City schools hope small step brings results

A path for the senses

OBSERVER Photo by Jo Ward Children from Hayley Guild’s first grade class walks through the Sensory Pathway at School 5.

Sensory Pathways, a new building feature for children, is making an impression while getting pupils moving in the Dunkirk City School District. Colorful vinyl tapes and decals snake their way around hallway walls and floors creating a vibrant obstacle course for kids to release their pent up energy.

“We noticed, over the years, as the education system’s changed and continues to change, the increase in the time spent sitting in the classrooms,” said Stacey Lovern, director of occupational therapy in the city schools. “These pathways are set up in a very specifically designed way, skipping, jumping, pushing, lots of heavy work that we call proprioception, that’s neurologically based.”

Lovern, along with her four-member team of occupational and physical therapists, stumbled upon this concept in various online groups. These sensory locations are flooding school districts all around the country as a means of preventing kids, who are a little more active, from disrupting class and developing negative habits that can follow them throughout their educational career.

“All the research and evidence that supports the need for movement and how it helps the children who have those extra wiggles and have a hard time sitting through increased time in the classroom,” Lovern added. “These kids are so worried about focusing on trying to sit, that they don’t have the attention levels left to give to the academics.

“As adults we can express our need and relay it to others. Young children are still developing their expressive skills, so it’s hard for them to say ‘I need a break,'” Lovern continued. “We’re trying to teach them that they can advocate for themselves and know what their bodies need. What is the student trying to tell us? What is the function of this behavior? Is it a sensory component that they need to move, that they’re learning through movement, that they need to take a break? Is it escape? Are they trying to get away from it? Is the work too hard? Is it an avoidance?”

OBSERVER Photo by Jo Ward Dr. James Tracy, superintendent for the Dunkirk School District, tries out the Sensory Pathway installed at School 5 during a December Board of Education Meeting.

Lovern went on to discuss the results the district is hoping to see with these pathways. “We want an adaptive response, we want to see what happens when we give them movement breaks,” she said. “Are they able to sit better? Are they able to focus? Are they participating? But, we’re not just running around a gym, which some students need to do. We’re doing very controlled, specific, structured activities, to hit different parts of the brain, and help neurologically calm them and get them focused. The teachers are finding it very helpful.”

The pathways, so far, have been in the Dunkirk elementary buildings for roughly two months; and now the Middle School has also joined the foray, with a more age appropriate set up. Besides a floor path for general movement, there’s also a layout on the wall to help students express emotional needs. Currently there’s three paths they can follow; move, recharge or mindfulness, depending on their need.

The designs of each pathway has taken the therapy team hours to create, having started in September with brain storming.

“We didn’t want to just use another groups layout, no two districts have the exact same needs or space,” Lovern added. “Some were in classrooms or in therapy rooms. Some had implemented trampolines and yoga mats. Because we have so many buildings we thought we’re kind of limited on space, so we thought ‘let’s take advantage of the hallways.'”

The team began scouring the net for decals and tape that would come off easy, and not damage the waxed floors that the cleaners work so hard on.

“We started with laying colorful, vinyl floor tape; floor decals, that we found online made for walls, such as bridges, fish ponds and volcanoes,” Lovern said. “Once we started searching, we were shocked, the possibilities were endless, because that’s what we want, we want it engaging for them, understand that it’s fun.”

Soon the group was implementing the district’s Cricket machine to cut out handprints and footprints, giving the kids more visuals to help guide them through the routine. However, since routines can grow dull, especially for young, developing minds they plan to change the pathways several times throughout the year. “We know to a lot of our students who are busy that the novelty wears off — so we constantly want to keep in engaging,” Lovern noted.

According to Lovern, overwhelming support has poured in from both the administration, as well as the teachers, and now the therapy team is looking to the High School.

“Some children just learn differently. Some are visual, some tactical hands-on, some are auditory, some learn through movement,” Lovern stated. “There’s so much research out there supporting the benefits of movement, the cognitive processing, the motor function, social and emotional well being. Just know, fundamentally, what’s behind it. What does the research and the studies say? Then come up with you’re own take on it.”

If anyone has any questions regarding this, Ms. Lovern asks you to email her at slovern@dunkirkcsd.org or by phone at 366-9300, ext. 4508.

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