Classroom Components

Comfort Is Critical for Student Success. Here Are 3 Simple Factors to Consider.

No matter how fascinating or engaging you think a lesson might be, the chances are good that at least one student will be fidgeting in his chair the whole time.

Maybe he has trouble paying attention, or maybe he’s hyperactive and needs to move. But it could also be that he’s simply not comfortable. And this lack of comfort affects how well he’s able to learn.Common sense tells us that students learn best when they’re comfortable in their physical environment, and this is borne out in research as well.

In one of the largest studies on the topic, researchers from the University of Salford in the United Kingdom studied 153 classrooms in 27 primary schools over the course of two research phases to identify the impact of the physical classroom features on achievement. They found that classroom design was responsible for 16 percent of the students’ learning rates.

The researchers examined 15 design factors in particular and discovered that seven of these had a measurable effect on learning: lighting, temperature, air quality, ownership, flexibility, complexity and color.

Three of these factors — or nearly half — relate to students’ comfort in their learning environment: Is there enough natural lighting? Is the room neither too hot nor too cold? Are students getting enough fresh air through a proper ventilation system?

Comfort is also one of the six key elements that School Specialty has identified as critical for a modern learning space that supports 21st century learning. (The others are choice, versatility, connection, stimulation and technology. To learn why choice is important and how to create choice within learning environments, see this article.)

Why address comfort in the design of a learning space? When students are physically comfortable, they’re more at ease: They can relax, block out negative thoughts and focus more effectively on instruction.

This is especially true for students who have anxiety or sensory processing disorders. For instance, many students on the autism spectrum or who have ADHD have sensory processing issues that make them overly sensitive to certain types of materials, lighting, noise or other stimuli. Creating an environment that is comfortable for everyone is being mindful of all students’ needs.

While architects and planners should focus on factors such as air quality and temperature in their design and construction of school buildings, these elements aren’t as simple to fix or adjust within existing facilities. However, there are three other factors that can have a significant impact on students’ comfort and that are fairly easy to address: seating, lighting and acoustics.

Seating

To make sure students can work comfortably while they’re seated, tables, desks and chairs should be ergonomically designed and age-appropriate. For instance, a student’s seat should not be so high that his or her legs are dangling, and the angle and back of a seat should support the natural curving of a student’s spine.

You might also consider furnishing learning spaces with height-adjustable seating or work surfaces. For example, the new Classroom Select height-adjustable Nest and Tilt desks create a comfortable workspace for students, who can easily raise or lower the height of their desks to the exact optimum level they need to be productive.

Because some students are overly sensitive to certain types of textures and materials, learning spaces should offer a variety of seating options with different fabrics and surface types, such as wood/laminate, plastic, upholstered fabric and foam.

Users with sensory processing issues can react very differently to different types of fabrics and textures and giving them many choices helps them find seating that won’t upset them or distract them from learning. Many students on the autism spectrum, for instance, are overly sensitive to touch — and they might find some soft fabrics too scratchy on their skin.

Include options with high backs or that users can sink into as well, so that sensory seekers have options that make them feel enveloped in their seating.

Lighting

To maximize students’ ability to focus and learn, schools should use natural lighting wherever possible and avoid using fluorescent lights, instead choosing warmer, recessed lighting sources. Fluorescent bulbs have been shown to increase feelings of anxiety and induce headaches among some people.

Specially designed lights can help alleviate sensitivity to fluorescent lighting. For instance, Green Furniture Concept’s Leaf Lamp series performs double duty by offering ambient lighting along with superior acoustics, using sound-absorbing qualities found in the materials and shape of the leaves.

If replacing bulbs or light fixtures is out of the question, light filters can provide an affordable option for softening classroom lighting. For instance, Cozy Shades consist of flame-retardant cloth hung below standard fluorescent lighting fixtures, muting some of the aggressive-feeling rays that can cause anxiety or headaches among some students.

Acoustics

Active learning environments can be somewhat noisy. Instead of sitting in their seats and listening to the teacher talk, students are moving around and talking with their peers. The noise this creates can make it hard for some students to focus, especially those who have sensory processing issues. So, it’s important to consider the acoustics in a learning space as well.

Sound amplification systems can help students who are hard of hearing or who have trouble drowning out background noise to focus on what the teacher is saying, and sound-absorbing panels can add color and design to a learning space while cutting down on ambient noise. While it might be cost-prohibitive to install sound-absorbing panels in classrooms, they make a lot of sense in large, open spaces such as media centers or cafeterias.

Learners who find themselves over-stimulated might need some time to decompress by themselves. This is why a growing number of educators are realizing the value of having quiet spaces or “chill zones” — separate areas of the classroom that are available to students who need those private moments of down time. These spaces allow teachers to give students a “time in” to calm down without excluding them from the classroom.

For instance, sensory pods from Nook help block noise and prevent sensory overload. They give students with sensory issues a quiet and calm space in which they can feel secure, and they also provide a quieter space for pairs of students to collaborate — complete with a whiteboard wall for brainstorming ideas and connectivity options for charging digital devices.

When designing learning spaces, consider how you’ll create learning environments that are comfortable and conducive to learning for all students. Think about using furniture made of a variety of fabrics and materials to give students multiple options and pay attention to details such as lighting and acoustics as well. These factors can have a big impact on students’ ability to focus and succeed.

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