Physical Design to Promote Safety and Comfort in the Sex Ed Classroom

Yellow "yield" style sign that says "safety first".  The sign is on a large signpost, and there is a cloudy sky in the background.

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:

  1. A Circle of desks is good for group discussion and a feeling of belonging.Colorful chairs arranged in a circle
  2. 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.
  3. Clustering desks is great for group activities and small discussions, however, this set-up makes it hard for students to focus on the teacher. Classroom with clusters of desks
  4. 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.

Dark, sterile classroom lit only by light from the window in the door

Neat, well organized classroom with colored beanbag chairs, blue walls, yellow trim, plants, and good lighting


Daggett, W. R., Cobble, J. E., & Gertel, S. J. (2008). Color in an optimum learning environment. International Center for Leadership in Education. 

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.

Maxwell, L. (n.d.). Noise in the office workplace. Facility Planning and Management Notes, 1(11).

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 Schools31(4), 376-384.

Simmons, S. (1995). Drawing as thinking. Think Magazine, 23-29.

6 responses to “Physical Design to Promote Safety and Comfort in the Sex Ed Classroom

  1. Sarah,
    You brought back so many memories of my middle school and high school sexual education classes. Middle school sexual education class wasn’t stressful, however in high school I felt more intimidated and it was probably due to the fact that there was a mixture of all grade levels in my classes. I do feel that my middle school sexual education teacher was more open about concerns whereas the high school sexual education teachers weren’t as open with questions and concerns. The suggestions you gave for the classroom setup were great and I plan on using those suggestions for my classroom.


  2. This is really interesting! I remember in my secondary school, one year we wrote a petition to the principal, asking that we be allowed to paint our classrooms in the colours and design that we wanted and we even included research about the effect colours would have on study. We offered to purchase the paint ourselves and to spend extra time after class and on weekends painting the room. We actually did get permission! 🙂 Of course I wondering though how and if some of these suggestions would work across cultures in terms of: meaning of colours, what kind of materials would be used, what kind of artwork is acceptable, would this temperature be suitable and comfortable for everyone regardless of which part of the world they live, etc. Nice one Sarah!

  3. This is so well done! It’s crazy to think how important these types of factors are becoming for new teachers compared to the teachers that we most likely had when we were in school. I just recently replaced a fourth grade teacher who had decided to retire early. Her walls were SO cluttered with multi-colored paw prints, that it was hard to focus on anything in particular. The first thing that I did in that room was take almost half of that down and replace it with solid greens, my main classroom color. She had had the desks in the clustering formation that was mentioned as the third option for desks and it created chaos! The students were rarely on task and allowing students to have close access to other desks, meant, for them, that they could have their things mold onto other desks. I recently separated the students into rows and while it is not the most social classroom anymore, it is a lot neater and learning-based.

    I really enjoyed your blog and think that these tidbits of information should be relayed to all teachers, but especially to those who are teaching sensitive subjects such as sexuality.

  4. I’ve seen a lot of these strategies implemented in K-12, but my experience has been that these drop off when it comes to higher education. I think part of the reason is that teachers share classrooms, and cannot always control lighting, color, sound, and temperature, but I also wonder if educators still value the importance of these elements in adult education.

    Midway through the post, I started to think about these environmental factors as they apply to the human sexuality program at Widener. I think a lot of us can attest to it being freezing in the classrooms on the weekends and that HVAC noise being really distracting, but I think the instructors have done a great job of providing color, music, and making sure we are sitting in a true circle during discussion.

    It’s important to consider these factors when guest lecturing or conducting a small number of workshops with folks. There are going to be some things beyond our control, but what are some ways to be flexible around this? I’m thinking perhaps one can take a vote for the lights on or off, or even having the class or workshop outside. This was a great read and invitation to continue to think outside the box.

  5. I really enjoyed your post, Sarah!
    It is crazy to think how many external factors can affect your learning/feeling of safeness, but they are really important to point out! Prior to coming to Widener, I never had a teacher set up the classroom with the chairs in a circle. Now, most of my classes are like this, and I feel like I am more apart of the discussion. I also find I tend to be more engaged this way because I can actually look at each person in the face when they are talking. It’s much more personal, and I feel more included.
    I also find temperature to be really important. When I was an undergrad, there was one classroom in the Psych building that was always sooooo warm. I realized any time I had a class that was held in that room, I was much more likely to be nodding off or not paying attention. However, I usually wouldn’t notice that these factors were potential reasons behind the cause. All of these factors should really be taken into consideration (even if some of them can’t be fixed) when facilitating a classroom.

  6. This reminds me of a high school near me that would have its opposing football team get ready for the game in the women’s changing room which was painted pink. The coaches believed that being exposed to pink made the players more passive and gentle therefore giving the home team (who changed in the blue men’s changing room) an advantage. I’ve never heard any proof to support or refute this specific theory but environment definitely has proven to impact the experience of those in it. Something that I would consider is who benefits from the environment and its versatility to accommodate different learning styles.

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