2022 California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CBHA) Conference

Innovation and Efficacy Modeled at ANDRUS: Meeting a Vulnerable Population Using a Sensory and Body Regulation Approach

Meeting a Vulnerable Population Where They are At

Some children experience mental and behavioral difficulties that make their daily life a challenge. They struggle to regulate their emotions and cope with a world that isn’t always receptive to their reactive behavioral outbursts. At risk children are more vulnerable to anxiety and explosive anger. Their emotions can quickly escalate into a highly distressed state. These heightened reactions alienate them from society and reduce their participation in joyful relationship experiences with their family, school, and community. Use of sensory and body regulation activities facilitate a more optimal state of calm energy and focus, which improves the child’s emotional coping tolerance. Imagine an approach that could help these children learn new coping behaviors while they simultaneously experience joy and a sense of confidence. This is what the addition of sensory rooms and sensory/body-based interventions at ANDRUS have aimed to accomplish over the past 4 years. Use of sensory and body regulation interventions directly support the child’s body and nervous system. As a result, behaviors improve because the interventions help them regain a calm, alert state. Identifying effective means to manage their stress can be transformative for the child and provide valuable skills and tools that will serve them well and far beyond their ANDRUS experience. We are seeing higher numbers of children in this vulnerable population everyday, and some of the success we’ve experienced with Sensory and Body Regulation at ANDRUS can be learned from and used as a tool for a more general population.

Benefits of Sensory Rooms and Body Regulation Tools

ANDRUS’ Orchard School, Residential Sensory Rooms, and body regulation tools are powerful methods to improve emotional and behavioral regulation. Studies by several leaders in the field of therapeutic interventions (e.g., Dan Siegel, Tina Champagne, Jane Koomar, Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, Bruce Perry) document the impact of supporting sensory and body regulation “bottom up” approaches to minimize aggression and stress in individuals who demonstrate autism, attention deficit disorder, trauma, and mood disorders. At ANDRUS our preliminary research shows that children who used our body regulation tools and the sensory room several times per day, showed more than a 50% decrease in incident reports and property damage and drastically improved classroom behavior. One of the most striking aspects about ANDRUS’ Sensory Program is that it permeates every level of the child’s experience and is truly integrated into the different settings in the school and residential programs. These include dedicated sensory rooms, classroom sensory toolkits, “body breaks” for students and teachers, weekly body regulation groups, family and attachment support, and integration into psychotherapy sessions and our Positive Behavior Intervention program.

Sensory rooms provide a well-padded, safe space where a child can engage in activities to help their brain-body connections. These organizing and calming activities might include use of specialized swings, breathing exercises while swinging in a spandex-material hammock swing, and relaxation in a ball pool. If the child exhibits excess energy build-up from stress and academics, a short break in the sensory room allows the child to safely engage in activities geared toward discharging this energy. For example, children release stress and feel powerful as they run and jump into a pile of large soft pillows. This is often followed by comforting pressure touch while they breathe to bring them to a calm, alert state and ready for school work. Other Sensory Activities might include: activities on large inflated therapy balls, balance challenges, weighted blankets and pillows, and cocoon-type body socks. These sensory and movement activities send powerful signals to enhance the brain-body connections. In response, the “ramped up” emotional brain centers can more rapidly settle down and help a child be more receptive to positive behavior interventions. Engaging in these activities help the child’s brain/body connections from the “bottom up” so they can verbally process their feelings more effectively which is critical in developing self-control. The playful rhythmic movements they experience allow them to positively interact with peers and adults.

In addition to the use of sensory rooms, ANDRUS’ classrooms and cottages have an array of tools that help children maintain their level of alertness and attention regulation during learning (e.g., scented lotions, balance discs, stretch fidgets, weighted stuffed animals). Teachers and students engage in 3 minute “Body Breaks” several times per day to proactively facilitate a calm, focused state with mindful awareness. The activities are a compilation of methods developed through Dr. DeSantis’ background in Sensory Integration and Somatic Experiencing©. These sensory and motor activities promote self-awareness to help children learn how to shift their body and emotional states. Even use of these tools and the sensory room before or during a psychotherapy session can better produce a calm, alert state whereby the child can more easily process emotions in their body.

ANDRUS staff members are encouraged to use yoga stretches, breathing, rhythmic arm/leg movements, or a soft squeeze ball throughout their day. In our over stimulating world, filled with fast paced technology and social media, we can all benefit from engaging in frequent activities throughout the day that support our body, mind and physical health. One of the goals at ANDRUS is to weave this model into the daily lives of our children and staff in order to reap the benefits of Sensory and Body Regulation. For children and families who experience mental and behavioral difficulties or have trouble regulating emotion, experimenting with these tools can provide great support. In fact, we all experience times when we need to refocus or return to a calm state, and practicing some Sensory and Body Regulation techniques can be a great start.

About the author: Dr. Andrea DeSantis has worked with families and children for over 25 years. She brings her unique multidisciplinary background in psychology, physical and occupational therapy to support complex developmental difficulties. She also has a private practice in Pleasantville seeing children, families, and adults with a variety of learning, emotional, and behavioral challenges.

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