by Jeanne Ross Eichler and Takama Statton-Brooks
Living in a residence hall is a true milestone for most students, an action that implies readiness to leave the family home and begin an independent adult life. Residence halls facilitate the transition to adulthood through programming, resources, and, most importantly, the replication of a homelike atmosphere by providing basic amenities and allowing flexibility for students to personalize these spaces.
Student rooms in residence halls are fairly standard in their content, with a bed, desk, chair, and closet. The personalization occurs once the student moves in. Students are generally able to transform their rooms from a blank slate into a comfortable space that meets multiple needs, with a priority on how it looks once bedding, pictures, plants, and other items are in place. This transformation is not just about the amenities that will make the room look like something from a Pinterest page, but also about factors that will contribute to student success. In fact, human biology may play a larger role in success than most people realize, and the secret to student success generally starts with the habits and environments created in their living spaces at home, long before they arrive on campus.
Sensory integration – or how each person organizes themselves from a neurological standpoint – plays a role in everyone’s life, even impacting their success. People tend to fill their work or study environment with items that help them to organize sensory systems, most often without even thinking about it. Choices fall into categories of input that address seven key senses. Those categories include the five well-known senses (hearing, vision, taste, smell, and touch) but also two that may be even more important: the vestibular and proprioceptive systems, which are related to our awareness of the movement and position of our bodies. All these senses are powerful conduits, working together in patterns unique to each of us and in a balance that optimizes our overall performance. Overwhelmed (hypersensitive) or underwhelmed (hyposensitive) senses that do not naturally balance themselves can result in difficulty performing daily tasks, especially complex ones that require precision, concentration, and persistence.
Many students arrive on campus with a need for particular educational accommodations that, while created for the classroom setting, also translate to the living environment and may implicitly or explicitly be related to the levels of sensory input fostering their success.
Housing administrators consider the impact of several factors on student success: the impact of noise levels in the community; the look, touch, and feel of furniture; and the effect of natural lighting and overhead lighting on the aesthetics of a space. Another consideration is how these sensory dynamics impact students’ perceptions of their living space and how those perceptions impact their success. Housing administrators now find themselves responding to an increasing number of requests for housing that can accommodate different sensitivities to motion, smells, textiles, allergens, and foods.
As housing professionals plan for new construction and renovations, thinking about space with regard to individualized sensory preferences may be a game-changer. Many students arrive on campus with a need for particular educational accommodations that, while created for the classroom setting, also translate to the living environment and may implicitly or explicitly be related to the levels of sensory input fostering their success. For example, students who need movement to help them focus, benefit from environments that have swings or chairs with rollers available to them. This is a subtle example of vestibular sensory input that may have previously been fulfilled by their parents, without the student knowing it was an important component of their routine study habits. To meet this need, residence halls can offer varied seating choices that students select for their own spaces.
The average parent of a college student today knows their child very well, and they take advantage of technology that allows for instant communication and reporting mechanisms – all of which allow them to be in tune with the needs of their child and to create home environments that are primed to better facilitate academic and social success. By the time the child gets to college, study spaces in their home are likely filled with physical and environmental elements that, over time, have improved their ability to focus and perform at their peak. Unfortunately, generalized college packing lists do not tend to include items needed to replicate environmental conditions that can affect a student’s successful transition from the home environment to the residence halls.
The word diet most often refers to a balance of nutrients, but it can be more broadly defined as a manner of living, a day’s journey, or a daily regimen. For humans, sensory input is like those nutrients, with the target being the neurological system rather than the digestive system. Each person has an individualized balance of sensory input needed to perform their daily tasks at an optimal level, and they are more or less productive in different contexts that are compatible or incompatible with their neurological makeup. Additionally, the types of activities people participate in provide varying combinations of that input; for example, paying attention to a baseball game from the stands (which requires attention to the game, communication with others in the area, and possibly consumption of a meal) requires different input for balance than does writing a research paper (which requires a different kind of attention, problem solving, strong vision of structure, and the ability to pull together multiple pieces of information).
Senses and Sensibility
Tactile (Touch): People who seek tactile input in order to be able to concentrate might wear clothing that has multiple textures, while those who avoid it prefer soft clothing. When planning décor and bedding, students should consider the type of fabrics that may be distracting for them.Gustatory (Taste): People who seek gustatory input might feel better after eating a strong food like a sour pickle or hot sauce, while those who avoid it might look for foods that have little or no flavor. Consider preferences when choosing snacks for study.Olfactory (Smell): Students should be aware of their preferences for smells by choosing cleaning supplies and air fresheners that provoke pleasant feelings. As an alternative to candles or incense, students can put a drop of an extract or essential oil on a cotton ball, store it in a plastic bag, and access it when needed.Auditory (Hearing): People who seek auditory input might want the sound of music or a television when studying, while people who avoid it seek total quiet. Considering varied sensitivities to sound is an important element of determining how appropriate an environment is for both the community and private spaces on campus.Visual (Sight): People who seek visual input might have lots of pictures on the wall, use bright colors, or have a particular way they display or organize items. People who avoid visual input might have clear, simple sightlines and limited items on walls with more subdued colors. For residential students, this is what informs decorative style, what they display, and how messy or tidy they are. Disparities between roommates in this area may be worth considering in times of conflict.Vestibular (Movement): The right kind of movement can provide a powerful assist with our ability to function – and the wrong movement can leave one extremely disorganized. Activities, like running, lying in a hammock, or spinning in a chair, are ways to get vestibular input. Bringing athletic gear to enjoy their favorite types of movement is a simple way for students to adjust to the college environment. Proprioception (Body in Space/Awareness): Proprioception is responsible for body coordination, use of tools and utensils, navigating a map, and even organizing ourselves in our space and in our head. Weighted blankets are becoming more popular in non-therapeutic environments, as they impact the sense of body in space. There are recommended weights depending on how people utilize them. Another way of getting similar input in a targeted way is to fill a long sock or small pillowcase with beans and place it on the shoulders or the lap for portable input.
For many students, managing this sensory diet requires continually seeking and avoiding things that may put them out of balance. Senses must be at an optimal level for people to function well. To better understand this, think about a glass of milk and imagine that the top rim of the glass contains the optimal amount. Anything less would require adding more milk to reach the top (seeking), and anything more would require removing some (avoiding). Each individual sense requires people to either seek or avoid additional input (filling the glass to the rim or stopping the pouring process). In the same way, a person may seek more of one input and avoid another in order to do their best when trying to study or to write a paper.
Just as people try to balance their diet with their food choices, they also balance their sensory diet with specific choices. Imagine a mixing board at a concert. What if each slider on that sound board were able to create a perfect balance of sensory input? Just like the sound and lighting engineers at a concert who coordinate everything for the best audience experience, the human nervous system constantly works to make sure that senses are at an optimal level of balance. Achieving this balance requires near constant adjustments, since environments are dynamic. Amazingly, people have no idea that their nervous system is working so hard. It feels automatic unless they are having trouble completing tasks, and new environments like a residence hall are precisely the places where these struggles might occur.
Residence hall design has made dramatic strides to address security, community, sustainability, flexibility, and many other overarching factors. What remains to consider are individual choices that students must make to modify their personal environment. With a greater understanding of those almost subconscious factors, students can not only personalize but also maximize their collegiate experience.
Note: In the July+August 2020 issue of Talking Stick, the authors will further explore how campuses can create educational programs that help students and staff better understand these factors and act accordingly.
Jeanne Ross Eichler is an assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. email@example.com. Takama Statton-Brooks is the director of residence education there. firstname.lastname@example.org