Design That Supports Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Designing Equitable Experiences for Students with Special Needs

Students with special needs want what we all want: to be seen, to be appreciated, and to participate with others in the richness of everyday life.

Thanks to better learning and social environments and the empathetic work of teachers and advocates, achieving these fundamental experiences is much more attainable today. The lessons learned from designing spaces for special education schools provide valuable insights for every school looking to improve equity and inclusivity on campus.

colorful rockwall feature at school with students climbing 


Observing, Questioning, then Designing

Success in designing spaces for students with special needs begins with study and lots of dialogue. During the early stages of planning a 25,000-square-foot campus center addition at the Cotting School in Lexington, Mass., the team began by observing how students used the current space and moved throughout the day. Cotting School serves the needs of students with a broad spectrum of learning and communication abilities, physical challenges, and complex medical conditions.

We saw how many of the school’s hallways and common areas became quickly congested for students requiring wheelchairs and other mobility equipment. In some ways, this crowding condition became accepted as a familiar scenario. Yet, in talking with the students and staff, we realized how the opportunity to reduce the congestion in the new campus center would create a safer and more equitable experience for all students, regardless of mobility needs.

Close observation and stakeholder dialogue also preceded any design work for a new academic and skill development building completed for the Cardinal Cushing Centers. Cushing Centers is a nonprofit that facilitates healthy emotional, personal, and physical growth for students with mild to severe special needs, including autism, intellectual disabilities, and other challenges. The program supports students from ages 6 to 22, all of whom are encouraged to learn and work cooperatively and independently within their abilities.

Key insights on the design of the MarketPlace Building, as it came to be known, came from Cushing staff and faculty oversight groups. Nurses, clinical staff, faculty members, counselors, and the Cushing Centers CEO vigorously participated. The depth of their professional experience and knowledge of student life informed a bold vision for what the new building could become. For example, the faculty and clinical staff provided valuable input on safety issues, guiding us with practical advice on finding the right balance for keeping the students safe while also creating a comfortable and functional learning space without the look or feel of an institutional environment.

classroom watching a video screen 


Full-height windows in the Cotting School campus center connect the indoors with outside nature

Socialization Builders

Advancing the social and emotional development of students is a priority for all school administrators and educators. Accomplishing this is a priority when designing any school building and inspiring every student. A few of the takeaways on what is working:

Outdoor Spaces: Bridging indoor and outdoor experiences elevates everyone’s sense of well-being. When planning a new building or addition, consider not only the opportunities for the spaces inside, but also the spaces between and around the building. Utilize overlooked passageways or unused green space to integrate interior lobbies or assembly spaces with access to outdoor experiences. At Cotting School, the new addition includes a peaceful, contemplative garden and courtyard connecting to both the new campus center and the existing medical clinic. Much to everyone’s pleasure, the Campus Center quickly became the school’s social center.

Daylighting: Access to natural light, and reduced use of lighting fixtures, contribute to social and emotional health and, evidence shows, student productivity. Think about the contrast between a student viewing blue skies and the outside environment instead of a sole focus on electronic screens under conventional ceiling lights. Using full-height windows and large wall graphics refecting the natural beauty and colors seen in the local environment adds to the beneficial impact. Inside, the finish palette should create an upbeat, joyful environment, using the vibrant hues found in the outdoors.

Inclusive Activity Spaces: Among the findings of a 2021 CDC research project studying Gen Z mental health was the importance of students feeling connected to their school community. The study found that fostering this connection with accessible, inclusive activities contributes to the students’ sense of belonging and well-being. The campus center addition at Cotting School features a two-story adaptive climbing wall, allowing students opportunities to engage with peers in a safe and stimulating activity. Decorated with a custom abstract pattern that recalls forest, mountains, and sky, the adaptive climbing wall includes various routes allowing students with different physical challenges, including those in wheelchairs, to participate.

Everyday Equity

One replicable takeaway from working with these specialized learning environments is the value of continual feedback and refinement. With the Cushing Centers faculty and staff highly engaged in the design process, we followed an iterative process of presentation followed by informed feedback.

Our work with the Cushing Centers began with creating a model classroom in their current academic building. Seeing the actual layout and the placement of equipment and furniture helped our clients to determine what worked and what did not when viewing the space through a lens of everyday equity and inclusion. How did the new finishes, colors, wall treatments, furnishings, and spacing work for the distinct needs of Cushing students? What could we change or emphasize to achieve the most inclusive design?

For many of the Cushing Centers’ students, there is a need for a dedicated “sensory space” students can retreat to if they are experiencing sensory overload and need to take a break. The design of these spaces and their relationship to the teaching areas was informed and advanced by the continuous feedback of the teachers. This model of listening, learning, and representing is vital to generating inclusive, practical design solutions for a range of equity challenges our education partners manage every day.

front retail plaza for job training 


The Marketplace Building includes a classroom building with a front retail plaza for job training

A related opportunity arose when designing the retail marketplace component of the Cushing Centers project. This public-facing space, where special needs students gain job training and life skills by working in retail positions, includes a café, a boutique gift shop, and a thrift store. These shops are designed to prepare students for living independently after they leave the school.

Noteworthy to the idea of equity is how the marketplace environment facilitates interaction between students and community, creating a two-way learning experience. As students learn how to work with the public, carry on conversations, and problem solve, the public learns about communicating and working with people with special needs. The setting and its joyful vibe bring both sides together. Everybody learns to understand the nuances and needs of others – students and customers. Returning customers (the shops are immensely popular) strike up friendships with the students. The experience helps to normalize an inclusive environment we can all be a part of together.

Inclusive Futures

Perhaps the most important lesson from working on behalf of students with special needs is the importance of an optimistic mindset. Each step towards making our school environments—of every type and mission—more responsive to all styles of learning will impact students in a positive way. When school communities help students feel seen, valued, and included, everyone’s well-being and optimism rises.