MAHOPAC, N.Y. - While most of us spent the first days of January focused on our New Year’s resolutions or recuperating from the holidays, Austin Road physical education teacher Bill Huestis, and fifth-grade teacher Mary Jean Cerbini, were immersed in creating a sensory room for students.

Huestis was challenged when some of his students became overwhelmed during his PE class due to the noise level and activity from a large gym space.  After pursuing professional training and doing extensive research for ways to help students self-regulate, including students with special needs, Huestis decided to create a sensory room in the school.

With the help and building expertise of Austin Road’s custodian and maintenance team, and the oversight of Dr. Greg Stowell, assistant Superintendent for pupil personnel and educational services, Huestis converted an unused locker room to create a therapeutic space that provides a secure, calm and refreshing environment for students.  His focus was on developing a room with tools and toys that help students with proprioception, the awareness of where your body is in space, and the vestibular system, the sense of balance.  Cerbini volunteered to take on the aesthetics of the room by designing a soothing and cheerful scene that she sketched and painted entirely by hand. 

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Cerbini ensured that every aspect of the sensory room was detailed as a dreamy oasis.  She painted the entry to the room as a soothing blue sky with cheerful animal illustrations that carry through the small hallway into a room surrounded with a bright and sunny beach mural that covers the walls.  Cerbini made sure each animal she painted had such a level of accuracy that she consulted her son who is the bird curator at the Toledo Zoo.

“Mary Jean would be in at 6:30 in the morning and stayed until 8:30 night,” Huestis said. “She also used her lunch time and break to paint the room and made it such an inviting space for our students,”

Both Cerbini and Huestis purchased the materials needed for creating the room out of their own pockets. 

“We look at this as an investment in what we use every day,” Huestis said. “There are lots of other things to spend money on that don’t hold the same meaning.”

The room is thoughtfully filled with things that encourage learning, communication and calming.  There are overstuffed Yogibo pillows that students can melt into and other sensory stimulating tools like blocks, buzzers, squishy toys and puzzles.  A favorite sensory toy of Huestis is a “mood pillow” that allows students to express emotion by flipping a “smiling” or “frowning” face.

Any student who may need a space outside of the classroom to calm, focus and “reset” is welcome to use the sensory room. Teachers can schedule specific times to take students into the room, or they can use their discretion to send in a student who might just need a break.

“Austin Road’s sensory room is a model space for students to be better prepared for learning and interacting with others,” said Anthony DiCarlo, superintendent of schools.  “Mr. Huestis and Mrs. Cerbini’s undertaking of this project goes above and beyond which truly exhibits the ‘Mahopac Way.”

Huestis and Cerbini, along with the district-wide team support, have plans to continue to evolve the sensory room by adding a sensory swing, soothing lighting and painted “sky” ceiling that surrounds the existing skylights.

“This is only the beginning,” Huestis said.

Article courtesy of Mahopac School District