A different kind of lab

Smithfield Elementary School is home to a new lab, but instead of Bunsen burners, test tubes and microscopes, students will find stability balls, mini trampolines and seat cushions.

(Above) Kindergarten students at Smithfield Elementary practice breathing in the school’s new motor sensory lab to help them calm down and relax before going back to class.

That’s because the lab isn’t focused on science, but is designed to target a different area of learning. The lab is all about motor sensory and is helping kids find focus, balance and muscle strength in a whole new way.

Principal Allison Harris focuses on developing the whole student, and with brain research as a favorite genre of reading, she knows how important it is that students learn to focus at an early age. Talking to other staff at the school, she found they felt the same way, especially physical education teacher Barbara Skriloff, who is now the full-time motor sensory lab facilitator.

“Part of brain research talks about movement and the connection to learning,” Harris said. “We’ve wanted to do this for four years and it just so happened everything came together at the right time – we had the staff and the space.”

The school launched their new lab about a month ago. Sensory relates the information eyes, ears, skin, mouth, nose and sense of balance deliver to the brain. Motor skills refer to the ability to organize behaviors in order to accomplish different tasks. The purpose of the lab is to provide students the opportunity to better self-regulate their processing skills in order to more successfully control their focus, concentration, organization and movement.

Skriloff was already incorporating some of the exercises and practices of the motor sensory lab into physical education classes at the school, but when a large classroom became available for use, Skriloff and Harris wanted to give the school’s pre-kindergarten through first-grade students the opportunity to really focus on their skills. And with the support from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the school’s parent-teacher group with equipment, Skriloff was ready to roll.

“I started having a sub for Ms. Skriloff as soon as we came back from winter break. We went to visit two different schools to see what they had and to see if we were on the right track,” Harris said, adding that the two visited St. Ann’s Catholic School and Morehead STEM Academy, a CMS magnet school. “We went and visited to get some ideas. It’s very different anywhere you go.”

Each week, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade students have a set time to come to the lab at Smithfield, as that’s the best time in a child’s life to target sensory deficiencies like balance or texture issues. Second- through third-grade students visit the lab by recommendation of the teacher, sometimes as a class or just by the individual student. Harris said the staff is working to encourage students to learn to self manage, meaning they hope students eventually will learn when they need the sensory lab.

“One of the biggest differences is that, at first, teachers bring a child to the lab because they have to because the student was acting out in class or couldn’t pay attention, but the kids are now learning to self manage. They know when they need to get some energy out,” Harris said. “They really learn to self-monitor when they need a break.”

Skirloff said the students love coming to the lab, whether it’s on their own or in a group setting. Teachers say students return to class after being at the lab more focused and with higher concentration, which in turn keeps students out of trouble and helps them become better learners.

“The more integration we can have with both sides of our brain, the more we become learners,” Skirloff said. “When we don’t develop our sensory and processing skills, it can show
up in different ways, like clumsiness.”

Skriloff added the lab not only helps fix the awkwardness that comes with undeveloped sensory and motor skills, but also translates to helping students have higher comprehension in all parts of life.

Harris said the program wouldn’t be possible without Skirloff, who is constantly seeking new materials and exercises for her students, as all students have different needs, she said.

“If I didn’t have her, we wouldn’t have this lab. She knows so much and that’s why we can do this,” Harris said.

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