Children center

Clark University Sensory Immersion Room Solnit Children’s Center North Campus

WORCESTER – The director of a Clark University program that helped develop a new quiet room incorporating virtual reality for a treatment center in Connecticut hopes the new approach to meet the mental health needs of young adults will also be adopted closer to home.

Nadia Ward, executive director of the Mosakowski Institute for Public Enterprise in Clark, said the new sensory immersion room unveiled this week at the Solnit Children’s Center North Campus in East Windsor is a big step forward in responding to behavioral episodes in schools and other young people. service facilities.

In addition to using technology, especially Oculus Quest headsets, to produce more personalized and detailed interventions for students, the sensory immersion room that the Mosakowski Institute helped develop is also data-driven and insightful. in-depth scientific and clinical expertise that elevates it above being a “room with comfortable seating that’s just a place for a student to relax,” she said.

More basic ‘chill’ rooms are already in use in many schools in the area, including Worcester, as a means of isolating and helping students following a behavioral incident at school.

“They are only used as a last resort,” said Superintendent Maureen Binienda, adding that the state also has strict rules governing the circumstances under which students may be kept there.

Binienda acknowledged that not all schools in the system had the rooms, and none had the type of technology used by Solnit’s sensory immersion room. But the superintendent also believes physical space is a small part of a successful intervention, and said Worcester has invested more in training programs to equip staff with the skills they need to respond to students.

“It’s not just ‘Here’s a room, let’s put kids in it,'” she said.

Ward hopes others will cling to the model

But Ward is hoping that school districts, as well as other organizations serving young adults in the area, will cling to his institute’s new model, especially as federal funding related to the pandemic flows into school systems across the country. coming years.

“It’s expensive,” she said of the sensory immersion room, “but there must be ways to provide it so that all students can have access to it, all families can have access to it. have access.”

Ward is particularly concerned about the fair distribution of the model, given the disproportionate number of young men of color who report suffering from anxiety and depression, but cannot or cannot receive help for their situation. Their needs could be even greater during the next post-pandemic period, when many of them could return to school in person for the first time in over a year, bringing with them new trauma from COVID- 19 and its various social and economic problems. effects.

The first feedback on the sensory immersion room at the Solnit Center is promising, according to Ward; So far, 52 “encounters” have been recorded in the facility, and on a scale of 1 to 10, young people who used the room gave it an average rating of 9.6 in terms of helpfulness.

Solnit’s team of professionals who help manage the room can produce precise interventions for students based on the sensory profiles and clinical assessments developed for each youth, according to Ward. A student at the center, for example, missed his dogs at home, and with the help of his family, the team was able to create a virtual experience featuring his pets that responded to “the sights, sounds. , smells and even tactile sensations. characteristics of his sensory profile, ”she said.

Guided meditation sessions and other approaches

The sensory immersion room can also be used for guided meditation sessions, mindfulness exercises, and other approaches to bring a student to calm down. For young men in particular, it can be an alternative to speaking when it comes to expressing their emotions.

“Boys sometimes have a hard time expressing what they are feeling,” Ward said, adding that using the Oculus headset, users of the sensory immersion room can “actually draw, in a virtual reality space. 3D, the experience they’re trying to navigate, “instead.

“(This is) a terrific new arrow in our treatment quiver,” said Brett Rayford, superintendent of Solnit Center North Campus. “The SIR room is the latest intervention to help young men understand their emotions, how to better regulate them and, ultimately, how to function better in families, communities and school.”

The next step, said Ward, is to extend the model. She said she had had conversations with regional schools in Wachusett, for example, which may roll out a pilot program this fall.

Binienda, meanwhile, said she should find out more about the program before saying if she would be interested.

Scott O’Connell can be contacted at Scott.O’[email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ScottOConnellTG


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