James Steinkamp Photography

Mind and Body

Nov. 23, 2017
Designing schools to enhance wellness.

Educational theory and design have undergone waves of revision and critique. From Horace Mann to Common Core standards, the structures and spaces of education have reflected evolving trends in pedagogy, social norms, and values. The first public schools were landmarks of civic and neighborhood pride. Almost one hundred years later, open plans embodied the post-Summerhill, free-school yearning of 1960s educators. In the late 20th century, the increasing role of technology in learning processes has affected nearly every aspect of the built environment. 

If designers and educational leaders are to continue to play an essential role in shaping educational outcomes, a more humanistic approach to school design will be needed, particularly when facing new challenges. Over the last decades, emotional wellness has emerged as a key consideration in school design. Parents and educators continue to worry about how schools can safeguard students after a raft of school shootings. 

These horrendous acts of violence have left their stamp on the American psyche, as have rising rates of childhood depression and anxiety. Both have contributed to concerns about the ability of schools to meet the needs of students with emotional needs. The National Institute of Health reports that more than three million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the last year. This means that depression affects 12.5% of the U.S. population in that age range, and does not include those students who may appear to be fine, and who may mask their symptoms well into college or adulthood. The prevalence of major depressive episodes was noted in 19.5% of females vs. 5.8% of males. 

According to the NIH, 1 in 5 children either currently or at some point in their lives, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.

“The number of children and adolescents admitted to children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last decade, according to new research being presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting (05-17-2017).” 

In his 1995 book, The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience, psychologist Martin Seligman examined the rise of childhood anxiety and depression. He wrote:

“Armies of American teachers, along with American parents, are straining to bolster children’s self-esteem,” he says. “That sounds innocuous enough, but the way they do it often erodes children’s sense of worth. By emphasizing how a child feels, at the expense of what the child does—mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom, and meeting challenge—parents and teachers are making this generation of children more vulnerable to depression.”

The next challenge may be how design can help schools address pressing psychological and social needs. Design contributes to the conditions that support emotional wellness and environments in which, Seligman suggests, children can challenge their most “pessimistic thoughts.”

Students spend roughly 20 percent of their time in school, a significant part of their day, particularly as this is time spent away from home, in the context of peers, and as part of a system that relies on regular evaluations and tests. As schools are integral players in the everyday life of children, it follows that school design is more than an ancillary component in affecting educational outcomes. Environment is an integral part of a child’s curriculum experience. 

Securing Safe and Nurturing Schools

In view of the fact that schools are critical sites for children that can either hinder or foster their development, it is good news that there is a range of design components that can help meet challenges faced by all students on a daily basis. When thought of creatively and collaboratively, the power of design can be brought to bear on helping those with emotional disabilities. In the context of schools, design could also benefit the general school population. 

There is much to be gleaned from the roles of healthcare design and environment in healing. The wealth of data and studies on healthcare design provide creative solutions to enrich and enhance school design.  

Five key design categories – scale, light, views, color and temperature – are directly applicable to the kinds of spaces, and the conditions needed to support emotional wellness in schools. Lessons from healthcare design, and empirical observation can do a great deal to inform this work. Although safety and security features are not the primary focus here, they will always enhance education and learning. Features that are built in include natural surveillance, controlled access, anti-ligature, tamper-resistant, and vandal proof design.

Design Priority Scale

A primary takeaway from health care design is the need for flexibility in wellness. Rather than a one size fits all approach, a variety of spaces and the ability to scale a space up or down can be crucial. For instance, smaller more intimate spaces are more likely to calm an anxious child. 

This ability to adapt a space in size and scale to individual need, and to certain scenarios is a sea change for educational design. In the past, there was really no way to manipulate the learning environment, other than moving furniture, switching lights or adjusting temperature. If the space was adaptable, it was controlled by the teacher.

Pedagogical shifts support the need for different kinds of spaces, and shared control, such as spaces for electronics, reading, group and alone time. Wellness studies have demonstrated that patients who can control their near environment respond more favorably to treatment. The call for spaces that are adaptable is born out of research that shows that those who feel in control of their immediate environment have great patient satisfaction rates, and in many cases, heal more quickly.

The way children spend their leisure time also presents new challenges and expectations. Many children start video gaming before they can read, and are fully immersed in games by school age. Many of these games take place in a virtual world in which participants have complete control of themselves and their environment. Educators and school designers can use some of the insights from children’s relationships with gaming, most importantly, that this generation wants a say in the spaces that they inhabit.

The movement toward smaller and more diverse learning environments stems from the fact that students learn differently. Learning environments need to mimic real-world environments wherever that is feasible.

Light and Color 

Research has demonstrated the profound effect that light and color have on mood. Cooler, brighter colors have proved to be calming, while darker, broader swaths of colors such as red can inspire aggression. Color has meaning in respect to other factors, specifically, light. Natural or artificial light can influence the reflectivity or absorption of a color. 

Artificial light can be improved, and help offset problems that trigger unhealthy responses. The flicker of a fluorescent bulb can induce headaches, even migraines. LED lights and the introduction of natural light can reduce these issues.

Daylighting a space has shown to have had a healing benefit in hospital settings. An awareness of the biorhythmic nature of the day, of the sun rising and setting, improves moods. The sense of the day imparts a sense of the greater world, connecting patients to the outside and reducing isolation.  For students who live in darker, grey climates, and during the winter months where seasonally related mood disorders are most likely to set in, bringing daylight into the classroom is important. These students might only experience about an hour of daylight when not in school. 

In addition to daylight, the sounds of the outside can prove calming. Operable windows can support the ability to add not just air flow, but ambient noise of birds, trees or even street sounds, which can be also be calming, lessening feelings of enclosure that a classroom might evoke.

Views and Temperature

Access to nature and the outdoors has been proven to be therapeutic. Views to the outside need not only be to exterior spaces; they can also frame interior activity. The goal is to diminish the sense of confinement.

In fact, the need for a variety of spaces may mean the deliberate inclusion of darker, calmer, more serene spaces for students who get overwhelmed by stimulus. Sometimes the only space fitting this description available for a student to calm down is the bathroom, which comes with a negative stigma. Confinement to the bathroom is hardly a good solution, and seems more like a punishment. 

Whether the views extend an inside space or bring nature and the atmosphere – trees, water, sky – into the classroom, the desired effect is a break from the interiority of the traditional classroom. In addition to views, comfort is key. In a 2015 study published by the science journal, PLOS, researchers examined the effect of classroom ventilation rates and temperature on academic achievement. They found that students performed better in a range of academic subjects when the comfort level of the classroom could be controlled by airflow, and classroom HVAC systems. 

While they did not confirm data, their research indicates that illness may decrease with increased control of systems, correlating to the ability to filter out outdoor pollutants, and to modulate classroom temperatures during hotter and colder days. 

Traditional classroom design has sought to get students to focus on the teacher, and is based on a hierarchy of one teacher per classroom. As individual learning and student-centered activities become a greater part of the classroom experience, there will need to be spaces that are open, permeable, and configurable. 

There is a national focus on social and emotional learning (SEL), and helping students develop soft skills, defined as collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. This means that students need spaces for a variety of activities, where they can work in small groups, work independently, cool down, read, or have full class discussions. The implications for the future of school design are enormous. The potential to meet the educational and emotional needs of students through design is inspiring.  

Additional research on the relationship between the physical building and student health and outcomes is available in the article “School buildings can influence student health, performance” from the Harvard School of Health News (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news). The Harvard page cites a study of 75,000 high school students in New York City that found that students were 12.3% more likely to fail an exam on a 90-degree Fahrenheit day versus a 75-degree Fahrenheit day. Poor ventilation in schools was associated with student fatigue, lower attention span, and loss of concentration. In a study of 500 8- and 9-year-olds, test scores were 5.5 points lower for each 10-decibel increase in classroom noise.

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