How to Create Classroom Learning Spaces that Support SEL

How to Create Classroom Learning Spaces that Support SEL

Although COVID is no longer considered a public health emergency, schools still face long-term academic and mental health challenges. In response, some have integrated social emotional learning (SEL) lessons and activities into instruction and expanded their schoolwide support services. While these measures are invaluable, solving the crisis will require further steps—and designing creative learning spaces to support SEL, mental health, and behavior can help.

Student mental health and wellbeing have been declining for years, and the pandemic only exacerbated this trend. According to the CDC, 42 percent of children report feeling hopeless.

As students’ mental health needs have increased, behavioral problems have become a concern. An Education Week survey found that student behavior remains a key concern in schools nationwide, with 70 percent of educators saying their students misbehave more now than before the pandemic.

Why the Learning Environment Matters for SEL

Research has shown that the physical environment can significantly impact people’s stress levels. This impact, in turn, can affect students’ academic performance, focus, behavior, and wellbeing.

The design of classrooms and other learning spaces can affect students’ stress levels and emotions in many ways. A poorly designed classroom can lead to distractions that hamper learning.

For instance, the wrong type of lighting or furniture can cause physical discomfort, making it harder for students to focus on instruction. Furniture can often hamper students from building agency for their learning.

Windows that provide plenty of natural lighting and use natural wood and stone materials can encourage more positive student wellbeing, leading to better focus and behavior.

Here are five more recommendations for designing learning environments that effectively support SEL.

1. Focus on Comfort

Not surprisingly, students are able to relax, focus, and learn more successfully when they’re comfortable. To ensure students can work comfortably while seated, tables, desks, and chairs should be ergonomically designed and age-appropriate. Height-adjustable desks create a comfortable workspace for students, who can easily raise or lower the height of their desks to the right level they need to be productive.

Environmental factors such as lighting, acoustics, temperature, and air quality should be at optimum levels for learning. Students with sensory processing concerns, in particular, might be overly sensitive to light and sound.

To maximize students’ ability to focus and learn, schools should use natural lighting wherever possible and avoid fluorescent lights. Instead, choose warmer, recessed lighting sources. If replacing bulbs or light fixtures is out of the question, light filters can provide an affordable option for softening classroom lighting. For instance, Cozy Shades consist of flame-retardant cloth hung below standard fluorescent lighting fixtures, muting some of the aggressive-feeling rays that can cause anxiety or headaches.

2. Give Students Plenty of Choices

Choice makes classrooms and other learning spaces feel more inclusive. Multiple seating styles can accommodate different learning preferences and help students feel more welcome.

Because some students are sensitive to certain types of materials, learning spaces should offer seating options with different fabrics and surface types. This gives students who have sensory processing disorders a variety of options to choose from. Many students on the autism spectrum have sensory processing issues and are overly sensitive to touch.

Choice is also important because it gives students ownership of their learning, which leads to deeper engagement. Students are more invested in their education if they feel in charge of their learning. Giving students choices in where to sit promotes responsible decision-making and builds confidence, which helps with their social and emotional well-being. Classrooms that include multiple seating options—such as standing desks, soft seating, and traditional desks and tables—help students make their own choices to support how they learn best.

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The hallways at Hazleton Area Academy in Erie, Pennsylvania, offer a wide variety of gathering spaces and seating options. Interior Design, Furnishings, and Project Management by Projects By Design® from School Specialty®

3. Foster Connection

Students need a sense of connection with each other and with their teachers in order to thrive. “Students who report feeling connected to, supported by, and respected by their peers demonstrate higher levels of engagement in school and report feeling more connected to their school,” the CDC observes. Learning spaces should be designed to facilitate interaction between students, their teacher, and their peers.

Learning spaces can encourage teacher-student interaction by including clear walkways for teachers to circulate around the room, listen to conversations, and offer help as needed. In addition, the use of mobile, agile desks and tables that can easily be arranged into flexible group sizes can support effective student collaboration and peer interaction. For instance, the Concord series of student desks from Classroom Select can be arranged into multiple group sizes of anywhere from two to six students while also accommodating individual students.

images of a classroom in kammerer middle school, using configurable desks that are pushed together for a larger group size
This classroom in Kammerer Middle School in Louisville, Kentucky, features the Concord Series of student desks, differing seating and desking heights, alternative lighting schemes, and a comfortable “chill corner.” Furnishings can easily be reconfigured to support different instructional and learning styles. Interior Design, Furnishings, and Project Management by Projects By Design® from School Specialty®

4. Establish Quiet Zones

Students who are overstimulated or suffering from anxiety might need some time to decompress by themselves. This is why a growing number of schools are realizing the value of having quiet spaces or “chill zones”—separate areas of the classroom that are available to students who need those private moments of downtime. These spaces allow teachers to give students a “time in” to calm down without excluding them from the classroom.

For instance, this sensory escape pod from Nook helps block noise and prevent sensory overload, giving students with sensory issues a quiet, calm space where they can feel secure.

Wholly separate sensory rooms are also emerging in schools. A sensory room often includes gentle lighting, soothing sounds, and furniture that helps define spatial boundaries (such as chairs with higher backs and sides) to help children feel secure in their physical space. It may also include sensory tools that help promote self-regulation.

Time in a calming sensory room, incorporated as part of a regular school schedule, may give students opportunities to recharge and regroup. In turn, this helps promote self-regulation, which may reduce the likelihood that students will experience meltdowns and other inappropriate behaviors as they learn to advocate for their own social and emotional needs.

5. Leverage Outdoor Learning Spaces

Research suggests that outdoor classrooms can improve students’ social emotional wellbeing and even their academic achievement, as just getting outside lifts peoples’ spirits and helps clear their minds.

For instance, one study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that students paid more attention in class after an outdoor lesson. Other studies have linked outdoor learning to reduced stress, more enjoyment of school, and longer retention of information.

Nearly any outdoor space can be used to host classes outside: a courtyard or patio, a pavilion or other shady area, or even an athletic field. However, educators should carefully consider where students might sit and how they’ll accomplish the assigned learning tasks.

Seating for outdoor learning spaces should be constructed with weather-resistant materials, such as stained wood or thermoplastic-coated steel.

rendering of an outdoor commons area outside a school
Outdoor learning spaces can offer comfortable seating that is easily reconfigured and readily moved into the classroom or storage at the end of the school day. Rendering by Projects By Design® from School Specialty®

The materials students will need for outdoor learning will depend on the nature of the learning activity. Sidewalk chalk works well for writing on outdoor surfaces because it washes off easily. Other common materials for learning and exploring outside include tape measures for taking physical measurements, magnifying glasses for observing, and portable thermometers, probes, or sensors for collecting data.

Portable storage totes, carrying cases, or learning center carts can help students and teachers transport materials for learning outside.

Small Changes Can Lead to Big Improvements

As schools invest in more counseling and SEL programs, small changes to the physical learning environment can make a big difference in student wellness and behavior.

To learn how the School Specialty Team can help you design, furnish, and equip learning spaces that support student wellness, please contact your School Specialty Representative.

Dr. Sue Ann Highland

Dr. Sue Ann Highland

Sue Ann Highland, PhD, is the National Education Strategist for School Specialty. She has more than 25 years of experience as an educator, administrator, and consultant with school systems across the United States, with broad expertise in designing and creating highly effective learning environments.

Read more by Dr. Sue Ann Highland–>

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