Yoga Mats and Wiggle Stools: New Canaan students thrive with new sensory equipment
NEW CANAAN — At the beginning of the school year, Jen Klemm, a third- grade teacher at East School, noticed her students talking out of turn in the middle of lessons or invading each other’s personal space. But all that changed when she introduced fidgets, a sensory device children can play with during class.
“I’ll never forget the first lesson after fidgets,” she said. “They were totally engaged.”
The fidgets (items like stress balls, pieces of fleece and plastic netting with a marble) give the young students something to do with their hands while in class. They are one of several types of sensory-friendly resources integrated into East School over the course of this school year, thanks to a donation from the Parent Teacher Council.
Some examples of these resources include various forms of fidgets, standing desks, yoga mats to sit on instead of a classroom rug, lap desks, noise-reducing headphones, seat cushions and wiggle stools that allow students to move around without moving their chairs.
Many of the classrooms at East School have had some form of sensory equipment for several years. Some of the equipment was either leftover from past students who needed it or something teachers had bought with their own funds.
The idea to bring sensory friendly equipment into all the East School classrooms began at the beginning of the school year, when Principal Kris Woleck began consulting with the PTC about what she and other teachers felt the school needed that year.
“What teachers were finding was all students would benefit,” said Woleck, adding the sensory equipment also plays into the school’s mission of innovative learning.
“From a classroom standpoint, we always want to find ways to access learning,” said Kati Tiani, a fourth-grade teacher whose classroom was one of the first to try out the equipment. “Now that this equipment is more accessible and normalized, it’s nice for the kids to use the tools to be better learners.”
Throughout the year, PTC parents focused their fundraising efforts to help the school meet its goal of providing sensory equipment for every classroom. Through events like the Fall Fair and a Christmas giving tree, most of the teachers were able to get the equipment they need. In February, the school accepted a $9,000 donation from the PTC and are starting to get the equipment.
“Parents like to see that,” said Anne Dunn, one of the PTC’s co-presidents. “They want to know they’re raising money for something specific.”
The school plans to have different types of sensory equipment in each classroom, including noise-reducing headphones, wiggle stools and standing desks. The school will have a sensory equipment library where teachers can check out different pieces of equipment for their classes.
Early classroom runs of the equipment were met with productive results.
“I implemented fidgets and the off-task behavior dropped drastically,” Tiani said. “They didn’t have to play with their shoelace or a piece of fuzz on the floor. They had their eyes on the speaker and were engaged.”
Even the students noticed a difference.
“At least some of the kids have improved at the rug,” said Aubrey Stevenson, a third-grader at East. “I’ve definitely seen a difference.”
Student surveys gave teachers a sense of what equipment was working for them and what wasn’t helping them focus. When Tiani found using fidgets wasn’t working for activities like independent reading, she showed the class data to prove how less focused they were with the fidgets at a certain time.
“Since doing it, they’ve become more reflective on what they need,” she said.
“I work best when there’s background noise, but not talking. Like soft music,” said Pryor Gilbert, a fourth-grader at East. “I also work well with the swivel seats.”
“I especially like the headphones,” Aubrey said. “I like the feel of them on my head.”
Equally important, the students are figuring out what they don’t like.
“The mats aren’t comfortable for me because they’re so thin; they’re like sitting on the floor,” Pryor said.
The teachers have found certain types of equipment don’t work for the students. Klemm bought foam fruit-shaped fidgets that students liked, but found they fell apart too easily.
“A lot of the food tore apart,” Aubrey said. “There was a banana, and it almost split in two. So there’s some good things and some bad things. But mostly good.”
“They’re not maliciously trying to ruin the tools, but we realize some things are more quality than others,” Tiani said.
Woleck and the teachers said an added benefit of the equipment is that it not only teaches students it’s OK to have different learning needs, but they now know and can advocate for what they need to focus, even when they’re at home.
“It’s made me think about things more and being open to how they learn,” said Prostor, who has two children at East, in second and fourth grades. “It’s about being open-minded.”