This article was written by Shazia Sarwar-Azim – Executive Headteacher and Managing Director at Emotional Therapist Coach Ltd.
In Shazia’s latest article, she discusses how Immersive Reality spaces help children with Special Educational Needs to regulate their behaviour.
The article focuses on a child named Sam* who used the immersive space to help deal with different emotions he was feeling within the school setting.
The difference in him was outstanding – his parents even noted that the main improvement they saw in him was his smile!
As well as writing this article for us, Shazia is also the author of a fantastic children’s book – ‘The Rainbow Within’. The book focuses on ASC (Autistic Spectrum Condition)/SEMH (Social Emotional Mental Health) children who find it difficult to manage their emotions. A butterfly comes along and gives them top tips to regulate!
The Brave Butterfly helps Zara to take a journey of self discovery and she learns how to express herself. The book facilitates conversation, creates a safe space for children, young people and adults to discuss and implement appropriate strategies. As a result, they improve their mental health and well-being.
As an author, Shazia visits schools, reads her book to the children and teaches them re-regulation skills.
Read the full article below – click here for more detailed descriptions of the definitions used in this article.
*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality in the article, and therefore the child has been named ‘Sam’.
Immersive Reality & Behaviour
I walked into a shell of an old Industrial Mill and looked around in shock, awe and with sheer excitement in the pit of my stomach. As the newly appointed Headteacher, I was given the opportunity to design a school within this space. I knew one thing for sure, I was not going to design a school that looked like it was designed in the era of the industrial revolution. I was going to create the Education Revolution, as it would be designed solely for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities from the onset.
The school design had to include several therapeutic spaces so that we could normalise behaviours that were linked to neurodivergent children. This was my third Headship, and with 20 years of experience working with vulnerable learners, I had a vast amount of experience to design a school with a therapeutic eye.
There were several therapeutic areas that I included into the design –
- A Quiet Place
- Rebound Therapy
- Forest School
- Sensory Garden
- Immersive Reality Room (IRR)
The environments would support children to experience a setting that understood who they were, what they needed, and there was no expectation to fit them into a neurotypical education system.
A new child with Autism and Social Emotional Mental Health needs started school in Year 10 at our state of the art SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) therapeutic setting at Mill School. When reading his preschool admissions paperwork, it was noted that he had:
- 14 exclusions from his previous setting in less than a year
- Full time 1:1 support in the classroom
- Repeatedly damaged school property
- Found it difficult to manage his low arousal anxiety trigger
- To have several members of staff to support him through the different levels of crises
- 4 hours to re-regulate with support.
We carried out a dynamic risk assessment (DRA) so that we could have discussions with clear focuses around desirable outcomes, reduce foreseeable health and safety risks and create positive relationships. We explored interest led de-escalation strategies that would reduce his anxiety, escalation, crises, recovery, depression, and restoration process in line with team teach practices.
We explored a few of the previous school incidents and how they could have been prevented if he was in control, disassociating from the incidents. We restoratively examined the need to reduce high risk incidents, restraints, property damage and restrictions. In return we could safeguard his mental health and well-being and enable him to enjoy all aspects of school life.
Sam expressed the need for a space to calm down in – he didn’t need adults to express their views of disappointment in him, he didn’t want adults to hound him. He needed a safe place to re-engage with himself and then with the world around him. When exploring safe spaces, he discussed how when watching movies, he was in a safe space and how music made him feel.
He didn’t believe the Rebound, Multi-Sensory, Horticulture or Forest therapy areas would enable him to de-escalate, as there was nothing of interest in those areas for him and it was adult supported. This led us to explore how effectively we could use the Immersive Reality Room to create an interest-led therapeutic safe space.
We explored the child’s interests further, especially around intergalactic travel and how the theme tune of Star Wars made him feel. We had originally purchased Immersive Reality to bring the curriculum to life, so children would engage and be excited about learning. We were now developing it further to meet the personal development, behaviours and attitudes and mental health and well-being agenda.
We arranged a meeting with Immersive Reality – Sam spoke of his interests, and several scenes were created to help support a new and exciting de-escalation strategy. As a trauma informed specialist, I wanted to expose the children to several processes within the Immersive Reality Room. I wanted the young person to transition from a secure co-regulation process from within the room to then introducing him to an increasingly complex experience. This would be achieved by offering opportunities to practice self-regulation in a relational context and for staff to model patterns that would eventually internalise as regulatory skills.
Logistically, we knew the room couldn’t be solely used for one child, so we used Neuro Linguistic Programming Therapy (NLPT) in conjunction with the Immersive Reality space, as NLPT would teach him how to internalise, rationalise and regulate his re-regulation skills. NLPT would offer him a period of co-regulation with a mental health practitioner. This would allow us to evaluate therapies using the Essential Skills Framework to measure Social, Emotional, Mental Health and well-being.
One of our original concerns with using Immersive Reality Therapy (IRT) was that he was spending time alone in his most vulnerable moments. We didn’t want him to feel secluded, although it was his choice and he had full control. When reflecting upon research, it showed that being in control was an essential feature of human growth leading to happiness.
For IRT to work, Sam had to notice when he was feeling signs of low arousal and to seek support to inform others of his internal feelings and the need for feeling safe. This is when he went to the IRT room. He used the tablet, and at a touch of a button he became immersed in this new happy reality to re-regulate. The scenes/meditations would last for no more than 10 minutes, taking the child through several sensory experiences and focusing on the re-engagement of executive functioning skills within the cerebral cortex. Therefore, giving him the opportunity to emotionally regulate, and to reconnect with his reasoning and language skills.
As a result, the space allowed him to re-balance his emotions, as he could take his time to re-regulate and to disconnect with the limbic system (flight, fight, or freeze). This would result in him resetting his strong emotions into a state where he could manage the situation and re-engage with his peers, teachers and his own personal learning journey.
Sam reported in his 6 weeks placement setting Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) Review that it was the first time he felt safe in school, he had the space to calm down without pressure from other adults. He was more responsible here, as he had a key to the IRT room – he felt that he was trusted and not treated like a bad kid. He enjoyed the IRT, as it made his thinking stop. He had a choice of how to regulate through scenes with calming music or guided meditation programmes.
After the session had finished, he was on an automatic to get back to class – teachers were welcoming of his return and didn’t ask too many questions. Parents reported that in the morning Sam was ready for school, something they hadn’t seen since primary school. He was happier in school; he had his voice heard and he had excellent relationships with several members of staff and respected them as he had connected with them.
Parents said the biggest change in their son was his smile, he had made friends for the first time in three years, and he talked about school with such positivity. They reported that the IRR had made a dramatic difference in his attitudes towards feeling safe in school. They also reported on the reduction of outbursts he would have at home and how much more the family were connected. These were important life skills that would greatly benefit him.
*The bold numbers in the chart above signify the number of mental health and emotional incidences the child had within a week, and how the immersive space lowered the number of these incidences. As you can see from the numbers, the immersive space has helped them to regulate themselves and feel better mentally much more quickly.
Data demonstrated using IRT allowed Sam to bring his physical, mental and emotional systems into coherent alignment, he connected to experiencing an increased mindful awareness to his soul’s intuitive guidance to self-regulate. He was able to re-regulate within the classroom setting and co-regulate with the staff.
A new school behaviour management culture was being designed on children understanding their skills and knowledge towards being able to take control to stay in a regulated state of mind. Using Immersive Reality had created a safe space for Sam to regulate and he had avoided further physical, behavioural, social and mental health damage (preventing further re-traumatisation).
In summary, having Immersive Reality as a therapeutic offer enabled us to reach every child by creating an interest-led personalised safe space for children to explore. Research indicated that meditation programmes helped children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and it was clear to see through our progress indicators that children improved their concentration skills, decreased hyperactivity and skilled them to deal with stress appropriately.
Children who were medically diagnosed with depression and anxiety benefitted from using meditation as they reported that they felt more relaxed and had a better understanding of their potential to regulate. Three children came off their anxiety medication that year.
The Immersive Reality space gave children the space to think through the situation that had caused them to begin to de-regulate and respond in a more appropriate manner. This self-awareness created a huge sense of self-worth and children were proud of how they were re-engaging.
Through Immersive Reality Therapy, children built greater self-awareness, allowing them to be more aware of their own feelings and behaviours. This helped children to recognize when they were feeling angry, stressed or other potentially negative emotions, allowing the children to deal with these feelings in a healthy manner.
IRT enabled pupils to get rid of stress, anxiety, and negative feelings, and also improved concentration. As their concentration improved, their minds worked more efficiently. This allowed them to focus on their learning which then helped to boost their progress and overall school success.
Neurodivergent children need an education revolution, so that schools can be designed with new creative ways to meet their neurodiverse needs. All of our case studies demonstrated how successful IRT was in supporting children to re-regulate due to the opportunities the medial, lateral and orbital prefrontal cortex had time to process.
Immersive Reality Therapy is a 21st century offer and somehow creates a secure co-regulation process from within the room and has been successful at eliciting cognitive, compassionate, and affective empathy to support the development of executive functioning skills.
by Shazia Sarwar Azim FCCT, NLP, NPQH, AST, B’Ed
If you’d like to find out more about Immersive Reality, contact us on +001 (866) 782 6063 or email us at [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you!
You can also fill out our contact form here.
Definitions of terms used in the article:
Assist participants to learn new skills or regain those that are lost. Horticultural therapy helps improve memory, cognitive abilities, task initiation, language skills, socialisation, strengthen muscles, improve coordination, balance, endurance, problem solve, and follow directions.
A Quiet Place
A holistic education in the areas of self-management & stress management through curriculum areas (holistic education, holistic personal development, improving performance, self-management and stress management).
Is used to facilitate movement, promote balance, promote an increase or decrease in muscle tone, promote relaxation, promote sensory integration, improve fitness and exercise tolerance, and to improve communication skills.
Assist a student with sensory issues to control their brain’s negative reactions. It is a specially designed room which combines a range of stimuli to help people to develop and engage their senses. These can include lights, colours, sounds, soft play resources and aromas, all used within a safe environment that allows the individual using it to explore and interact without risk.
Is a child-centered inspirational learning process, that supports play, exploration and supported risk taking. It develops confidence and self-esteem through learner inspired, hands-on experiences in a natural setting.
Is a calming garden space with scented plants, restful seating, growing area for food, wildlife friendly plants, a learning zone full of exciting things to touch and smell. It is a therapeutic space for people to recuperate.
Supports the transformation of relationships, equipping everyone to manage distressed behaviours and conflicts safely and respectfully.
Is a process of diffusing conflicts as they begin in order to prevent them from getting worse or potentially violent.
Is the initial stage where an individual begins to show signs of anxiety.
The Medial Prefrontal Cortex
Is responsible for attention and concentration. Therefore, motivation to initiate a task comes from this part, and it helps us maintain our attention and concentration.
The Lateral Prefrontal Cortex
Focuses on planning and implementation of daily life tasks, either complex or simple, gather the required information, make a plan in our mind and execute it step by step.
The Orbital Prefrontal Cortex
Is responsible for keeping our emotions and impulses in control. It helps us to control overwhelming emotions and refrain from behaving recklessly.