Design That Supports Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Behavior Management and Classroom Design Go Hand-In-Hand

There is no doubt that the pandemic has challenged the ways in which we live, communicate and operate on a day-to-day basis. The trauma students have experienced over the last few years relative to the pandemic has led to a rise in behavioral problems within classrooms, including instances of violence. As a result, school and district leaders are looking for ways to manage student behavior more effectively.

classroom with children in uniforms and raising hands to answer questions

In a survey of public-school leaders earlier this year, nearly 90 percent said the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the social-emotional development of their students. Eighty-three percent of respondents agreed that students’ behavioral development has suffered.

One often-overlooked factor in student behavior is the effect of classroom design. From the colors used on the walls to the furniture that students sit on, how classrooms and other learning spaces are designed can significantly impact student emotions, engagement, attention, and behavior.

The pandemic has hurt the social-emotional development of students; however, it has also given K–12 leaders a unique opportunity to reimagine what our learning spaces might look like by considering them through a lens of equity, inclusion, and student empowerment. In doing so, we can improve student behavior and motivation at the same time.

Classrooms Behind the Times

If you think about the traditional, factory-style classroom, with rows of identical desks facing the teacher at the front of the room, what about this model is engaging? What would motivate students to sit in that room each day?

This type of environment was built around a teacher controlling the learning process with a lecture-based method of instruction, dispensing information as students listen and take notes. Today, active learning strategies that put students in charge of their education are becoming a more common practice, but the learning environments in which they happen are evolving at a slower pace.

Our district has used training from the Crisis Prevention Institute to design learning spaces that foster inclusivity and diversity to support our students’ need for a welcoming classroom environment. Based on our experience, here are three tips on how you can implement a similar experience in your schools.

1. Make Students Co-Designers. A friend of mine works for a large toy company where they market-test new ideas for children before rolling them out to the stores. To do this, they create prototypes of their ideas for children to play with and ask the children what they think. Is this toy fun? Do you like the colors? How would you change it?

This concept can also be applied within our schools. As we’re designing learning spaces, our students should be a part of the planning process. What would their ideal learning environment look like? What elements should it include?

Integrating students into the design process ensures that classrooms and other learning spaces more closely align with their needs and desires; it’s also another way to empower students by giving them control over their education.

2. Give Them Multiple Seating Options. When students are in control of their learning, they’re more invested in their education and less likely to act out. Learning environments can help foster this sense of autonomy by giving students plenty of options for seating and what types of seating they can choose from—such as a regular desk or table, café-style seating, a standing desk, or a beanbag chair.

Beyond the comfort of multiple seating options, having a variety of seating promotes inclusion by accommodating different physical needs and preferences, which helps every child feel more welcome.

3. Make the Space Comfortable. Students who aren’t comfortable in their physical environment will have trouble learning and are more likely to fidget or experience an outburst. In contrast, creating a comfortable learning environment helps students focus and succeed.

Another way to make learning environments more comfortable for students is to choose flexible and adjustable furniture, such as chairs that swivel and height-adjustable tables. In designing our classrooms, I eliminated all of our traditional desks and their attached chairs because they did not accommodate multiple body types. Instead, we replaced them with several different student-tested seating options, and we have seen fewer behavioral problems as a result.

In our quest to reimagine learning spaces, we have to center our students’ voices and experiences. Our students are true partners in education, not passive participants, and we should be designing learning environments with our students’ physical and emotional well-being in mind.

When we do this, our schools will be places of joy and liberation. But most importantly, they’ll be places of success.

About the Author

Dr. Tiffany Brunson is the superintendent of Elementary School District 159 in Cook County, Ill. During her nearly 30-year career in education, she has been a special education teacher and has held various roles within school and district administration.

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