This diary chronicles my work with Shevington Vale Primary School in Wigan to transform their year 3 classroom into a therapeutic teaching space.
In my last diary entry (see further information), I set out the costs of this transformation (it has come it at around £2,500). However, I am aware that not everyone has the budget or the time to be able to completely transform a whole classroom.
So, in this diary entry, I will consider 10 things you can do to make smaller low-cost changes that will still have a big therapeutic impact.
Before you do anything, declutter! It can be really easy for classrooms to get cluttered, especially if storage is an issue. But how your space feels will impact how you and the children feel too. Start by taking down anything you don’t need. Do you really need all those posters? Ensure windowsills and sides are empty. Have a good tidy-up and organise your space. Invest in storage boxes to store books and resources away.
2, Pick a colour scheme
One of the things that makes classrooms so overwhelming is the vast mixture of colours. The standard classroom is usually really bright, and this can increase feelings of anxiety for some children and contribute to hyperactivity and lack of concentration.
One simple change is to decide on a colour scheme. Think about the room as if it was a living room. You might go for grey and white, or black and white, you might go natural with green and white.
If you don’t have a huge budget and you are stuck with purple chairs, then go with what you have got – back your boards in white paper with a purple trim and buy some purple storage boxes. This will help make the room feel more welcoming and organised and will make a big difference.
3, Use soft lighting
A simple but very effective way to help introduce a sense of calm to the room is to turn off the main lights. Schools usually have bright clinical lighting and many children have told me directly that they find this a problem. These lights can be harsh on their eyes and cause them to struggle when concentrating. They are also over-stimulating and can cause children to feel hypersensitive and unsettled.
I encourage all the schools I work with to turn off the main light and invest in living room lamps or fairy lights instead. These really calm down the space and help it to feel warm, inviting and safe. The classroom should feel cosy and comfortable which will help the children get ready to learn.
In my experience working with schools, lighting and calm music have the biggest impact by far! You can use table-top lamps, tall floor lamps, and fairy lights.
4, Remove backboards
Yes! Remove them! All of them! I know this challenges the norm but, honestly, it makes such a difference. Our therapeutic classroom has no backboards at all.
Backboards have been around for years, and they are used to display children’s work and prompts for learning. However, they can cause more barriers to learning than you might think.
Many children who have insecure attachment will struggle with low self-confidence and a lack of self-belief. When you display work on the board, you silently send a message that you value the work that has been chosen above the other work produced.
You might have chosen different work that reflects different abilities and had no intention of only choosing the best work, but the children will have their own internal dialogue.
Of course, it is important to celebrate work, but you can do that in their books or with your words and your comments throughout the day. It does not need to be presented on a board.
And the practical truth is that most children cannot see the backboards well from where they are sat and so they lose their value as prompts for learning too.
5, Add blankets and cushions
Some children coming into school are already dysregulated and working from a place of survival. They need help to calm down their brains and get ready for learning and this means our environment should give them every opportunity to self-regulate and manage their emotions. Standard classrooms do not allow for this and that is a huge oversight.
Throughout the day children will feel restless, unsure, stressed or unsettled for a variety of reasons. They might have just come in from a difficult break time or maybe they are hungry and worried about what is for dinner. They might know PE is coming up and be apprehensive about it. These feelings can trigger bigger behaviour incidents if left unchecked.
Including pillows and blankets in your room allows the children to find objects to help them calm down. Have blankets draped on chairs, large floor cushions and small chair cushions and make it an acceptable norm for pupils to get them when they need to.
You might find some children work with a blanket wrapped round them, others might hug a cushion on their knee. This will allow them to self-soothe and calm their stress hormones independently. It will also give them tools for life and the self-awareness to manage their emotional state.
One school I visited allow their children to sit on fake sheepskin rugs to help them settle and feel more comfortable learning. If you decide to do this, please make sure the resources are good-quality, clean – and match the colour scheme!
6, Revamp your library area
Library areas can be incredibly powerful. They can be the perfect place to encourage reading but also to help children self-regulate, calm down and be still. So revamp your library or book areas by removing old soft furnishings and investing in new things using the same principles discussed above. In our therapeutic classroom this year we used large bookshelves – the kind you would find in a home rather than a classroom. We bought fresh matching blankets and cushions and invested in a new sofa and some wingback chairs – this cost us about £500 and the children absolutely love it (see photo, below)! A library or reading space like this will have a huge impact on the children’s emotional and mental health.
7, Swap out some seating
The plastic chairs need to go! Have you ever had a staff meeting in a primary school classroom? If so, you will know that 10 minutes into the meeting, people are complaining about the chairs. And when I talk to children, they tell us that the seats are uncomfortable and hard too. Why in the world do we ask children to sit on hard plastic chairs for six hours a day and expect them to concentrate. I know you might not have the budget to swap out all of your chairs, but why not try some flexible seating. Invest in some soft, plush dining room chairs, bar stools and tall tables, or wing back chairs instead – you might decide to make a soft seating zone. But get thinking about alternatives to at least give pupils a break from the hard plastic, uncomfortable classroom chairs.
8, Replace one or two tables
Linked to the last point, you will struggle to find chairs that fit under the standard classroom table so why not replace two of your classroom tables. You could get a large dining room table, like we did in our therapeutic classroom, and put plush chairs around it. Or you could introduce a few bar tables and stools around the room. This could cost as little as £175.
9, Add plants
Plants are a great, inexpensive way to help the room feel more like a home. They calm the space down and encourage positive mental health. Try buying some plants and placing them around the room, they will complement the space (especially if you adopt a colour scheme). Remember, these can be fake plants if upkeep is problematic.
10, Create a photo wall
The photo wall includes images of the pupils in your class and is one of my favourite features of the therapeutic classroom. This was very well received by the year 3 children at Shevington Vale and was something they all commented on as their favourite part of the room.
The classroom is a place that belongs to the children, it is their space. They should feel a sense of belonging and togetherness, almost like a little family. There is nothing like sharing your day-to-day life with 29 other children every day! This special time in our lives should be celebrated and children should feel loved in the space. Creating a photograph wall helps encourage those feelings of belonging. At home we display photos of our family and loved ones, celebrating key milestones for all to see. The classroom should be no different. Remove a backboard and create a photo wall. You can get 30 frames for as little as £1 each and ask parents to send in photos of their children from home.
Print out the photos and frame them, then line them side by side on the wall to create a beautiful montage of pictures which reflect each unique child in your class.
My top tip would be to crop the photos, removing any wasted space or background and then make them black and white. This creates a stunning centrepiece for the room and is so much more valuable to the children that a backboard full of old work!
This article was originally written for Head Teachers Update
6 June 2022
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