic disorder] is you can’t really ignore it. You just get this nervous feeling, you feel really stressed out. Having a place to go would be really helpful. It can help the school to help those students,” she said

For more on Emma’s vision for the sensory room, visit her website at sensoryroom.weebly.com. As of publication, her fundraising had generated more than $1,600 at gofundme.com/22wkf6bn.