Are highly decorated classrooms distracting?
Several researchers (Fisher et al. 2014 & Rodrigues & Pandeirada 2018) have found that children are more easily distracted in highly-decorated environments resulting in poorer learning opportunities and achievement. If you spent a few minutes with a young child in a toy store, this should make perfect sense to you.
Imuta and Scarf (2014) published a response to the Fisher et al. study citing several other research articles analyzing the development of visual attention in children and the impact of the classroom environment on learning potential.
Imuta and Scarf first remind the reader that many psychological studies involving children rely on the developmental cognitive strategy of attending to and preferring novel stimuli. Therefore, their first rebuttal to research indicating highly-decorated classrooms as a distraction to learning is the habituation effect. Basically, when children first enter your learning space, they may be overloaded by colorful displays, but overtime, they will adjust, and the decorations will have a transient impact on their attention.
The authors further cite additional research that has found carefully curated classroom decorations, such as visuals made by students and educational references, can serve to support our students. They recommend keeping classroom decorations the same and in the same spot to take advantage of habituation and support student access to the visuals.
What environmental factors impact student attention and learning?
Barrett et al. (2013) took a holistic approach looking at several environmental factors and their impact on student learning. Seven factors were identified to best predict student progress: light, temperature, air quality, ownership, flexibility, complexity, and color.
As SLPs, we are often lucky to have a dedicated space, nevermind one with optimal lighting, temperature, and air quality. Those factors are generally outside of our control. Though if you are trying to make the case to get out of your broom closet, there is research available to support your argument.
What we do have control over is the individualization and stimulation level of our therapy spaces. Here are a few summary points from the findings of this article:
- Visual displays created by the children established a sense of ownership, which was significantly correlated with optimal learning outcomes.
- The flexibility and comfortability of classroom furniture were correlated with optimal learning outcomes.
- Younger students exhibited better learning engagement with varied, defined learning zones, while older students performed better with consistent, dedicated learning zones.
- Students performed best in rooms with light or white walls with a feature wall or well organized colorful displays.
- Students of all ages performed best in places with an intermediate level of visual complexity.
“The visual appearance of the classroom can be conceptualized as a nonverbal statement about the teacher who has structured this learning environment.”Weinstein & Woofolk (1981)
Cheryan et al. (2014) investigated the impact of classroom decor on student achievement. Here are the most important findings:
- Multiple research studies indicated that decor decisions favoring the majority (examples: Christian religious displays, images of only white students, pictures of diverse students filling only stereotypical roles) directly impacted the educational performance of female students, Black, Indigenous, and students of color, and students of minority religious groups.
- The research indicated that small changes to classroom decor improved learning outcomes for all students and helped reduce racial and gender achievement gaps.
Whether they acknowledge it or not, our students notice the objects, pictures, and decor decisions in our classrooms. Therefore, we should be careful not to feature objects that acknowledge only high-status or majority groups or make students from historically underrepresented groups feel excluded. The authors urge you to keep in mind that the objects and decor added to your space to reflect students belonging to minority groups and cultures should be carefully curated in an effort not to constrain students to limited, stereotypical roles.
“[Our decor choices] signal to students whether they will be valued and encouraged within the classroom.”Cheryan et al. (2014)
Considerations for Teaching During the COVID-Pandemic
The authors of Designing Classrooms to Maximize Student Achievement (Cheryan et al. 2014) reported that the same evidence-based practices, summarized above, for in-person classrooms apply to virtual classrooms. So, if you will be using a Bitmoji classroom this fall consider the level of visual stimuli, incorporating student ideas, representation of all students, and defining your learning zones.
Thanks for reading!
Barrett, P., Zhang, Y., Moffat, J., & Kobbacy, K. (2013). A holistic, multi-level analysis identifying the impact of classroom design on pupils’ learning. Building and environment, 59, 678-689.
Cheryan, S., Ziegler, S. A., Plaut, V. C., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2014). Designing classrooms to maximize student achievement. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1(1), 4-12.
Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological science, 25(7), 1362-1370.
Imuta, K., & Scarf, D. (2014). When too much of a novel thing may be what’s “bad”: commentary on Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman (2014). Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1444.
Rodrigues, P. F., & Pandeirada, J. N. (2018). When visual stimulation of the surrounding environment affects children’s cognitive performance. Journal of experimental child psychology, 176, 140-149.