Creating a great classroom environment

By Rob Butler posted 22-08-2022 12:58


We know that classrooms are busy places with lots of different things happening, but have you considered the needs of your individual learners? We know that lots of students can suffer from sensory overload, for examples autistic learners or those with sensory difficulties. These sensory inputs can affect all the senses, and it is worth considering the impact of the classroom environment on these learners. 

Visual overload

As a teacher you might want to display lots of information for learners. Connectives and key words start off on display boards, they spread into gaps on the wall and around whiteboards and may continue onto washing lines strung across the classroom. I’ve even seen writing on windows using chalk pens. Combined with this we are often short on space to store resources, reference books and evidence of past work (well it is evidence of progress) which leads to stacks of plastic boxes and resources on shelves and in convenient alcoves. Does this describe your classroom?

If you have learners who display signs of sensory overload…

Consider which materials on display are essential and which are not. Think of the colours you use – can you use more muted tones rather than a display that leaps off the wall and assails learners while they are trying to concentrate?

You might want to cut down some of this ‘visual clutter’ for example taking down resources from washing lines when they are no longer being used. If your resources are kept in plastic boxes, there may be somewhere else in the school to keep them, many schools have resorted to sheds outside for these overflowing materials. As somebody who hates clutter, my science lab always passed our sensory audits (common in a special school environment) because of the bare surfaces and tidy, well organised equipment in trays ready to be used.

Other types of overload

Auditory – there are often lots of noises produced in a school environment that most learners simply don’t register. The chatter from a neighbouring classroom, the buzz of a heater fan blowing out warm air, the frequent tapping of footsteps in a corridor near reception. Although some of these may be harder to eliminate with carpets and curtains, you can ask students with sensory difficulties where they would prefer to sit in the classroom.

Olfactory – science labs (and many other areas of the school) often have their own smell. These can change over the course of a lesson, for example the smell of ingredients when weighing out through to the yeasty smell of proving bread onto the final cooking smells (and maybe even some burning if you are unlucky) It can be hard to stop rooms smelling of particular smells (secondary DT rooms often smell of sawdust) but you can make sure these rooms are well ventilated to keep odours to a minimum.

Sometimes it isn’t the sensory stimulation that’s the problem but when they arrive unexpectedly, for example a bang or a smell in science lessons. Warning learners that a sound or smell is coming will prepare these learners.

Have you experienced any of these issues with your learners and what did you do to address this?

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23-09-2023 19:42

My son told me recently that if the header on a power point slide was not in exactly the same place on each slide and the same font that would be all he could focus on as it jumped around every time the teacher moved the presentation on. 

I have just made sure my slide deck is uniform and got him to check it. I passed phewww.

25-08-2022 14:47

I spotted a great thread from an autism specialist lead on Twitter today - first lessons with your class.  It links nicely to the hints and tips here.  You can see this Twitter thread and the unrolled thread from threadreader app here

23-08-2022 23:31

Oh my yes!

I was asked to do a display in my room by a line manager. I wish senior leadership at poorer schools would learn this.

There's no point in my wearing simple colours and no perfume if I'm to share the room with someone that still thinks she teaches primary.

23-08-2022 08:18

Visual clutter is incredibly confusing for many kids. But also adults - I used to have staff come to my class to relax because I used calming display paper colours - pale sky blues, greens and yellows - and made sure my displays were clear and simple. I even used to make sure the colour of the drawing pin matched the colour of the corner of the poster. Every little helps!