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Antony Morris is all for reducing visual clutter in the classroom. (Listen to this article being read by Antony)

Do colourful displays and wordy noticeboards adorn the corridors of your school? Have you ever questioned their presence? Do they impact your day? There is a strong possibility they affect countless pupils on the autistic spectrum.

“Tokenistic
sensory clutter”

Looking at displays with fresh eyes

As a Teaching Assistant (TA) working one-to-one with numerous autistic individuals, there have been many times when I have cursed what is, for the most part, tokenistic sensory clutter. While displays have been a mainstay in schools for decades, our much-improved knowledge of the range of sensory processing impairments – that affect a significant number of pupils with special educational needs – should prompt a discussion on how we decorate our schools.

Displays can be loosely split into two categories: informative and decorative.

Informative displays

This form of display highlights information that is often required by law: Building regulations and standards on doors, walls and equipment, signposts to different areas or members of staff and health and safety protocols e.g. emergency evacuations.

Additionally, informative displays may include: school notice boards, rules, slogans and awards that the school has achieved.

Much of the legal stuff will be required to be on show and in a particular colour and format. Where possible, it is perhaps best to designate a specific area for these.

Classrooms often include much of this information with additional displays about pupils’ needs and/or educational targets. These often come with information relating to how schools track and record progress.

In an age of online updates and instant access to records, it is fair to say that news notice boards and awards – in areas that students access – are perhaps obsolete. While these could go elsewhere, it is hard to argue against classrooms displaying their pupil’s needs, particularly if they are medical. For items that are not regulatory, but otherwise necessary, thought should be given to their location, colour and formatting. Could they be placed together with minimum writing and softer colours?

Regarding targets being displayed in some classrooms, this is a somewhat tokenistic gesture for visitors. A simple folder containing information on targets and attainment would suffice for such occasions. Support staff, on the other hand, know their pupils, and if they do not then they also have access to that same folder.

Of course, every single school will be different in their use of signage, but with legal requirements alone our walls are already filling up with sensory clutter. Hopefully, this section may prompt a rethink on how we present the information that is necessary to display. Gone should be the days that we plant the same bit of information on every wall.

Decorative displays

Schools often cover large swaths of their corridors and classrooms with pupils’ work. As heartless as it may sound, these displays offer a pleasant viewing for some, but are a sensory bombardment for many others.

There are three strong cases for displays:

The first is decorative: they ‘brighten’ the place up and showcase schoolwork to visitors. In my experience people often cite the colourful environment of a school as a positive aspect of their visit. Similarly, I have heard negativity expressed about schools that have blank walls and employ a low stimulation approach throughout.

Secondly, it is an opportunity to showcase examples of good work to parents and inspire others. It may be argued that, upon seeing their own work, these displays may contribute positively to a pupils self-esteem. This may be the case, but to what degree? Can work be shown in a less intrusive and more concise way? Could the work be put in a specific room or folder?

The final reason for decorating the walls with pupil’s work, is because Ofsted inspectors may consider these displays as evidence of spiritual, moral, social and cultural learning (Toyer, 2013). Again, a specific room or folder with adequate evidence should suffice for inspectors who are often well informed about the benefits of a low stimulation approach.

Weighing up the potential cost and rewards of unnecessary sensory clutter, I believe it is perhaps time we re-evaluate their impact.

Teachers and support staff who have worked with autistic individuals in any school setting will be aware of the potential for something in the environment to impair student’s progress. This may be a range of stimuli that affects their ability to freely transition from one area to another, or, it may be specific visuals or sounds that distract from educational tasks. It is not uncommon that many pupils who have sensory processing issues cannot articulate their experiences, particularly those autistic individuals with additional intellectual impairments. So, my question in regards to inescapable sensory clutter is: is it worth the risk?

Starting the conversation

While I mostly sympathise with the autistic people walking the sensory gauntlet on a daily basis, I also feel for the teachers who work hard on their displays and have them pulled down on a regular basis, only then for me to suggest that they do more harm than good.

The function of displays is just one area all schools will consider in regards to their environments. While I personally advocate for wholesale change regarding tokenistic and unnecessary sensory clutter, I am not suggesting that anything less is inadequate. On the contrary, many schools have a good understanding of the sensory processing needs of their autistic pupils and have begun to make initial adjustments such as providing low stimulation working spaces and sensory equipment e.g. ear defenders and squeeze vests.

Displays play into a much wider conversation regarding sensory processing impairments and the entire environment. A low stimulation approach involves much more than a school’s décor, but I would stress that an honest conversation about the function of displays is a good place to begin.

Antony Morris
+ posts

Former Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA) and Special School Governor, currently studying to become an Occupational Therapist.

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