Calming Classroom Decor

Look, I love teachers. They are totally underappreciated and the whipping boy for “all things bad” with society and schools. But classroom decor? Yikes! Lots of room for improvement based on some of the classrooms I’ve been in. And, attending IEP meetings all over the Philadelphia region, I’m in a lot of classrooms.

Hey, I get it. I used to teach and had to decorate classrooms. And the thinking is, if their eyes are going to wander, let’s at least let them land on something educational.

a calm classroom setting

But, that thinking is outdated. We now know that a huge percentage of kids are affected by visual clutter. All that ‘helpful and educational’ content hanging in every square inch of the room is distracting. And neither helpful nor educational.

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In fact, the Association for Psychological Science did a study in 2014 that showed that ‘heavily decorated’ classrooms disrupt learning and attention in young children. Their study participants scored 13% lower when in a heavily decorated classroom than those who were in a calming classroom setting.

a busy classroom that is visually distracting for students
A 2014 study suggests that young children miss out on learning opportunities in classrooms like this.

Not all is lost. Even with a limited budget or no budget at all, you can change your classroom aura from chaotic to calming.

And, bonus–having a calming classroom setup is much less work. I mean, if you look at the example photo above, you can see that was very time consuming.

Also read: 17 Free All About Me Worksheets

Tips for Calmer Classroom Environment

When I suggest to IEP teams that perhaps the classroom is too distracting for a particular student, I’m often met with pushback. I’d like to address some of the resistance I get and offer solutions.

“They learn from each other’s examples” when they see posted work.

Ok, couple of things here. First is that you can achieve this without cluttering up the walls with the work. They can go over each other’s things in small groups. And, it’s important to remember that having students evaluate each other’s work is an antiquated notion that is being phased out.

Not every child is comfortable having their classmates see how they performed on a task. Particularly those with disabilities and who may struggle with handwriting, reading aloud, etc.

Peer to peer exchanges are extremely important for growth–I agree with teachers on this concept. I disagree that hanging completed work on walls is a way to achieve this.

“They are proud of their completed work.”

Not every student is. Many students are very private and don’t want others to see their work. It opens up opportunities for bullying–whether it be poor handwriting or wrong answers.

Either with the whole class or in small groups, students can be invited to share their work if that is their wish. And those who do not care to do share their work can observe and listen to their classmates.

Achieving a Calm Classroom

The good news here is that a calm classroom is actually less work for teachers. That’s a win, right?

Having steady and calm classroom decorations is usually a once and done. Changing up bulletin boards either monthly or seasonally is not only more work for teachers, it’s more work for our kids’ brains. Students often enjoy and rely on the predictability of what they see in a classroom, and changing things up frequently requires processing that some students may not have the bandwidth for.

For those who need the stimulation of a changing environment, it can be provided in other ways that are personalized to them. Such as fidget toys, lap pads, weighted calming toys or other forms of sensory input.

Involve the students! Particularly the students who have sensory or processing issues. Ask them to spend 10 minutes with you in the classroom, after you’ve dismissed the others to a special or something. Ask them what they see, hear and feel when sitting in the classroom. They may have ideas you’ve never even considered. Or, ask them during the IEP meeting when you get to accommodations.

Calm Classroom Decor Tips

Here are some tips to achieving a calm and peaceful classroom environment.

calm colors palette
A calming color palette
  1. Less is More–This is a great starting point. I’ve been in classrooms where just about every square inch of wall space, white board space, the cubbies, the doors…EVERYTHING was covered with something. And, strings and clotheslines strung across the ceiling with work hanging from clothespins. Stop, just stop. Take it all down. Keep your decorations to just bulletin boards. Seriously.
  2. Choose your colors--I acknowledge that many teachers do not have any say over what color the walls are. But in the event that you do, or to choose background colors for your bulletin boards, you can choose calming colors. Shades of blue, greens, gray and lavender have been shown to evoke calm feelings. Reds, orange, yellows and pinks tend to energize and excite people.
  3. What’s Outside–Pay attention to what could be distracting to students, either right outside the window or just outside the door. Calming items outside a window would be a bird feeder instead of pinwheels or wind chimes. (and you can do backyard bird activities to complement it!)
  4. Sound Effects–Having paper decorations hanging everywhere does have some benefits, such as absorbing sound. Removing them may create a hollow sound or echoing sound of voices, depending upon the materials the walls and ceiling are made of. This can be fixed with curtains on the window, area rugs, and covering bulletin boards with felt or fabric instead of paper.
  5. Move Visuals to Video and Tactile–Many teachers use what is on the walls to point to, or as part of your lessons. The materials can be switched out and used as a video to be projected on the wall only as part of the lesson. Or, use actual tactile items to enhance learning instead of pointing to a picture of the item. For example, use actual dice for the math lesson instead of pictures of dice.
  6. Storage–With so many supplies, a classroom can quickly look cluttered. At my son’s school, some classrooms have hung solid colored curtain panels in front of storage areas. You can also arrange seating so that storage is behind the students, thus less distracting during teaching.
  7. Lighting–The most cost effective and efficient lighting is not always the most calming. Buzzing fluorescent lighting–I’m talking about you! Speak with your maintenance department to see if anything can be done for buzzing and flickering. And, muslin-like or cheesecloth type fabrics might be able to be safely hung (no fire hazards, please!) to soften harsh lighting.
  8. Calming Music–There are so many great options out there for calming music. Attention should be given to students who struggle with processing multiple senses at once. Such as music and a teacher talking. Or music and looking/writing. For independent work, they may benefit from sound canceling headphones. Only playing music for student arrival in the morning and after lunch is another option.
putumayo lullaby albums
The Putumayo Lullaby series is one of our favorites!

How to Pay for Classroom Changes

This is an area that infuriates me. We don’t ask doctors to pay for surgical instruments nor pilots to pay for airline fuel. But teachers are regularly expected to pay for classroom supplies, and that’s not right. It’s also not right that best case scenario, this will take up some of your personal time.

So you might be a little steamed that what you have accumulated for classroom decorations is no longer useful. And, hanging up student projects instead of something else, well, that’s free.

Here are some ideas of how to get new stuff without paying for it yourself.

  1. Amazon Wish List
  2. Send an email to parents, you just never know what parent has connections to get this for free or no cost.
  3. Call paint stores and ask about the “mistakes” and what they do with them.
  4. Call craft stores and ask if they have a teacher program, or what they do with discards and discontinued items.
  5. Put it on your own personal Facebook profile. I’ve had friends do this, and they always get a good response.
  6. Put it on Donors Choose.
  7. Ask a civics group in your area if they have small grant programs for this (Lions, Rotary, etc.).
  8. Ask a local small business if they want to sponsor this. IE-they give you $500 for classroom decor, and in exchange, you hang a thank-you to them on one of the bulletin boards for all to see for the entire year.
  9. Speak with your PTA about what fundraising initiatives they have, and if a classroom decor program could be worked in.

I’m sure many of you have more and better ideas, as teachers are some of the most resourceful folks I’ve ever met.

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