Labor of love 

Marilyn Sandler brings a Snoezelen room to Stockton’s special education students.

July 27, 2009

Three years ago, very few people at Stockton Elementary School had heard of a Snoezelen room. Now, it's become an integral part of the school.


"We have some students with autism who are hyperactive," Stockton speech therapist Marilyn Sandler said. "They come in running around, and within 10-15 minutes, they're as calm as can be. Other children are at the other end of the spectrum: they won't move. After a few minutes in there, they start to explore."


An innovative idea

Sandler, who has been at Stockton since 1989, and her husband Scott, a preschool teacher at Gale, received a grant from the Chicago Foundation for Education  and the Fund for Teachers to travel around Israel in the summer of 2006 to study Snoezelen rooms. A Snoezelen room, pronounced "SNOOZE-a-lin," is a multisensory environment that can be used in a variety of therapeutic settings, but Sandler's interest was in its use with children with autism. During their time in Israel, the Sandlers attended a conference on working with special needs students and visited Snoezelen rooms across the country.


Upon her return, "I had this idea in my head that Stockton needed one," Sandler said. Stockton, 4420 N. Beacon St., has a special-needs population of about 130 students out of a total enrollment of 525. The problem? Building a Snoezelen room and training the special education teachers to use it would cost upwards of $100,000.


So Sandler got to work. She prepared an elaborate, illustrated proposal and presented it in person to then-CEO Arne Duncan in January of 2007. Duncan liked the proposal, and agreed to match whatever funds Sandler could raise. With contributions from organizations and individuals including the Washington Square Health Foundation (Howard Nochumson, Executive Director), Diane and Robert Levy, Tricia and William Hagenah and Dolores Kohl, she ultimately raised $161,000, which paid for construction of the room and a consultant to train the staff.


The Snoezelen room

The room is outfitted with multicolored bubble tubes, a vibrating ball pit and other interactive equipment. Everything is designed for students to manipulate themselves – an important quality for children who may feel a strong need to control their environment.


"The purpose is to help them regulate themselves and facilitate learning in a pleasurable environment," Sandler said. "One 4-year-old student said his first words!"


The room had its grand opening in May, but work goes on. In the fall, Sandler hopes that all of Stockton's students will design and make a tactile wall-hanging for the hallway leading up to the Snoezelen room. Regular-education students have already taken part in the program, as some have worked as "peer buddies," visiting the room with special-ed students.


The room is so popular that Sandler, who has her own students to work with, can't always be there. And though they originally thought they could bring larger groups, Sandler and her fellow teachers have realized that having one or two students at a time is the best way. So far, they've been able to accommodate everybody, which is a good thing.


"Every student who comes in just loves it," she said.


Learn more about Stockton Elementary.



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