“Safety is not a goal in itself, but a prerequisite for the kind of classroom climate that can result in learning.” – Oregon State Department of Education
Middle and High School sexual education classes can be very stressful. Students are learning about a societally taboo subject in a room with 20 or 30 of their peers, one of whom they probably have a crush on. Talk about anxiety producing. In my Sex Ed classes, my teachers were not very comfortable talking about sex, puberty, STIs, or any other sexually related topic. This lack of comfort combined with a common-for-that-age need for approval from my peers, produced an environment I was not able to learn about sexuality in.
As a teacher, you cannot control how students feel, but you can control some of the variables which help students feel more comfortable in the classroom. For students to learn, they need to feel safe in both the physical and emotional space of the classroom. This blog post focuses on how a teacher can control the physical design of the classroom in order to optimize the feelings of safety and comfort in the classroom.
If you are given a rectangular room with nothing but desks in it, how do you make it feel safe and comfortable? The answer is in the layout, lighting, temperature, acoustics, and color.
There are many different desk arrangements which promote learning. The optimal setup depends on the activity and goals for respective lesson. Following are the Four Most Common Desk Arrangements and what they achieve:
- A Circle of desks is good for group discussion and a feeling of belonging.
- A U-shape, or half-circle, is good for creating eye contact between students to allow for discussion, as well as maintaining focus on the teacher.
- Clustering desks is great for group activities and small discussions, however, this set-up makes it hard for students to focus on the teacher.
- Rows of desks are good for keeping students’ focus on the teacher as well as reducing cross-talk between students.
According to the activity and goals for that day, decide which desk layout will be best to make your students feel safe and promote learning.
Many times classrooms are only equipped with overhead fluorescent lighting, which can strain students’ eyes. This strain decreases student learning and productivity. A teacher should try to maximize the use of natural light in their classroom as well as supplement existing it with lights that produce good lighting and a warm hue. The key is to strategically place lights around the room so that each student has enough good light.
Research has found that when enough bright light is placed near a person, it can successfully treat seasonal mood changes as strong as depression (Dunn, 1985, p.868). Keep this in mind if you live in places with a large population who suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder.
Temperature is hard to control in a large school building. It can be too hot or too cold, but many classrooms have individual thermostats which can help alleviate this issue. Studies have shown that a warmer classroom induces fatigue and inattentiveness, while cooler temperatures keep students awake.
Students at Westview High School in Beaverton, Oregon, conducted a study in which they wanted to answer: Does Classroom Temperature Affect Student Performance?. With some help from teachers, these students conducted several aptitude tests on ninth graders in different classrooms with varying temperatures. They found that:
- At 61 degrees Fahrenheit, students averaged a score of 76%
- At 81 degrees Fahrenheit, students averaged a score of 72%
- At 72 degrees Fahrenheit, student achieved an average score of 90%
These students were honored with a Special Achievement Award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for their study, and their results have been replicated and confirmed. Although 72 degrees Fahrenheit is an optimal temperature to promote learning, teachers should err on the side of cooler rather than warmer if unable to control the exact temperature in the classroom.
Classrooms can be loud, no matter the age of the students inside. Tables, chairs, desks, moving feet, ceiling height, and talking all increase noise level. But do you know what the loudest part of a classroom really is? The heating and cooling system (HVAC) (Siebein, Gold, Siebein, & Ermann, 2000). Noise has been found to be distracting, decrease productivity, cause stress, and cause fatigue (Maxwell, n.d.).
A great way to decrease unnecessary noise is to limit the amount of hard surface area, and increase the amount soft surface area throughout the room. Soft surface areas absorb sound and include rugs, fabric wall hangings, plants (plants also improve air quality), and sound absorbing ceiling tiles. It is important not to place all of these materials on one wall, and instead spread the materials throughout the classroom. If placed in a strategic fashion, all of these sound absorbing materials also create an inviting atmosphere and double as decoration. It is also helpful to minimize student to teacher distance during instruction times to allow for all students to hear.
Color in the classroom has shown to improve visual processing, reduce stress, and challenge the brain through visual stimulation and pattern seeking. Visual stimulation rewires the brain, creating stronger neural connections by fostering visual thinking, problem solving, and creativity. Although color variety reduces boredom, teachers should limit the amount of color in their classrooms to no more than six main colors, more than six colors can be distracting and strain one’s cognitive abilities (Simmons, 1995).
In 1979, Failey found that optical stimulation via warm colors and lighting caused increased muscular tension, respiration rate, heart action, blood pressure, and brain activity. Failey also found that cooler colors and dim lighting caused reversed effects like muscle relaxation and fatigue. Take away from this with the knowledge that there is a time and place for both warmer and cooler colors. For example, light yellow is associated with feelings of liveliness, energy, and happiness, while blue is associated with calming and relaxation.
There is a lot of research on specific colors and their respective human response. For more information on color choices in the school, visit “Color in an Optimum Learning Environment” from the International Center for Leadership in Education.
Although layout, lighting, temperature, acoustics, or color alone may not seem like a big enough factor to illicit feelings of safety in the classroom, altogether, these factors produce big results. Would you feel comfortable walking into a white classroom with desks in no apparent order that is hot, dark, loud, and dimly lit? Or would you feelings more comfortable walking into a classroom with: sunlight streaming in through the windows, the sound of a stream trickling in the background, a temperature that was not too hot and not too cold, desks arranged in a circle, decorations on the walls, and plants in every corner of the room? Which room do you think you would you learn more in? Layout, lighting temperature, acoustics, and color do matter.
Dunn, R. Krimsky, J.S., Murray, J.B. & Quinn, P.J. (1985). Light up their lives: A research on the effects of lighting on children’s achievement and behavior. The Reading Teacher, 38(19), 863-869.
Failey, A., Bursor, D.E., and Musemeche, R.A. (1979). The impact of color and lighting in schools. Council of Educational Facility Planners Journal, 16-18.
Siebein, G. W., Gold, M. A., Siebein, G. W., & Ermann, M. G. (2000). Ten ways to provide a high-quality acoustical environment in schools. Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 31(4), 376-384.
Simmons, S. (1995). Drawing as thinking. Think Magazine, 23-29.