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Shaping the space: Learning environment and SEMH

7 min read

Beth Greville-Giddings, Learning and Development Lead, Raleigh Education Trust, UK

The term ‘learning environment’ includes many factors. Tapia-Fonllem et al. (2020) discuss the attributes of learning environments across five different dimensions:

  • physical: spaces, furniture, decoration
  • academic: curricular  materials
  • social: interpersonal interactions
  • institutional:  governance and administration
  • wellbeing/ cultural: psychosocial environment.


This review considers the physical classroom environment in which students learn, concentrating on aspects of classroom environment over which teachers have some control; however, there are connections and influences between all the above dimensions.

Learning environment and SEMH

Students with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH) have complex and varied needs, including, but not limited to, being withdrawn, exhibiting challenging behaviours, having anxiety or depression, and diagnoses of ADHD or attachment disorder. Their special educational needs may also require support for dyslexia, dyspraxia, autistic spectrum disorders and other issues with social interaction. In addition to this, they may have missed large periods of schooling (DfE and DHSC, 2015). 

While the literature on learning environments identified for this review generally centres on mainstream and pre-school or primary settings, there is a body of research with a focus on secondary and SEND settings. Research that explores the physical features of the mainstream classroom frequently uses student behaviour, time on-/off-task and quality/quantity of work completed as measures for evaluation, all of which are common to SEMH research.

Research that explores specialist provision and the learning environments of students with more complex SEND requirements has not been considered for this review.

Seating arrangements

Wannarka and Ruhl (2008) conducted a synthesis of literature exploring recommendations for classroom seating arrangements with students aged seven to 15, including one special school for students with behavioural difficulties, and found that classroom arrangements had an impact on both behaviour and achievement of students.

Their synthesis looked at seating arrangements, including rows, clusters and semi-circles, and concluded that rows were the best arrangement for appropriate behaviour and of most benefit to disruptive students. Rows decreased the amount of time that students were off-task and increased the amount of time they spent paying attention, thus increasing the amount of instructional time in lessons. They cite a study by Wheldall and Lam (1987), reporting that during tasks requiring individual work, students increased the quantity of work they produced when sat in rows, doubling on-task behaviour and reducing disruption by two-thirds. This is supported by Carbone (2001), who discusses classroom design for students with ADHD and suggests traditional row seating, away from distraction and reduced stimuli, to be the best arrangement.

Ramli et al. (2013) looked at user perception of the classroom environment, investigating different layouts of tables and chairs. Students were more likely to think of the classroom in terms of enjoyment and a ‘fun environment’ and to prefer groups of tables, while teachers were more likely to consider pedagogy and behaviour when making decisions about layout. Students and teachers had an overall preference for a long-rows layout of furniture, and their study reports that students were quieter and less distracted when in rows.

In reviewing classroom layout, teachers should consider the tasks in which students will be participating. In their synthesis, Wannarka and Ruhl found that during tasks involving group discussion, clusters or semi-circles may be appropriate, and suggest for the task to dictate the seating arrangement. This is echoed by Ramli et al. (2014) when studying principals’ perceptions of classroom environment. While they found that rows and columns were the best arrangement in terms of discipline and student behaviour, classrooms need to be arranged in a way that promotes the best learning.

Design decisions

Teachers have varying control over design decisions. While wall or carpet colour is normally prescribed, wall displays are an element of the classroom environment over which many teachers make decisions, and there is a body of research that focuses on how the visual environment, including wall displays, affects learning and behaviour.

Fisher et al. (2014) conducted a widely reported experiment in which pre-school children were taught in both highly decorated and sparsely decorated classrooms. They found that students in the highly decorated environment had higher levels of distraction and off-task behaviour and decreased learning gains when compared to students in the sparse environment. Their review of the literature indicates that distractibility decreases with age and they highlight the fact that this is not generally considered in classroom decoration decisions, with younger students often having the more decorated environments. Despite a series of familiarisation lessons, participants may have been affected by frequent changes in environment, and in a natural classroom setting students may habituate to their environment. The authors do not suggest that classrooms need to be sparse but do suggest that this study provides ‘proof on concept’. This research should not be generalised beyond kindergarten; however, there is support for these findings in other studies.

Almeda et al. (2014) and Cheryan et al. (2014) report that high visuals are linked to high levels of off-task behaviour, and that colour and complexity of displays are negatively correlated with learning outcomes. They suggest that teachers consider what is pedagogically useful and what is distracting when making design decisions. Carbone (2001) discusses the inattention and distractibility of students with ADHD and how students are attracted to ‘novel’ stimuli. Making changes to unimportant features of the room, such as displays, can interfere with the performance of students who may be sensitive to visual overload (Saarela, 2007). The complexity and colours used in wall displays are discussed by Barrett et al. (2013) as part of a wider study of the impact of the school building environment on academic progress. They found that while young children may want ‘exciting’ spaces, they benefit from ordered, visually quiet environments.

Throughout the reviewed literature are references to the classroom as the ‘third teacher’, a term borrowed from the Reggio Emelia philosophy and approach to pre-school and primary education (Carter, 2017). Founded on student-centred, constructivist ideals where children are encouraged to learn through discovery (Powell and Kalina, 2009), the learning environment is presented in a way that encourages student interaction. While this methodology has critics (Mayer, 2004), the research on classroom displays that uses the term ‘third teacher’ does not necessarily subscribe to constructivism and is focused on how best to use classroom displays for learning.

Features of the classroom as the ‘third teacher’ include organisation and decluttering so that students are able to focus (Carter, 2017). In creating environments that reduce sensory overload, teachers should plan their rooms and ask the opinions of others (Saarela, 2007). Tarr (2004) describes the typical primary classroom as full of decoration – often commercially produced images and borders – and urges teachers to ‘consider the walls’. Tarr warns over dumbing down the environment with trivialised images of childhood and overpowering displays. Teachers should consider the purpose of a display beyond decoration and allow student work to stand out. 

The papers identified in this review support the direct and systematic use of word walls to guide children in discussion about work (Bresson and Strasser, 2007; Hilden and Jones, 2012). Lenihan (2015) explores ways in which teachers can use classroom walls to create a ‘creative thinking environment’ and describes displays as teacher-arranged decoration designed to look good, staying the same all year round. While displays can be aesthetically pleasing, they should be ‘supportive of deeper student understanding and social interaction’. 

Lenihan (2015) draws on the work of Creekmore (1987) and the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Visible Thinking routines to suggest how the walls of a classroom can be used to support learning by giving each wall a purpose:

  • Acquisition Wall (with board): For direct instruction and new ideas to reinforce the unit of work
  • Process Wall: Ideas to remember in the future and for summative assessment
  • Dynamic Wall: For social interaction and successes of students.


Within this system is space for integrating strategies such as elaboration, concrete examples and retrieval practice. The study identifies rules including the colour of the backboard, the use of headings and the inclusion of graphic organisers for using walls in an interactive and evolving manner, ensuring that they are used beyond decoration and for students to explore explanations. 

This research indicates that there is little benefit to learning in the use of ‘decorative’ displays of either commercial resources or student work, beyond art, in classrooms. There is the potential for distraction, leading to increased levels of poor behaviour and less time on tasks/academic outcomes. Where wall displays are used, the research suggests that interactive and frequently referenced displays may benefit student learning.

Impact on SEMH

While the reviewed literature on classroom environment centres on mainstream settings, the measures used include behaviour, distractibility, on-task behaviours and academic achievement, all of which are relevant to the SEMH classroom.

Carbone (2001) specifically looks at classroom design for students with ADHD and recommends ‘traditional’ row seating, at the front of the room, away from distraction. Carbone suggests the display of progress charts and the importance of organisation and routine. In their 2008 analysis, Wannarka and Ruhl identify rows to be best for appropriate behaviour across all settings and to have the most benefit for students with behaviour problems. The literature on classroom displays and wall decoration highlights distractibility as a key factor in design decisions. While Fisher et al. (2014) state that distractibility decreases with age, this might not be the case for students with SEMH.

The literature indicates that a classroom environment optimised for the needs of SEMH students is a classroom that will be optimised for the needs of all students. Tables should be arranged in rows to face the teacher but maintain flexibility for specific tasks. Teachers should consider what is pedagogically useful and what may be visually overloading for students with SEND, using uncluttered walls to display material for ongoing retrieval and walls of student interaction and progress. Displays should evolve and update, being interacted with as part of lessons rather than staying the same with little reference to learning.

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    Tim Cresswell

    Really interesting stuff. Is there any research out there about what makes effective “Teacher Walls”? Colours, displays, size of screen etc?

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