I get to visit a lot of classrooms when I coach teachers who have taken the Phonics First training. There have been 2 classrooms recently that took my breath away (in a good way). In both classrooms, I walked in and found myself taking a deep breath to relax because the room was so comforting, soft and homey. These were rooms in different schools, in different states and for different grades, but the feeling was similar. Both rooms had some lighting in addition to the overhead lights, like floor lamps or a string of white lights, which allowed for half the overhead lights to be turned off. Both rooms also had touches of home, like curtains and plants. There were places to sit aside from the desks, a few pillows, a couch, a fuzzy sling type chair. One of the rooms even had essential oils in a warmer that filled the room with calming lavender and peppermint.
These rooms felt like somewhere I would want to come and spend the day learning. The colors were calm and soft; I felt warm and welcome. These were places I would be focused and at ease. These rooms were a release from the overwhelming colors, bright lights and harsh lines that are typical of so many classrooms.
When we want to really focus on something or when we want to take a moment to relax, we seek out places like our quiet bedroom or cozy office that brings us a sense of comfort and peace, like the two classrooms I described.
Why then, do many of us feel compelled to overdecorate our classrooms with colors, wall hangings and “stuff” in the hopes of making our students welcomed and ready to do their best? Too many decorations can have the opposite effect, becoming distracting and overwhelming. Even in kindergarten classrooms, research shows that a more subdued classroom benefits students’ learning.
The findings of a recent study done at Carnegie Melon supports that too many decorations can be distracting: “children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.” In the study, researchers tracked students’ distractions in two different classroom environments: one with bare walls and one decorated. Students in the decorated were not only distracted more often, they were more likely to be distracted by something on the walls. Students in the bare classroom were still distracted at times, but they tended to be distracted by other students or themselves.
The idea isn’t to remove all decorations from our classrooms. Rather, we should think more carefully about the decorations we choose to put up. Educational stores and companies constantly bombard us with “cute” or even “educational” posters, stickers, wall hangings, name tags, bulletin boards, etc. But do most of these kinds of decorations benefit our students?
Here is some advice from the article Do Classroom Decorations Disrupt Kindergarteners’ Learning:
“When I walk into a classroom, often they are almost wallpapered with materials from head to toe. And for an adult, let alone a child, it can make you dizzy and lose focus,” McNamee [director of teacher education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago] said…
She advises new teachers to be wary of “the shopping mall effect” in decorating their rooms. “When you go to a shopping mall, after about an hour and a half, it’s just too many people, too much visual stimulation, noise,” she said. “It can wear a person down.”
At Whittier Elementary, a school surrounded by several foreclosed homes that has seen its enrollment plunge amid a housing crisis, Lori Baker faces a particularly delicate balancing act to make her kindergarten classroom look inviting while keeping kids on task. She believes in waiting to post material until she covers it in class.
“My personal approach is you don’t put anything up if the children have not made some sort of prior connection to it,” she said.
At Erie Elementary Charter School in Chicago, kindergarten teacher Gloria Taylor hangs few wall decorations, but she uses tall lamps, strings of leaf-shaped green lights, lime-colored window sheers and several large mirrors to brighten her classroom.
“All the promotional stuff is more for the teachers and parents than it is for the kids,” she said. “What’s on the wall should only be useful and helpful to kids.”
Baker, the kindergarten teacher in Harvey, recalled buying two big bags of decorations out of excitement before she began her first year teaching. Her purchases included a set of bumblebees, each listing a rule such as “Be polite” and “Be nice.” Baker proudly posted the bees on the wall, but at the end of the year, she realized she had never referred to them. Her thinking on decorations has since evolved.
“Don’t buy stuff for your walls unless it’s something that you are going to use in that classroom,” she said. “Otherwise it’s just taking up space.”
How do you like to decorate your classroom?
What decorations do you feel are helpful to students? Which are distracting?
What things do you do/have to help students feel focused?
What ways do you try and make your classroom an environment suited for learning?