The Physical Environment of a Classroom

There are a multitude of classroom strategies that we can adopt to make our classrooms better learning environments for children with ADHD and other neurodevelopmental disorders, and most of these strategies actually benefit all of the children in the class, regardless of any conditions they may have.

Lists of classroom strategies are available all over the internet, but still I see teachers come onto forums to ask, “What ideas do you have for flexible seating?”

While some lists may give brief descriptions of the strategy, they often fail to elaborate on the details; WHY the strategy is beneficial or how you implement it.

I’m really lucky in that the Senior Leadership Team from my school allowed me to research a lot of these strategies with my last class. They were a big group with multiple additional support needs, of varying complexities, and I needed to change the environment to support them.

Every strategy that I recommend here has been researched, used in my class, monitored for effectiveness and evaluated by the most important people in the classroom- the children.

But… every class and group of children are different, what I recommend may not suit your class’s needs, so at the bottom of the post I will link to some useful resources from around the web that reference classroom strategies, in case you want to carry out a bit of research beyond my recommendations.

The strategies I am going to talk about relate to the physical environment of the classroom. My first draft of this post included additional strategies related to the social and cultural environments of the classroom, but as that post ended up at nearly 5000 words… I thought you would appreciate a cut down version- and I can talk about those strategies through other posts.

Classroom Display

I am not sure if it is wise to talk about this first, as I fear that most of you may unfollow me!

To make our classrooms inclusive for children with ADHD, ASC, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), anxiety and those who are just easily distracted, we really need to have a rethink of the current, common, approach to classroom display that is the busy, rainbow art attack.

As primary school teachers, we traditionally love a bright and vibrant classroom display and often put a monumental amount of effort (and our own money) into creating beautiful, Pintrest-worthy, masterpieces. I once worked with a teacher who ordered special 1960s wallpaper for her topic on that decade, and I have seen the posts on teaching groups of beautiful displays that teachers have spent hours planning, resourcing and assembling. Display is important to us primary teachers!

I recently watched a video about an American Algebra teacher who transformed his classroom into a magical Harry Potter wonderland using bits and pieces that he has collected as a fan of the series over the years and considerable additional expense (around $400)! His classroom is beautiful; so professionally decorated and on point that a career in interior design could easily be his calling! (I’ve included a link to this at the bottom of the page to the video- it really is worth checking out) But while I was watching the video, I did wonder how he would manage to get his class to concentrate on their work with so much visual stimulation.

Until I met my last class, I was like every other teacher with my vibrant exciting displays, but then I had never come across a group like them before! 29 children, and a large group with Additional Support Needs including, ADHD, visual processing disorder, global developmental delay, dyslexia, anxiety and some other children who did not have an official diagnosis yet.

The whole class spent most of the day looking round the room, concentration and focus were poor, they were restless, noisy and always used to look over my shoulder at the pictures on the wall as I was talking to them (which was rather annoying)! One little girl told me,

“I just like to have a read of the walls when I can’t be bothered listening to you!”

I needed to take some action!

After a lot of research, the approach I took was a kind of amalgamation of the Reggio Emilia Approach and Montessori Approach.

The Reggio Emilia Approach places a lot of importance on the physical environment of a classroom, amongst other things, and should be filled with natural light, order and beauty and free from clutter. (Reggio Children, 2017)

The Montessori Approach also advocates natural lighting, soft colours and uncluttered spaces where learning materials are accessible to students and kept in order so that students will always know where to access them (American Montessori Society, 2017)

After researching these approaches and reading other teacher testimonials, I stripped away my classroom signs and labels, all of the colourful backing paper and borders and covered the walls in hessian or a light beige backing paper.

I carefully considered all the signs and labels I routinely used and decided to keep my large place value sign on the wall- as I refer to it constantly throughout numeracy lessons and removed the rest, opting to use two Tolsby frames from IKEA per group- one for maths and one for literacy- and used the pre-made Twinkl Tolsby times tables, VCOP etc. and the Twinkl create function to make any others I needed.

I kept my Maths, Literacy and Health and Wellbeing walls and replaced the labels with children’s work, that they selected, and all were mounted onto a muted or light pastel backing paper.

The Tolsby Frames sat on the desk and as they were accessible to the children, this helped them to actually engage with what was written on the labels and had previously been more like wallpaper to them. When we weren’t using the frames, they went into the fidget box in the middle of the table (more on that below), which meant they would not become a distraction.

At the front of the room, where the smart board, whiteboard and my desk lived, I took down every single picture, sign and display- leaving a completely blank wall. This meant that when I was teaching, the children were more likely to look at me where they used to get distracted by all the things behind me.

The concentration in the class improved overnight and most importantly, it stayed that way. The class, who had always been quite noisy and restless, seemed to calm as their senses were not subjected to the multicoloured overload, and their work rate improved. Overall classroom behaviour was much better, and I didn’t have to remind as many children to focus on tasks- meaning I could support the children who needed me without constant interruptions.

While beige may sound boring, it brightened our dark classroom up considerably and gave it a much lighter, airier feel.

However, we didn’t abandon our amazing artistic displays altogether, we just used the corridor space for any particularly arty displays, so the children (and me) still got the chance to be creative.

Most importantly, the children liked the change, they liked the classroom environment, recognised they weren’t as distracted as before and after one girl went on a message to another class in the school, which still had bright, rainbow walls, she said,

“I love rainbows and multicoloured stuff so I was looking around thinking that class was amazing, but I’d never do any work in there, far too distracting.”

 

Visual Support

While most class teachers will use some form of a daily timetable, in the upper school this will often consist of a written timetable on a small-medium whiteboard on the wall. That is absolutely fine and I don’t think you should change that- I haven’t. I do think that the addition of a visual timetable and resource labelling- that is consistent with the visual time table- is a beneficial addition, even better if it is adopted by the whole school!

Children like routine and when they come into class in the morning one of the first things my class do is look at the daily timetable. Knowing what is happening through the day makes children feel secure.

But why a visual timetable?

“The use of visual symbol supports in education settings aims to ‘prevent, remove or alleviate the effects of barriers within the learning environment.’” (Communication Matters, 2017)

Children who have literacy difficulties, those with English as an Additional Language and children with processing disorders or dyslexia may struggle to understand words as they are written, particularly if they are written in certain fonts or on certain colours of paper.

In addition to a classroom visual timetable, a personal visual timetable would benefit children with ADHD, ASC and anxiety conditions. The personal version would just be a smaller version of the one used by the class, and would be on the child’s desk. The personal timetable could also be differentiated to include groups that the child attends throughout the school day or special reward times that have been incorporated. Knowing what is happening can help children feel secure but can also help them to remember their routine- remember that internet browser metaphor from yesterday!

 

Classroom Seating

I don’t know about you, but when I go home and do school work, my University study or writing work, I very rarely sit at a table or desk. I’m most often found sitting on my couch with my laptop on my knee, lying in my bed reading text books or sometimes sprawled across the floor marking jotters, even though I have a dining room table I could sit at.

Last year I trialled ‘flexible seating’ in my classroom. I introduced this to the whole class to be inclusive and we discussed the different seating options that we had and our resources.

As there was a few large floor cushions and a good bit of floor space, I procured some clipboards from the school office and allowed the children to sprawl out on the floor if they found that comfortable. Initially a lot of the children in the class chose this as an option, but they slowly filtered back to their desks if they realised it didn’t help them.

I know that some people have special standing desks that are taller than the usual desks, I didn’t have any of them in my classroom, but I did suggest standing as an option and one girl did opt to stand during most of her work.

For specific children; I introduced a gym ball for a boy who was always very uneasy and fidgety in his chair. He has a visual processing disorder that made school work challenging and he often moved and fidgeted as he tried to concentrate. The gym ball allowed him to bounce up and down and he didn’t feel so uncomfortable in his seat.

I also bought a few yoga/wobble cushions for children who really found it difficult to sit still in their chairs- particularly one child who I suspected of having ADHD. I found the wobble cushion actually reduced her need to take movement breaks away from her table, as she would stop her work when concentrating was getting too much and have a wobble on her chair. She also chatted less as she had an alternative distraction.

Whilst everyone was keen to try every single option the first couple of days, a lot migrated back to their usual desks and those who didn’t were more comfortable.

It really encouraged the children to reflect on how they learned- which is always a good thing!

 

Tactile devices

Yes that’s right, I’m talking fidgets, but before you completely turn away at the thought of another year of fidget spinners- let’s talk about the concept of fidgeting.

A study by the Universities of Missouri and Texas-Arlington found that fidgeting was beneficial for people who had to sit for a long time as it kept blood flowing and improved heart health! (McQuillan, S, 2016)

Fidgets are said to be calming and can reduce anxiety, something I agree with as I often find myself manipulating a small lump of blu tak during events like Parent Consultations, which are long, require a lot of focus and can be quite stressful.

I have a box on each table in my class containing:

  • Some blu tak
  • Elastic bands
  • Fidget spinner
  • Fidget cube
  • A stretchy snake
  • A device that you can twist round your fingers
  • Twist and lock blocks
  • Some stress balls we were given by a charity
  • Some homemade stress balls

Any child in the class can use a fidget if they wish and if they think it really benefits them, but we have two rules surrounding the use of fidgets:

  1. They are not fidget TOYS they are fidget devices- calling them toys means we want to play with them and that is not their purpose.
  2. The fidget is for the hands, not they eyes and if you are looking at it then you are playing with it.

Just like flexible seating, initially the whole class wanted to use a fidget and then the novelty wore off, and those who didn’t need them didn’t use them. We don’t often give children enough credit for their maturity!

Fidgeting helps control restlessness are the children are generally respectful of the boundaries I have set. If I’m fidgeting with blu tak all day- id be a hypocrite to ban them from fidgeting too!

 

There are other physical changes that you can make to your space to make your classroom more inclusive and help children with ADHD or other conditions feel secure, but the most important change you can make is the language used within the classroom and I will be talking about that in a later post about ADHD and self-esteem.

You may also note I did not mention “behaviour charts.” I am dedicating a whole post to behaviour charts this weekend, so please come back and have a look at that!

 

Useful Information

Link to video of the Harry Potter Class- https://youtu.be/aUlzB04SJ2g

Resource website with Tolsby sized resources- https://twinkl.co.uk

Tolsby Frames- http://www.ikea.com/gb/en/products/decoration/frames-pictures/tolsby-frame-for-2-pictures-white-art-30151035/

ADHD Foundation Primary School Classroom strategies- https://www.adhdfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Primary-School-Classroom-Strategies.pdf

ADHD Foundation Secondary School Classroom strategies- https://www.adhdfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Secondary-School-Classroom-Strategies.pdf

ADDitude Teaching Strategies- https://www.additudemag.com/teaching-strategies-for-students-with-adhd/

 

Resources

American Montessori Society (2017) ‘Montessori Classrooms’ [online at] https://amshq.org/Montessori-Education/Introduction-to-Montessori/Montessori-Classrooms Accessed 23rd September 2017

 

Communication Matters (2017) ‘Visual Support Project: Structured implementation of visual symbol supports within mainstream schools’[online at] http://www.communicationmatters.org.uk/conference-session/2014-visual-support-project Accessed 23rd September 2017

 

McQuillan, S (2016) ‘Fidgeting Has Benefits’[online at] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cravings/201609/fidgeting-has-benefits Accessed 23rd September 2017

 

Reggio Children (2017) ‘Identity’ [online at] http://www.reggiochildren.it/identita/?lang=en Accessed 23rd September 2017

Advertisements