Have you noticed your mood change if there has been just one too many rainy days? Does it shift depending on if you are driving on a busy freeway or having a picnic at the park? It won’t surprise you to know that our environments have a significant impact on how we feel and what we do. Research confirms that our environment impacts us in three major ways:
- It can facilitate or discourage interactions among people.
- It can influence people’s behavior or ability to act.
- It can influence mood.
With an awareness and sensitivity to our surroundings, we seek out places that make us feel happy, secure, productive, and comfortable.
The environment can also have an effect on how we learn. Research is able to illustrate, again, that learning environments can influence student progress and success. The Glossary of Educational Reform defines that learning environment as,
“…the diverse physical locations, contexts, and cultures in which students learn. Since students may learn in a wide variety of settings, such as outside-of-school locations and outdoor environments, the term is often used as a more accurate or preferred alternative to classroom, which has more limited and traditional connotations—a room with rows of desks and a chalkboard, for example.” (2014)
For the purposes of this article, the learning environment I refer to will be the traditional classroom with desks and a chalkboard (or whiteboard). This learning environment is also where our students spend just over 1200 hours a year. So, it is fair to say that where our students learn is just as important to their social, emotional, physical, and academic growth as what they learn.
As you know, an inclusive learning environment prioritizes students by creating a warm, welcoming safe space. It provides instructional supports as well as social, emotional, and/or behavioral supports. But, what does an inclusive learning environment actually look like? How do teachers create classrooms that reflect a philosophy of welcoming all learners, regardless of ability, race, culture, language, and gender? Even though there is no set formula or list of supplies that every inclusive classroom has to have, every inclusive classroom is designed to be accessible and usable by everyone to the greatest extent possible.
Inclusive classroom design is modeled after a process known as universal design. Universal design is a way of creating accessibility to a wide range of people who have varying abilities and needs. This process can be used in physical environments, with products, communications, and education. There are seven principles in the process of universal design that are to be kept in mind. They include: equitable use, flexible use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and consider size and space for approach and use. In a classroom setting, we can apply these principles to create an inclusive space for all students in the following ways:
- Incorporate a variety of lighting in the room such as soft lighting (lamps, string lights, standing lights).
- Use natural lighting as much as possible.
- Reduce the glare of overhead fluorescent lighting (through the use of light coverings).
- Be mindful of equipment when not in use (such as clocks, machines, etc.).
- Hang curtains, blinds, and/or material on walls to reduce echo.
- Use a sound amplification system if needed.
- Open/close doors and windows.
- Use fans.
- Add plants.
- Reduce dust.
- Remove chemical odors and perfumes.
- Monitor food storage.
- Go outside.
- Clear pathway and doorways.
- Keep the distance short between students and materials.
- Keep supplies within reach.
- Post signage in visible areas.
- Use images in signage.
- Tape down rugs and electrical cords.
- Teach students to push in their chairs.
- Stack shelves to shoulder height.
- Keep necessary emergency equipment at hand.
- Storage for personal items
- Classroom audio distribution system
- Color coding
- Whiteboard/Smart Board
- Accessible presentation (text, color, use of white space in slides/documents, spacing, simple font)
- Visual timers
- Different types of paper
- Tablets or computers
- Slant boards
- Pencil grips
- Colored overlays
- Audio books
- Graphic organizers
- Text to speech software/apps
- Adaptable to different sizes and/or shapes
- Arrangeable to facilitate large group gathering, small group work, and independent work
- Variety (chairs, desks, tables, shelving, bean bag chairs, standing desks, flexible seating)
The above suggestions are certainly not exhaustive. Through my own experience, I’ve found that inclusive classroom design is dynamic and can change depending on the students I have in my classroom. Keeping an open, flexible mind (and a willingness to problem-solve when the supplies/furniture you need won’t fit through the doorway) will help you prioritize student-centered learning in an inclusive environment. By doing so, you can help ensure that your students can learn as well as achieve to the greatest extent possible.