Analysis: simple, cost-effective changes to the classroom and school environment can create a better place for all students to learn

By Aishling O'Reilly, Shona O'Donnell, Katie Robinson, Eimer Ní Riain and Judi Pettigrew, UL

Do you remember the colour of the hallways at your school? The smell of the canteen before lunch? The cold tiles in the changing rooms? The creaky wooden floor of the assembly hall? The smell of fresh cut grass in summer? We all have deep sensory memories that can bring us back to our school days in seconds. But have you ever thought about how the physical environment of your school may have impacted you and your learning?

Occupational therapists in the University of Limerick have worked in partnership with the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) to support Irish teachers to optimise the physical environments of their classrooms. Simple environmental changes can support the learning of all students and are particularly important for students with additional educational needs.

The architecture and design of school buildings has been discussed in the literature since the 1800s and our idea of what makes a great school is constantly evolving. In the United States, studies have shown that classroom design can have a 25% impact, positive or negative, on a student's academic progress. Similarly, the Clever Classrooms Report of the HEAD project in the United Kingdom found that the physical characteristics of primary schools have a 16% impact on students’ progress across one academic year. There is no 'grey area’: the classroom either serves as a support or a barrier to student learning.

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So how might it have affected you? And how is it affecting our students in Ireland in 2023? Humans are sensory beings. Our physical environments are made up of everything around us, which we experience through our senses. Our brains are constantly taking in, filtering, and interpreting information from our senses. Did you find it hard to concentrate on the teacher’s voice above the chatter in the art room? Were you distracted by cars coming and going outside the window during maths class? Were you irritated by the buzzing lights in the science lab?

Some students are very tuned in to their surroundings, can be very easily distracted and can have difficulty filtering noises to focus on just one sound source. Others can be very sensitive to noise, where the screech of chairs and tables can be distressing. Strategies such as Voice Scales (e.g., Level 1 = whisper, Level 5 = outdoor voice) and putting tennis balls on the legs of tables and chairs are used to reduce noise to make classrooms more acoustically comfortable spaces to learn.

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Were you a chair swinging, toe tapping, pen fidgeting student in school? Do you remember falling asleep in class? Or having so much energy you felt a constant need to move in your rigid classroom chair? Sensory receptors in our muscles and joints (the proprioceptive sense) tell us where our bodies are in space and help us to hold our cup of tea and tie our shoelaces without looking. Sensory receptors in our inner ear (the vestibular sense) tell us about our relationship with gravity, if we're standing upright, moving fast, or spinning in circles.

Engaging in movement and activating these senses helps students to manage their energy levels and pay attention in class. To support students who have difficulty paying attention, teachers have introduced creative solutions to activate the movement senses throughout the school day, such as movement breaks. This is a physical activity break from academic teaching to help stimulate student’s senses where the whole class completes a two-minute sequence of jogging on the spot, squats and chair push ups.

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Others have incorporated movement activities into their teaching, enabling students to learn through movement. This may involve a walking debate or conducting a class quiz where students answer questions through movement (high knees if they think the answer is 'true' and jumping jacks if they think it is ‘false’). Some teachers have introduced alternative furniture such as wobble cushions, gym balls, perching stools and standing desks to increase the amount of sensory stimulation received while engaging in table top work.

The organisation of space has a profound impact on learning. Clearly defined zones in the classroom help students to stay on task and to know what is expected of them e.g., round tables for group work, small tables for individual work, and a small carpet to identify a quiet corner. Evidence suggests that 20 to 50% of classroom wall space should be kept clear, to provide a learning environment that is visually stimulating, but not overwhelming. Outside the classroom, simple strategies such as walking on the left, colour coding classroom doors and having designated spaces for schoolbags, can help students move easier through their school day.

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These changes can benefit all students and equipped with this knowledge, teachers and occupational therapists can work together to implement simple, cost-effective adaptations to school environments, to create a better place for all students to learn.

Aishling O’Reilly and Shona O’Donnell, are Senior Occupational Therapists who were employed in the National Council for Special Education’s Occupational Therapy Support Services for Schools based at the University of Limerick between 2019 and 2023. Dr Katie Robinson is Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy, School of Allied Health, UL, and a co-investigator on the above project. Eimer Ní Riain is Practice Education Coordinator, School of Allied Health, UL, and a co-investigator. Professor Judi Pettigrew is Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy, School of Allied Health, UL, and principal investigator.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ