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Diary 9: The chronicles of a therapeutic classroom: What a year it’s been

therapeutic classroom: Andy houghton

This year, Shahana Knight has transformed a real-life year 3 classroom into a fully therapeutic environment. As the end of term approaches, she reflects on the project and the lessons learned

I can’t quite believe that this is our last diary entry. It has been a privilege to write for Headteacher Update about our project with Shevington Vale Primary School in Wigan and take you on this journey with us.

As I have mentioned in previous entries, this really is a significant moment in my career and the feedback and responses we have had have blown me away.

I now have a further 10 schools and counting signed up to reinvent their classrooms next year and I will be sharing their stories in future articles.

In the meantime, I want to share some final thoughts and lessons from our first ever reinventing classrooms project.

Before and after: Shevington Vale Primary School’s year 3 classroom before and after the October 2021 transformation

Prepare the children

When we first set out to do this, I was confident that the actual physical classroom would meet our objectives, but I wasn’t sure about how the children would settle into the space.

As such, we made sure that we prepared the children for the changes, and for me this was an important aspect of the process.

One of the reasons for reinventing classrooms is to make sure that the environment is trauma-informed and attachment aware. That means that the room doesn’t trigger children into survival responses, to feel unsafe or perpetuate negative coping mechanisms. It means stress levels are considered and the room is calming, aimed at helping to bring down those stress hormones.

However, it is also important to help pupils to transition to the new space as many children who have experienced trauma or insecure attachment struggle with change.

So, it is important to ensure that children are given notice of the changes before they happen and are prepared for the transformation. Likewise, it is important that you pay attention to their reactions upon seeing the space and you help them self-regulate and manage their internal state as they get used to the setting.

Similarly, children who struggle with insecure attachment can often find “nice” things hard to manage. They have an internal belief that they are not worthy of good things. As a result, when they do have the opportunity to experience something nice, they can sabotage.

This is something to take into consideration with a therapeutic classroom “reveal” – some children may struggle to accept that it is really for them. So, ensure that you are ready to respond to their behaviour therapeutically to help them settle into the space.

Think about furniture wisely

Choosing the right furniture is key. It is important to consider the children in every aspect of the design.

For example, one big talking points has been the bar stools! They are amazing and the children love them, but they must have high backs and arm rests so that pupils feel secure and to avoid the potential for falls. The chairs must also have enough padding to support the children. Similarly, it is important to think about how the children will get on the chairs and ensure they can do this safely.

When we designed Shevington Vale’s room, we saved money by ordering furniture off Facebook marketplace. You can get some fantastic wooden furniture for reasonable prices.

Looking after the space

One of the most important things about this room is keeping it clean and ensuring that the high standards are maintained long-term.

That means a little bit more TLC than your average classroom. All of the chairs are upholstered and will get marks on them over time – they need to be cleaned with a warm, damp cloth to get rid of any marks. This isn’t too much effort though.

The same is true of the blanket and cushions. It is important that these are washed and cleaned regularly. There is nothing worse than old blankets and worn cushions! If you let the soft furnishings get worn and old, the children may not respect the space so much. Remember, we treat therapeutic classrooms like our own homes and when you have worn cushions – you repair or replace them!

A word from Laura Hart, year 3 teacher

Throughout this journey we have made some changes to the classroom from lessons we have learnt and had not thought about at the beginning of the transformation.

We have moved some furniture around. We swapped the coffee table and chairs (which were in the middle of the room) with the circle table and chairs (near the Spa Garden) so that the children could see the interactive whiteboard from their table. We have considered getting a working wall for our end-of-term essay questions, too.

I recently worked (as cover) in another classroom and I noticed at the end of the day that my back was hurting due to the tables being low and having to sit or crouch all the time. This has not happened in the year 3 classroom!

A word from Gill Handley, year 3 teacher and assistant head

When I started my teaching career, I never thought I’d be teaching in a classroom that looked like this. After 12 years of teaching, I, like most teachers, had my reservations – but I can honestly say the whole process has been amazing.

Every morning, I walk into a home from home environment that I feel privileged to work in. The children are calm, comfortable and motivated to learn. The lighting and music set the tone every day. Children’s wellbeing and personal circumstances are definitely being catered for in this nurturing environment.

After a successful year, we are now preparing for a second classroom to be transformed and considering what has been most beneficial from this experience. For me, the top three things for your therapeutic space should be:

  • A class photo wall
  • Dimmed lighting
  • A variety of comfortable seating at different heights.

After reflection, next year we will be introducing some handwriting places to ensure smaller children are sat correctly for writing tasks, a few displays to showcase our topic, and table resource pots.

Overall, it’s been a great experience and I’m confident it has improved the school experience for our current class and hopefully many more to come.

What a year it’s been: The year 3 pupils of Shevington Vale Primary School with (from left) headteacher Andy Houghton, year 3 teacher and assistant head Gill Handley, Shahana Knight, year 3 teacher Laura Hart

My final thoughts

I would like to thank Gill and Laura for their unstinting support and hard work this year. I have been reflecting on the story of Shevington Vale and I can only commend the team there and headteacher Andy Houghton for being such a brave leader and giving this a go.

It takes a real innovative, forward-thinking headteacher to agree to allow someone to take over their year 3 classroom, completely challenge the status quo, and agree to stick with the approach for a year. It takes an even braver person to allow it to be documented on film and in a national magazine!

When Andy signed up for this, there was no example classroom for him to look at, or data he could refer to that would help convince him of its impact. He just had me and my ideas!

No matter how many makeovers I do after this, Shevington Vale will always be the first and that is very special indeed. Those children will have been a part of history and Andy and the team will have paved the way for a new standard in educational environments.

I hope I look back at these diary entries one day when therapeutic classrooms are the norm, and I can say: “This is where it all started!”


This article was originally written for Head Teachers Update Magazine

5 July 2022

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