Trauma-Informed Design in the Classroom - ASCD
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October 1, 2020

Trauma-Informed Design in the Classroom

A few tweaks to the spaces in your school can promote calm, safety, and security for your most vulnerable students.

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Space is an aquarium that mirrors the ideas and values of the people who live in it.—Loris Malaguzzi

Italian teacher and psychologist Loris Malaguzzi believed that children develop through three interactions, which he called "teachers." The first teacher is the adults in their lives, including their parents and educators. The second teacher is the group of peers in their learning environment. And the third teacher is the physical environment itself (Malaguzzi, 1984).

At our school, Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, we've recently focused on the idea of that third teacher and how it can affect our students who are living with trauma. We've been working over the last decade to be a proactive trauma-sensitive school predicated on three assumptions: That at any given moment there are students in the school who are currently experiencing trauma; that in some cases a student's trauma may remain hidden and never be known; and finally, that the traumatic experiences of children and youth can have a spillover effect that can negatively impact peers and the classroom climate.

Among the efforts we have invested in over the last decade is ongoing professional learning for all staff on responses to trauma; restorative practices as a way to support students, families, and staff; and strengthening ties to community agencies and a large healthcare system in the region. We continue to be motivated by an adolescent who said to us years ago, quoting from Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy, "My life is more than the worst thing that has happened to me."

The notion of Malaguzzi's "third teacher" got us to examine the physical environment of our school through a different lens. We sought to redesign school and classroom spaces to become more trauma-sensitive and foster the potential of the "third teacher." With a committee of students in the fall of 2017, we walked the spaces of our school, took pictures, and discussed where we might improve. We made recommendations to our administration, who then worked with teachers to implement those changes. While the pandemic has currently changed the way our students physically meet in our school, we believe the insights we gained from this process will help provide calm and ease both during this current health crisis and in the future.

Designing for Dignity

To begin this work of making our school spaces more trauma-sensitive, we examined the research of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as well as Designs for Dignity, a design firm that helps nonprofits that work with vulnerable populations create physical spaces that are restorative. We also learned about the needs of people who have been traumatized and how the physical environment can intensify negative experiences. In sum, our exploration was shaped by the principles of trauma-informed design outlined by the Committee on Temporary Shelter (2018):

  • Realize how the physical environment affects an individual's sense of identity, worth, dignity, and empowerment.

  • Recognize that the physical environment has an impact on attitude, mood, and behavior, and that there is a strong link between our physiological state, our emotional state, and the physical environment.

  • Respond by designing and maintaining supportive and healing environments for residents who've known or who face trauma.

Trauma-Informed Design Tips

Purpose

Hack

Improvement movementRetrofit wheels on old tables
Reduce noiseAdd tennis balls to chair legs
Improve lightingAdd a dimmer switch and small lamps to warm up the environment
Improve visual interestAdd positive messages and reduce clutter by organizing materials
Bring nature into the classroomAdd a plant, a water feature, pictures of beautiful vistas, and images of nature (e.g., animals, weather, flowers)
Develop a sheltered placeUse an upholstered chair or bean bag chair and fill the space with objects for students to hold, such as a pillow or other soft object.

Many people who have experienced trauma, especially those who have suffered from or witnessed physical violence, become hypervigilant. They monitor the environment for perceived threats so that they can react to protect themselves. Many traumatized children have learned that trusting others is dangerous and that the only way to protect themselves is to remain on high alert. Hypervigilance is physically and emotionally demanding, as the heightened anxiety of the situation leaves people exhausted.

Sensory triggers in the environment can include bright color values and harsh or flickering lights. Loud noises, especially those that are unexpected, can also trigger negative reactions. We witnessed this for ourselves one day in class when we plugged a sound cable into the laptop. Most of us are familiar with this sound—it's a loud, unpleasant electronic noise that usually provokes a startled response and an audible gasp. But one of our students who was present flattened herself against a wall. The stricken look on her face was terrible to see, as was the embarrassment she felt when her classmates laughed. We apologized and comforted her, but the guilt at knowing we had unwittingly caused her fear lingered with us.

We also learned about the importance of physical shelter as a means for creating a sense of safety. The opportunity to retreat to, or to proactively select a "den" that offers a sense of protection, can be useful for students who have experienced trauma. These students aren't necessarily seeking a full retreat, but rather a safe place to observe from while still participating in the flow of the day. We were reminded of the habit of puppies to "den" when there is a lot of human activity in a room. They don't want to leave; instead they duck under a coffee table so they can observe while feeling safe.

Using these and other principles outlined by Designs for Dignity, we took a close look at our classroom spaces and began a trauma-informed renovation that complements and enhances our trauma-sensitive schoolwide focus. Here are some of the areas we focused on.

Spatial layout. The classrooms in our building are of several different configurations. All the rooms have windows, but some have more than others. Most classrooms have two doors, but a few have only one door. Students on our redesign committee sat in different chairs in each room to get a sense of what the sightlines were.

Traditionally, we had only considered these from the standpoint of being able to see the whiteboards and projected visuals. But now we gave consideration to other aspects, such as being able to see the door. Hypervigilant students spend more time monitoring windows and especially doorways. They have a strong need to see who is coming and going. One of the first recommendations our student committee gave was to ensure that the chairs were positioned so that students would not have their backs to the door.

Color. For many years, teachers at our school have been given broad license to paint their classroom walls any color. As a school, we have long believed that a classroom should reflect the teacher's personality. But our review of several books about the power of color revealed some information we hadn't known. White, grey, and beige convey an institutional sense and should be avoided. Deeply saturated colors, especially warm colors such as red, yellow, or orange, can foster anxiety and arouse tension. Light shades of blue, purple, and green, on the other hand, cast an impression of spaciousness.

Our visual survey of classes revealed a range of color choices, some less supportive than we thought. Two classrooms in particular stuck out. One had lots of neon colors on the bulletin board trim, on labeled classroom materials, and even in the messages around the room. In another classroom, a teacher had painted adjoining walls with deep, jewel-toned color values. The intense colors in these two rooms stood out. One student on the committee said, "I could feel my heart pounding" when she stepped inside these rooms.

These were in sharp contrast to another classroom painted a light blue, where the same student said, "I feel like the sky in here. It's way different than that last classroom." We added the use of more muted colors to our list of recommendations.

Furniture. The school had been slowly replacing classroom furniture with tables and chairs that made collaborative learning easier. Every classroom in the school had furniture that lent itself to flexible seating, some more than others. Students on the committee liked the rooms that had tables and chairs with wheels on them to make movement feasible. In a few cases, we made note of how a piece of furniture might be moved to further improve movement and sightlines. As tables and chairs age out now, we replace them with wheeled ones. We hope to have all the furniture in the school replaced within the next five years.

Noise. Not only are sudden noises stressful, but so is steady noise. Some classrooms were noisier than others due to architectural features. The classrooms on the second and third floors were carpeted, but those on the first floor were not. We listened to a variety of sound-producing items such as a large bell, a children's xylophone, and a cell phone in empty classrooms. The jarring sounds were obvious in the classrooms without carpeting.

Our recommendation list grew, and during the summer of 2018, the first-floor classrooms were refurbished with carpet tiles to absorb sounds. The use of carpet tiles has been practical, too, as they can easily be swapped out if an area becomes damaged or stained. For schools that do not allow carpeted floors, we have seen many teachers have great success using area rugs in high-traffic areas to absorb some of the sound and improve acoustics.

Light. The lights in our building were the typical fluorescent light bulbs used in so many public places. Nearly every classroom had at least one flickering light. To make matters worse, the combination of fluorescent light and the intense room color in some rooms did not inspire calm.

Thankfully, a new state initiative required the lights to be replaced with more environmentally friendly LED lights that consume less power. As these were exchanged, the flickering stopped, and the light the bulbs cast was of a warmer value. The downside was that the light in classrooms was brighter than ever. We made a note of this and advised teachers to take advantage of the multi-switch panel available in every room to use fewer banks of lights when possible.

Visual interest. The walls of most of our classrooms featured a mixture of displays of student work and content-specific information, such as posters featuring annotation processes in English and the periodic table in chemistry. In some cases, however, the amount of visual clutter was problematic. One classroom had many objects hanging from the ceiling. Overhead dangling objects can spark the same kind of hypervigilance against perceived threat that is common to people who have experienced trauma. In other cases, the visual clutter was due to disorganized or haphazard management of classroom materials. In a few cases, we had private conversations with teachers who needed to improve their organization or clean their room. In each case, we paid student workers to assist teachers in doing so.

Many of the teachers displayed inspirational messages, such as a reminder to breathe when anxious, and others related to a growth mindset and grit. The student committee recommended that similar positive messages be featured outside the classroom in hallways and non-classroom spaces such as the cafeteria and front lobby. A professional artist worked with students during the summer months to create a variety of murals around the school, which also helps us stay connected with students outside the academic year.

Nature. Humans, many researchers believe, have an innate tendency to connect with nature. This is called the biophilia hypothesis, and it means we have a "love of living systems." Biophilic design is the practice of bringing elements of nature into spaces in order to improve the health and well-being of occupants in a space. Studies of the use of direct natural elements, such as using plants and water in a room, as well as indirect natural elements, such as vista views, have shown a positive effect on well-being and even physical healing (Ryan et al., 2014). Some of our classrooms had these elements already in place, but not all did. We made a recommendation to add plants to classrooms and brought them in at no expense to teachers. Several other teachers added their own personal touches, such as small water features and aromatherapy diffusers.

Alternative spaces. High school classrooms don't often feature the same kind of retreat spaces that elementary classrooms do, such as a reading corner or a loft. One of the students on the committee talked about what she loved about her favorite local coffee shop. She said that in addition to tables and chairs, the coffee shop had a few upholstered chairs and sofas around the perimeter. One of our history classrooms had a similar layout that the teacher said was a popular retreat for students to spend time in. The teacher had brought in a small sofa and decorated it with pillows and a small area rug. We took pictures of his classroom to share with others and helped interested teachers move small furniture items like this into their classroom. Another teacher didn't have room to do so and instead hung beaded curtains on two sides of a corner. She then put one of her classroom tables and chairs in the area to create a more sheltered option.

Hack Your Space

Classroom spaces should be physically and emotionally safe so that students can learn at optimal levels. While we do so much in terms of human supports and human interventions to meet the needs of students who have experienced trauma, an underutilized tool is the environment—the third teacher. But, at this time, not all students are learning in a school building. We should consider the ways in which the third teacher impacts distance or hybrid learning as well.

Many of the suggestions in this article can be accomplished with a few tweaks to your classroom design. Others may require more systemic efforts, such as changing lighting and carpeting floors. However, the effort is worth it: Our students tell us they feel calmer and safe. By paying attention to the signals the physical environment sends, we can provide students with ways to ground themselves in classroom spaces that do not inadvertently trigger negative emotional responses. And consider this final thought—you're in this space, too. How might an improved physical environment contribute to your well-being?

References

Committee on Temporary Shelter (April 27, 2018). Trauma-informed design. Retrieved from https://cotsonline.org/2018/04/27/trauma-informed-design/

Malaguzzi, L. (1984). When the eye jumps over the wall: Narratives of the possible. Regione Emilia Romagna, Comune di Reggio Emilia.

Ryan, C. O., Browning, W. D., Clancy, J. O., Andrews, S. L., & Kallianpurkar, N. B. (2014). Biophilic design parameters: Emerging nature-based parameters for health and well-being in the built environment. International Journal of Architectural Research: ArchNet-IJAR, 8(2), 62–76.



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