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Therapeutic classrooms: Giving pupils space to think

With high numbers of SEN and trauma-affected children, a project to transform two year 6 classrooms at one school has had a big impact. Shahana Knight explains

 

Last year, Jill Wright and Marie Beale from Whitefield Primary School in Liverpool contacted me about their year 6 classrooms. They had heard about my work and they wanted to know more about what therapeutic classrooms were.

Whitefield Primary School in Liverpool has 311 pupils on roll with high numbers of SEN and ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) present across the school.

Jill, the headteacher, and Marie, deputy headteacher and inclusion manager, were in the process of splitting their year 6 class of 40 children into two classes of 20.

At Whitefield, the main playground is at the front of the building, and you walk down a little path to get to reception. It was on this walk that I realised I was in a very special school indeed.

I saw year 5 and 6 children playing on bikes, pulling each other along on go-carts, playing in a huge sand pit, shooting basketball hoops with teachers, and playing on a play park. I knew then that this school had children’s wellbeing and mental health at its core.

Both Jill and Marie ooze enthusiasm for their school and work together like a well-oiled machine, even finishing each other’s sentences while telling me about their work!

They were passionate and knowledgeable about trauma-informed practice and explained that the therapeutic classroom approach fits their ethos perfectly.

The school has worked hard to embed trauma-informed practice, and this was clear in their approaches, strategies to support behaviour, and their relationships with the children.

Unfortunately, their classroom set-up did not echo their approach. This was no fault of theirs. They had done everything they could to make the environments less overwhelming for the children.

There were no hanging washing lines of work, bright colours or overwhelming display boards and I could see evidence of trauma-informed practice, such as safe pods in the rooms and soft rugs on chairs. But you couldn’t ignore how unpractical the spaces were.

The biggest issue was that the rooms were very small. The design of the space meant that there was very little room for children to move around. This was made worse by the standard rectangular classroom tables and plastic chairs.

Jill explained her frustrations about the rooms and reflected on the challenges. The children in years 5 and 6 were growing and the small plastic chairs and lack of space meant they were struggling for personal space, cramped in together.

Due to the high numbers of children struggling with ACEs, trauma, and special needs, many were finding it hard to be in the space and Jill said they were sometimes struggling to meet their needs given the constraints of the room design.

Furthermore, a pupil at the school had recently been in an accident and was in a wheelchair. However, they could only wheel into the room and access the closest desk, unable to use the rest of the space. The room was not inclusive at all.

So, I had a mission – to create two, inclusive, trauma-informed rooms that allowed for space and fluidity. Rooms that echoed and complemented the amazing trauma-informed work the school was already undertaking.

As Jill told me: “We were keen to do something experimental in order to develop our approach to attachment and trauma-sensitive practice.”

Before and after

Transformation: The old classroom and the revamped space (images supplied)

Changing rooms

The installation of the new classroom took place during summer 2022 and what a huge transformation it was. They had gone from cramped, uninspiring spaces to light, roomy comfortable spaces.

These rooms are now being used by 20 children instead of 40, so there is more than enough space in each.

It was important for Jill and Marie to have an open entrance between both classrooms because they wanted a shared relaxing/calm area to be accessible for all the children.
I focused on ensuring there were calm, break-out areas across the space. I introduced a shared, calm area – somewhere the children could go to self-regulate, have some time-out, one-to-one time or simply work in a comfortable space if things get a bit overwhelming.

I included lots of plants, soft lighting, and soft furnishings to ensure this area felt safe and helps to calm the children down.

It is important for me that all of my therapeutic classrooms have a calm area. It gives children the permission to self-regulate within their classroom without judgement or rejection and gives them the tools to manage their own emotional states.

I included two further break-out spaces across the two rooms, with comfortable armchairs and pillows so that there are plenty of spaces for children to go if they need to.

Offering flexible learning spaces like this means children can decide where they can best learn depending on how they feel – thus they can become more independent learners.

The rooms felt huge once we had transformed them and the furniture we used helped with that. Regular readers will know that I love large dining tables in my designs, to help the children work collaboratively and encourage social skills. A wooden dining table will last for ages and helps the room feel more like home.

I also love different types of seating, and at Whitefield I included high bar tables and round tables with different styles of seating, allowing children to work where they feel most comfortable lesson-to-lesson.

Inclusive: The new space includes break-out spots across the two rooms, with armchairs and pillows offering places for children to go if they need to calm down (images supplied)

Response from the school

When school started in September, I went back to reveal the space to the children. Their reactions were priceless and as usual made me cry! There is nothing like seeing the faces of the children as they walk into their new space with complete amazement that this could ever be the reality of a classroom.

We spent a long time talking to the children about their space and they described how the rooms made them feel calm, happy, and safe.
Jill said: “The rooms are very calm and ordered spaces. This has had a significant impact on the children and staff who work in them. The children feel calm and secure. For children who have complex trauma backgrounds and children who are anxious the space feels safe and somewhere where they will be supported and allowed to make mistakes. The space tells them that the staff and the school care about them.

“However, the classroom does not only support children with attachment and trauma needs. All our children feel that learning in this space is easier because they feel calm and have space to think.

“The rooms have had a positive impact on staff wellbeing and now all our meetings are held there because they are the best places in the school to work and think creatively.”
My therapeutic classroom approach is not about creating nice looking classrooms. Ultimately, it is about ensuring every child feels emotionally safe at school and that our rooms cultivate the right environment to meet their emotional and mental health needs which in turn will provide the right conditions for them to learn.

As Marie added: “Children who have experienced traumatic events are hyper vigilant and can be quickly dysregulated. I think the environment being calm, ordered and ‘soft’ really supports those children. In addition, we have many neurodiverse children, and they are well supported too as flexible setting and neutral tones support sensory processing issues and aid attention.”

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