With an estimated 7 million students having special learning needs and one in 59 diagnosed on the autism spectrum, educators have to meet very diverse learning needs to create inclusive classrooms in which all students can achieve high standards—and classroom design elements such as lighting and acoustics play a key role.
How Lighting Can Help Create Inclusive Classrooms
Natural lighting has been proven to help students focus and learn more effectively, but some learning spaces aren’t able to access natural lighting. In fact, many classrooms are brightly lit by fluorescent bulbs, which have been shown to increase feelings of anxiety and induce headaches among some students.
In a classroom with filtered or well-designed lighting, students are likely to feel calmer and more focused, and they might be in a better mood. Generally speaking, warmer light makes a space feel cozy, while whiter light can feel harsher and more task-oriented.
Because students with sensory challenges or other special needs are often sensitive to lighting, fluorescent lights can inhibit their ability to focus. In one school, a nonverbal student on the autism spectrum had trouble reading his visual input communication device because fluorescent lighting in the classroom cast a glare on the laminated page of images. Teachers thought the student had cognitive issues that prevented him from using the device, until one teacher noticed the student blinking very quickly as he tried to get a good look.
This student began wearing a visor to counteract the glare from the lights, and educators printed images on blue sheets of paper instead of white to help with visibility. He was actively using his communication device just a few weeks after those changes were made.
To optimize the impact of lighting on students’ ability to focus and learn, use natural lighting wherever possible in the design of school facilities. Avoid using fluorescent lights if possible, opting instead for warmer, recessed lighting sources. Equip the lighting sources for learning spaces with dimmer switches so that teachers can easily adjust the amount of lighting in the room. If budgets won’t allow for better light fixtures and dimmers, consider replacing fluorescent bulbs with full-spectrum lights that offer a more natural experience and put less strain on students’ eyes.
Specially designed lights can help alleviate sensitivity to fluorescent lighting. For instance, Green Furniture Concept’s Leaf Lamp series performs double duty by offering ambient lighting along with superior acoustics, using sound-absorbing qualities found in the materials and shape of the leaves.
And if replacing bulbs or light fixtures is out of the question, light filters can provide an affordable option for softening classroom lighting. For instance, Cozy Shades consist of flame-retardant cloth hung below standard fluorescent lighting fixtures, muting some of the aggressive-feeling rays that can cause anxiety or headaches among some students.
The Role of Acoustics in Creating Inclusive Classrooms
If students can’t hear their teacher (or each other) well, then they won’t be able to learn effectively. While many new school buildings or those undergoing extensive renovations include built-in sound amplification systems within classrooms and other learning spaces, acoustics can present a challenge in older buildings.
Classroom amplification systems are helpful for students with auditory processing disorders, such as those who have trouble filtering out background noise from computers, the hallway, or even other students.
Large open spaces, such as those found in cafeterias or gymnasiums, are often noisier. Similarly, creating and collaborating during active learning tends to be noisy as well. Instead of sitting passively in their seats and listening to the teacher talk, students are moving around and talking animatedly with their peers. The din this creates can make it hard for some students to focus, which is why it’s important to consider the acoustics in a learning space during the design process.
Sound-absorbing acoustic panels can add color and design to a learning space while cutting down on extra noise. For instance, Stille manufactures several options using recycled PET plastic bottles, which can help gain LEED green building credits.
To learn more about how you can meet diverse learning needs through smart classroom design, download our free guide:
Cecilia Cruse, MS, OTR/L has a BS degree in Occupational Therapy from the University of Florida, and her Master’s degree in Education from Georgia State University. She is SIPT certified and has over 25 years’ experience in pediatrics with school-based services, acute care, and outpatient pediatric settings.
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