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Students walk a 'sensory path' for school-day success

The William Floyd Learning Center in Shirley showed off its new sensory pathway on June 7. Movements such as hops, spins and stretches, along the path help students get into a ready state for attention and learning.  (Credit: Newsday / Joie Tyrell)

Balance on the blue line. Hop like a frog. Count the acorns and dance among the raindrops.

These and other creative instructions are affixed to colorful stickers on the floor of a large hallway in the William Floyd Learning Center in Shirley, where a new "sensory path" is available for students when they grow too restless or need an opportunity for a break to refocus.

It’s part of the district's educational strategy to encourage students' readiness for attention and learning — whether they need to calm down or energize, educators said. For the students, it helps make the school day fun.

Second-grader Joshua Taylor, 7, hopped along the raindrop path on a recent school day. It’s his favorite section of the winding, interactive path.

“It helps you calm down,” he said.

Teachers say the sensory path, installed soon after the February break, is proving its worth at the elementary school, which this year enrolled 43 children in kindergarten through fifth grade who need specialized services. The district's last day of classes for the academic year is June 26.

Other school systems on Long Island, including South Huntington and Levittown, recently installed similar sensory paths. While in some cases the pathway is aimed at assisting students with special needs, educators said the learning tool has universal appeal.

The path at the William Floyd Learning Center was designed by teachers there and cost about $5,000, which was covered by donations, including from the district's Parent Teacher Organization and the Special Education Parent Teacher Organization.

The path is colorful, with steps to follow, numbers and cartoons that give directions. There are prompts for activities and pictures on the walls, and the students who use it are definitely on the move —hopping, pushing against the wall, wriggling and spinning. A similar setup had been installed in the school’s gymnasium, but that was only temporary and not durable.

This path is built to last, educators said. It can be used during scheduled gym time or throughout the day on an as-needed basis.

“If we anticipate the kid might have a little bit a crisis, we strike preemptively and we have them run the pathway,” Principal Gary Bretton said.

The opportunity for students to recenter also better enables them to move forward. Assistant Principal Camelle Person said that “by the time they get to the end of it, they have forgotten about what they were upset about and they are ready to learn.”

Nicole Schiffmacher, who teaches neurological development at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue and is a lecturer on early childhood special education, said the appeal reaches all students.

"Research shows us that kids are not made to sit in class for hours at a time," she said. "They need to be moving around."

Movement can help increase blood flow to the brain and is one way that memories are encoded into the brain. Movement also enhances the ability to grow that part of the brain that stores memories, and embedding movement in the school day can let children remember more.

"There are so many different sensory tools, but one of the great things about this tool is that anybody can use it and it's easy and it is accessible, and it is pretty cost-effective for schools too," Schiffmacher said.

Holly Clay, a former special education teacher in the Oxford, Mississippi public schools, owns a company called The Sensory Path along with her daughter, Madison Barker. The firm has installed dozens of such systems in schools across the country.

Clay said the pathways are not installed at random. Rather, the patterns and steps are designed in a specific way, so children are not overstimulated but the movement helps them to release energy along their spine.

She launched the company after researching the effects of movement on children with sensory processing disorders, such as students who have autism.

With sensory integration, “it is opening their floodgates for their body to process information,” she said. “It is not a 100-percent cure-all, but it is a tool that can be used for a child with sensory processing disorder."

By pushing and jumping and stretching on the path, the students then can self-regulate in the classroom, she said.

Wendy Gross, a kindergarten teacher at the William Floyd Learning Center, called the path an “excellent tool for collaboration.”

“If two kids are having difficulty, then we have them to do it as a team or take turns,” she said. “There are so many things we can tie into it and it is fun. They don’t even know they are learning."

The physical and mental effects of using the path are similar to what students experience while working with an occupational or physical therapist, but the latter usually is one-on-one, said Audra Cerruto, associate dean and director of the graduate education program at Molloy College in Rockville Centre.

With this tool, a facility can "have it in a hallway and anybody can benefit from it," she noted.

Formerly, the William Floyd district placed students who needed specialized services with Eastern Suffolk BOCES. About two years ago, it launched its own program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade who faced challenges in large school settings because of social, emotional and behavioral factors. This year's learning center enrollment of 43 is expected to grow to about 80 in 2019-20, and this fall sixth-graders will be able to attend.

Zechariah Oliphant, 10, a fifth-grader, gives the whole experience high marks. 

"I complete the whole thing and I'm ready for school, because now I have energy to do things," he said.

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