As more students struggle with anxiety and depression, schools are prioritizing mental health supports. Small improvements in the design of physical spaces in schools can make enormous differences in enhancing student well-being.
We often underestimate the ways in which school spaces are designed to reflect current beliefs about learning and that these spaces, in turn, influence teaching practices. The arrangement and type of furniture, the lighting, and even the color of the walls can influence student learning.
In the late 1800’s, John Dewey despaired of finding school desks and chairs that would support his vision of education.
Dewey noted that:
We had a great deal of difficulty in finding what we needed, and finally one dealer, more intelligent that the rest, made this remark: ‘I am afraid we have not what you want. You want something at which the children may work; these are all for listening.1
In Dewey’s time, classroom design supported strong discipline and top-down learning. Students sat in uncomfortable chairs attached to desks that were bolted to the floor and lined up with military precision. Students only left their desks with permission to sharpen pencils or use the bathroom. The discomfort of the chairs was seen as a plus; it kept students from falling asleep.
We now know that to help students learn we need to support student health and well-being. Providing school lunches; having on site counselors; and creating spaces where students feel supported, comfortable, and safe have become universally accepted practices. Research confirms that the design of the physical classroom directly impacts student well-being which, in turn, improves learning outcomes.2
Rising Student Anxiety and Depression
Even prior to the pandemic, anxiety and depression among children ages 3 to 17 has been on the rise. More than 9% of all children in 2020 were diagnosed with anxiety problems and 4% were diagnosed with depression. During the pandemic, students’ emotional and psychological stress continued to escalate: Mood disorders, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, bullying, and unhealthy use of social media have all increased in the past few years.3
Creating calm and supportive classrooms is critical to learning and helps students feel safe, connected, and supported. Top design strategies to promote student well-being include tapping into the healing power of nature; creating flexible, personalized, and cozy learning spaces; and minimizing noise and clutter to create calm environments that support learning.
1. Tap Into the Healing Power of Nature
Many of us know intuitively that being in nature makes us feel better – a trip to the beach, a walk in the woods, or even looking out the window at a garden can boost our spirits. Studies confirm that we often experience feelings of calm, contentment, and connectedness when we spend time in areas with plants, trees, and fresh air.4 Students are often happier and less stressed when they have access to nature.
Being able to open a window and take advantage of sunlight and natural ventilation can decrease stress and anxiety. Spaces that have significant amounts of natural light have a positive influence on student and teacher well-being and on learning.5 Whenever possible, open windows and blinds to let in natural light and let students have visual access to the outdoors.
Creating outdoor spaces that have smaller more contained spaces can decrease challenging behaviors because students can feel a greater sense of control in these more contained spaces and can also get a break from larger group activities. Sectioned off smaller areas can be created by using plants, trees, and other natural partitions to encourage pro-social behavior and reduce bullying.6
For schools with limited access to natural light and green outdoor spaces there are ways to bring nature into the classroom. This can be as simple as having some plants in the room or bringing in more natural colors and using decorations that integrate patterns found in nature to create soothing spaces to promote emotional well-being.7 Even improving poor quality lighting, such as replacing fluorescent lighting with high-quality halogen bulbs that mimic daylight, can reduce stress.
2. Create Flexible, Personalized, and Cozy Learning Spaces
Imagine coming home after work and looking forward to cuddling up on your favorite couch to watch a movie. Now imagine you are forced to sit in an uncomfortable metal chair that is set up too far from the screen. How might that impact your engagement and stress level?
Flexible learning spaces provide options for reconfiguring spaces with moveable furniture and portable technology. Instructors can use new student-centered pedagogies more easily and these flexible spaces facilitate connection and inclusiveness to promote student well-being.
Flexible learning spaces improve student emotional health by increasing comfort, providing for movement and greater autonomy, and strengthening connections between students.8 These spaces also provide students with choices of where to learn – standing desks, wobble stools, soft seating – and give students some control over their environment to promote feelings of comfort and help them focus on learning activities. More traditional seating arrangements often force students into sitting for longer periods of time, which can cause restlessness and anxiety that can impact learning.
Kindergarten spaces should remind students of their homes by avoiding industrial colors and instead choosing calming colors like light blue. Sometimes just adding a quiet zone to a primary school classroom with some cozy cushions and age-appropriate fidget toys or stuffed animals can do the trick. For high school students who are wanting more novelty and independence, aim for more of a coffee shop feel that can enhance a sense of independence and provide more choices and autonomy in how they use the classroom. Even on a tight budget, adding a couch or personalizing a space by attaching fabric on the wall or room divider can help create a more calming atmosphere.
3. Minimize Noise and Clutter to Create a Calm Classroom
Reducing noise levels includes minimizing auditory and visual stimuli to decrease the amount of sensory input that can distract students and create stress. A recent study on student engagement found that peripheral noise and room acoustics were two of the most important factors impacting student learning.9 Loud noises from outside the classroom – street construction, loud HVAC systems, and alarms – impact concentration and increase stress for some students.
Some surfaces cause a great deal of reverberation and greatly effect noise levels. Think about the last time you were in a well-designed theater and you could easily hear the speaker up on the stage even with thousands of audience members surrounding you. Or, think about being in a poorly designed classroom with dozens of students and finding it difficult to hear the person standing next to you.
Some surfaces create a great deal of reverberation. This means that the sound waves bounce around and stack up – they continue to reverberate — and this causes people to raise their voices to be heard, escalating the noise level. To reduce reverberation in the classroom, add soft noise-absorbent materials into the space. Curtains, pillows, soft chairs, carpet squares, and wall-hangings can reduce the amount of noise bouncing around a classroom. For new construction or renovations add insulation and soundproofing materials.
New research on visual design indicates that minimizing clutter and overly stimulating visual environments can free up attention, reduce stress, and improve concentration.10 To create a calm classroom, limit the number of posters and children’s art on the walls and offset visual displays with neutral-colored curtains and muted wall colors. Consider moving much of the visual stimuli to a back wall outside of students’ direct line of vision and storing materials out of sight until needed.
As we all work to restore some normalcy to students’ lives in our post-pandemic world, introducing some small designs to your learning spaces can go a long way to helping students feel safe, comfortable, and supported.
1 Dewey, J. (1956). The School and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
2 Barrett, P., Davies, F., Zhang, Y., & Barrett, L. (2015). “The impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning: Final results of a holistic, multi-level analysis.” Building and Environment, 89, 118–133.
3 Lebrun-Harris LA, Ghandour RM, Kogan MD, Warren MD (2022). “Five-Year Trends in US Children’s Health and Well-Being,” 2016-2020. JAMA Pediatr, 176(7). doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.0056
4 Landon, A. C., Woosnam, K. M., Kyle, G. T., & Keith, S. J. (2020). “Psychological Needs Satisfaction and Attachment to Natural Landscapes.” Environment and Behavior.
5 Barrett et al, 2015.
6 Latané, Claire (2021). Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
7 Determan, J., Akers, M. A., Albright, T., Browning, B., Martin-Dunlop, C., Archibald, P., & Caruolo, V. (2019). “The impact of biophilic learning spaces on student success.” https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/the-impact-of-biophilic-learning-spaces-on-student-success/
8 Kariippanon, Katharina & Cliff, Dylan & Lancaster, Sarah & Parrish, Anne-Maree (2018). “Perceived interplay between flexible learning spaces and teaching, learning and student wellbeing.” Learning Environments Research, 21. 10.1007/s10984-017-9254-9.
9 Connolly, Daniel & Dockrell, Julie & Shield, Bridget & Conetta, Rob & Cox, Trevor. (2015). “Students’ perceptions of school acoustics and the impact of noise on teaching and learning in secondary schools: Findings of a questionnaire survey. Energy Procedia. 78. 3114-3119. 10.1016/j.egypro.2015.11.766.
10 Godwin, K. E., Leroux, A. J., Scupelli, P., & Fisher, A. V. (2019). “Classroom design and children’s attention allocation: Beyond the laboratory and into the classroom. Journal of Learning Environments Research.