Creating the right environment is crucial for students with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties to flourish
Producing a good learning environment is a complex undertaking. Many factors need to be considered, from the fundamentals of light, space and movement, to the more complex psychological and managerial aspects of a given set of spaces. Behaviour can be related strongly to the quality of the design of space, be it a classroom, a theatre or even a bus stop. It is perhaps easy, then, to appreciate the added importance of the role of good design when dealing with the sensitivities and challenges of children and young people with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD).
Improved academic performance is often the benchmark when monitoring the success of a school. In BESD education this is also true, but the learning environment is an extraordinarily charged thing and the factors that impact on behaviour are many and difficult to quantify.
The term BESD covers a wide range of special educational needs although, importantly, not all young people with BESD have SEN. Typically, though, those affected may have emotional disorders and/or conduct disorders and/or conditions such as ADHD. In seeking to educate young people with such multifarious conditions the design of spaces must also be tough, protective, inviting and conducive to learning – no easy feat.
Although many common principles can be set out, in much the same way that that there is no one type of student with BESD, there is certainly no single, catch-all, appropriate environment for students with BESD.
The role of good design
For many students with BESD the school boundary is an emotional as well as a physical boundary. It can be a case of leaving baggage behind at the gates, as well as preparing to face the challenges of the school day. Sequencing a clear and safe route from the boundary to the front door – forming a buffer zone – will set the tone for the school. It should feel welcoming, secure and inviting to those who use the school every day, and to new arrivals. In most BESD schools, the frequency of structured and unstructured parental visits is higher than in mainstream schools. A simple phased entrance sequence, with meeting rooms located between the main entrance and reception, allows staff to meet parents without giving them access to the rest of the school. This “valve” allows for privacy and minimises possible distractions to students. A separate, secondary entrance into the school is important for external-agency access. How these spaces are structured is open to debate; there could be a designated multi-agency “wing”, or dispersed quiet zones for therapy.
BESD schools typically have higher than usual truancy rates, which can put pressure on timetabling and allocation of space. It is equally important to understand that school may be the only place where a good hot meal is provided. If it is said that “an army marches on its stomach”, this can certainly be applied to a school. A pre-school breakfast club will mean that students are fully charged for a day of study and will behave better. All mealtimes are important social arenas for the school community; they offer a space to develop friendships, to develop table manners and to grow together. For a dining space to be easy to manage it will not only need good spaces for the preparation of the food, but simple, comfortable, robust and orderly spaces for the collection of food and eating together. I have had the experience of sharing a lunchtime in a compact, flagging dining hall and it was very easy to see how a cramped room with a poor outlook could create an adverse set of conditions, working against the desire for calm and sociable interaction.
Ease of movement and safe circulation is the product of a clear plan. Passive monitoring from classrooms and dispersed staff offices can help management. Simple design parameters, such as the critical need to avoid both blind corners and dead ends at all costs, will help reduce the number of incidents that seem to escalate if escape in more than one direction is denied. The creation of visual links by increasing zones of internal glazing will aid safety, but complete transparency is to be avoided as students can find the extra stimulus distracting. In conversations with teachers, I have been frequently reminded that no space should feel isolated from the rest of the school – an eventuality more likely if all staff areas are clustered at one point in the building. An increased staff presence not only encourages calm behaviour but also eliminates opportunities for bullying.
If space permits, teaching spaces should be kept to a single storey. Staircases are known hotspots for incidents and present increased hazard for injury. However, the physical characteristics of a site often mean that several storeys are required. Staircases should be designed to be wide, with clean detailing of balustrades and handrails, and, if possible, with staff accommodation strategically placed for monitoring at the top and the bottom.
Space to learn
Classrooms in BESD schools are typically the size of those in mainstream schools, but will have a much lower occupancy – as few as eight students, a teacher and a teaching assistant. The added space per pupil means that formal and informal study areas can be provided, along with ample space to control incidents, should they occur.
Ownership, identity and display are important to student confidence. Practical spaces, as well as class bases, will benefit from a shop-window or large areas of display that showcase the students’ skills. Nurturing a sense of self-worth and a system of praise and celebration of achievements is a crucial counterpoint to schools that have higher levels of behavioural control and poor discipline.
If student displays enrich and enliven wall surfaces, the overall choice of a neutral palette of colours will help to establish a deeper note for a calming and therapeutic environment. This is counter to a recent trend for strong, bold colours in mainstream school design, which can look striking but can cause adverse sensory responses from pupils.
External space should also be carefully considered for management, including clear sight-lines, defined lines of planting and no hidden corners. Variety and richness should be sought. During consultation with students, I have been surprised to note how many students were drawn to images of quiet courtyards, smaller spaces to sit and chat in, as well as external spaces to run around, exercise and let off steam in. This is a reflection again of the complex and diverse needs of students with BESD, variously manifested through propensities to withdraw or isolate, disrupt or disturb, be hyperactive, convey troubled social skills or present challenging behaviour arising from other complex special needs.
As the understanding of BESD develops, it is important that spaces for teaching evolve. Through continued collaboration and debate, and a critical assessment of new and existing schools, we can come closer to understanding strengths and weaknesses of different approaches, to be gauged in relation to students’ needs and behaviour.
Sandy Wright is a partner at Wright and Wright Architects, who have recently completed two new schools for students with BESD in Hull and Southwark: