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A place to heal

Bronx school’s sensory room allows students and staff to ‘self-regulate’
New York Teacher
a place to heal
Jonathan Fickies

Special educa- tion teacher Joanna Malantino (left) was inspired to add sensory-friendly items and seating to the classroom she shares with special education teacher Brice Ouedraogo.

a place to heal
Jonathan Fickies

School social worker Michelle Jervis looks through the calming room library.

a place to heal
Jonathan Fickies

At IS 391 in the Bronx, a former office is now a mental health oasis for students and staff.

There is a room at IS 391 in the Bronx with color-changing lights, soft bean-bag chairs, a gurgling fountain, books and fidget toys.

“We needed a calming place where students could come for counseling, and students and staff could just sit and self-regulate,” said school social worker Michelle Jervis.

Like most schools, IS 391 was rattled by the pandemic. If that weren’t enough, the school community lost a student in a tragic fire in a nearby apartment building in January 2022.

“A lot more kids were overwhelmed in class, anxious or having panic attacks,” Jervis explained.

In the spring of 2022, she pitched the idea of transforming her office into a mental health oasis to her principal and the School Leadership Team. Everyone was on board. Dermott Myrie, the school’s UFT chapter leader, said he liked the idea of creating a “safe space where students could calm down.”

The room has been a sanctuary for children like a 6th-grader who had a panic attack in math class one morning earlier this school year. Jervis brought her to the calming room, turned on music, gave her a soft brush to use on the back of her hand, and then gently began to ask her about how she was feeling.

“The lights and the fidgets calm me down,” said the student. “I like being able to relax, and there’s no rush.”

The student received counseling for a few weeks. “I learned coping skills, and I talked to my friends so they know when I’m anxious and they distract me,” she said.

Sensory toys, like the brush Jervis offered the student, stress balls to squeeze and tubes of glitter and water to observe, serve as a “focal point” for students experiencing anxiety, Jervis said.

“If you’re feeling sensations like your heart racing, sweating or tightness in your chest, the focal point becomes a new sensation to focus on that you have control of,” she said. “That sends signals to your body that you’re safe.”

a place to heal
Jonathan Fickies

Students relax on bean- bag chairs in the calming room.

Once the guided sensory input and calm environment takes a student out of “fight or flight” mode, Jervis said, they’re able to answer her questions and start untangling their stressors.

The school faculty have benefited, too. Twice weekly, Jervis teaches yoga classes for staff in the calming room.

Joanna Malatino, a special education teacher who cares for a parent with dementia, is one of the many UFT members who go to the room to recharge from the stresses at work and home.

“It’s an opportunity to regroup, refocus, and then re-engage with your students,” Malatino said. “I just take a time-out for myself for five or 10 minutes, and then I can go tackle the world.”