September 7, 2023, by Rupert Knight
A classroom for everyone – designing an inclusive learning environment
In this blog, Rachel Tunney explains what to consider when designing an inclusive classroom learning environment. Her ideas link to previous blogs in the series, including a recent one on supporting children’s mental health through everyday class-based habits.
Creating a classroom environment where pupils feel happy, safe, and a valued part of a community is arguably one of the most beneficial things a teacher can do to support pupils to develop personally and academically. In the Reggio Emilio approach to education, the environment’s role is considered so vital that it is referred to as ‘the third teacher’. This view is echoed by Rob Carpenter who argues that the environment can transform the way that teachers and pupils feel about school. Carpenter argues that the spaces we create for our learners convey important messages about our inner beliefs, values, and expectations and that this can change our pupils’ behaviour.
When referring to the classroom environment, we consider its physical attributes. For example, room layout: How are learners grouped? Can all children see the board and teacher clearly? Is there enough space to accommodate all the learners? Other attributes such as noise levels, air quality, temperature and light also impact. Indeed, Barrett et al. (2015) found that three key features of the physical classroom: ‘naturalness’ (light, temperature, air quality), appropriate levels of stimulation (complexity, colour), and opportunity for individualisation (ownership, flexibility) made a 16% difference to achievement over a school year. It would make sense to consider how we can design our classrooms to make them optimal learning environments.
* Naturalness: Physical and mental comfort can be supported through a good level of natural light and good air quality. This can be achieved by considering how to reduce glare on screens through careful positioning and use of blinds and maximising natural light by avoiding blocking it from windows and seizing opportunities to open windows and doors to improve air circulation. Adding plants and natural resources can create links to nature, especially for those not gifted with views of the outside greenery.
* Stimulation: Managing the sensory stimulation level could benefit all pupils. There is evidence that children may demonstrate more off-task behaviour and lower learning gains when in classrooms with a high decoration level. Some educators advocate using colour as a tool to support increased attention and lower levels of eye fatigue. They make a case for classrooms with a calm and neutral backdrop with flashes of colour. The Communication Friendly Spaces™ (CFS™) Approach also proposes that factors such as how colour is used in the environment can impact behaviour, communication, emotional well-being and general engagement.
* Individualisation and flexibility: A personalised space is important in forming an individual’s identity, sense of self-worth and supporting pupils to feel valued and accepted. A sense of ownership can be created through personalised elements such as named drawers, pegs, and displays of children’s work.
The children in our classrooms have a wide range of strengths, needs and differences. We are responsible for designing classroom environments that meet all our pupils’ needs and creating an environment in which all pupils feel they belong.
“Understanding what it means to ‘belong’ is a cornerstone of ideas around inclusive education. Inclusion and belonging can be seen as having a symbiotic relationship. Without one, you cannot have the other” (Johnson, 2023).
In their guidance report the Education Endowment Foundation assert that creating a positive and supportive environment for all pupils means placing support for pupils with SEND at the heart of school priorities and that our schools and classrooms should be inclusive by design. An inclusive environment is not just about the physical design of the space but also about its emotional containment. The ethos of your classroom, along with structures and routines of learning and formation of positive relationships are of equal importance to the access and layout of physical resources.
There is a viewpoint that disability occurs when there is a mismatch between a person’s abilities and individual characteristics and the functional or sensory demands of the environment. It follows that classroom designs can both facilitate and inhibit learning challenges. ‘Triple A’ training designed by Durham University asserts that for some children with autism, sensory experiences such as cluttered displays or fluorescent lights could cause distress, contribute to anxiety, affect classroom participation and school attendance. However, teachers can use classroom design to create positive sensory experiences, for example, by using neat, tidy and uniform displays rather than cluttered and overwhelming and providing visual timetables to increase structure.
What features should we include in our classrooms to remove barriers and facilitate success for all our children?
An inclusive environment for pupils with Speech, Language and Communication needs (including autism)
* Avoid cluttered or overwhelming displays hanging from ceilings and on walls, be aware that some colours and textures can be distracting and uncomfortable for pupils with autism.
* Provide areas to work quietly or retreat within the classroom for pupils with sensory sensitivity.
* Use visual timetables to increase structure, predictability, and labels using Makaton symbols around the classroom.
An inclusive environment for pupils with Cognition and Learning needs
Provide easy access to supporting materials linked to the current work, e.g., a list of key vocabulary and its meaning linked to the subject, manipulatives for maths, and phonics sound mats.
Supports, reminders and key facts displayed around the classroom, including WAGOLLs (What A Good One Looks Like) for reference. Model and teach how these can be used to support independent learning.
Develop and promote independence and reduce reliance on adult support through ‘What to do if you are Stuck’ boards. These give pupils strategies for overcoming difficulties as an alternative to always asking for help in the first instance.
An inclusive environment for pupils with Social, Emotional and Mental Health needs
* Create an area with comfortable cushions and perhaps cuddly toys if appropriate for the age of pupils and a safe place to retreat to, such as a small tent in the classroom if things get too much.
* Consider the use of colours in the classroom; use calming shades of greens and blues rather than reds and oranges.
* Display emotions visuals with emojis or worry monsters to help indicate emotions non-verbally.
* Provide a prompt board to support de-escalating behaviour and provide affirmations and positive reminders.
* Create a sense of belonging through named pegs or areas to store personal belongings. Showcase and celebrate work and achievements. Create an area about the children in your class; this could be personal aspirations, interests, or pictures of themselves.
An inclusive environment for pupils with Sensory and Physical needs
* Consider lighting levels. Use blinds to reduce glare on computer screens and Interactive Whiteboards and avoid surface reflection. Tilted writing stands may be helpful for pupils with visual impairment for this reason. Utilise natural light where possible and avoid blocking windows with furniture or displays.
* Minimise background noise by keeping doors closed if possible and using soft fabric and chair and table leg covers. Position pupils with hearing impairments to have a clear view of the faces of the people speaking.
* Ensure accessibility and safety by providing adequate space for independent movement and storing walking frames and wheelchairs when they are not in use.
Key Questions to consider when designing your environment
* Does your classroom/setting reflect your core values and expectations? What key messages does your environment give about how pupils belong?
* How does your environment structure and reinforce learning? Are there supports, reminders and key facts displayed around the classroom, including WAGOLLs for reference?
* How do your displays celebrate children’s achievements, learning journeys, and outcomes?
* Is the environment well organised and purposeful? Are there clearly defined areas? Are areas and resources clearly labelled in an accessible format (appropriate font, colour, use of symbols or pictures)?
* Is the environment welcoming and accessible to all learners and reflects the diversity of your children? E.g., Are home language resources visible? Are resources at child height?
* Is the room organised in ways that promote opportunities for children to talk and develop their communication skills? Are there resources/areas to support emotional well-being?
* Are considerations made to the physical environment, including sensory impact? Amount of visual clutter, use of colour, provision of resources to support regulation and attention such as wobble cushions and ear defenders.
Useful resources and websites
- CAST: About Universal Design for Learning
- Elizabeth Jarman®
- Supporting SEN – The Learning Environment | Nasen
- The SPELL framework (autism.org.uk)
- Understanding and supporting the Triple A challenges in school (autism.org.uk)
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
Johnson, S. cited in Morgan, F & Costello, E. (2023) Square pegs: Inclusivity, compassion and fitting in. A guide for schools. Independent Thinking Press.
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