5 signs your classroom is overdecorated & how to fix it

You’ve probably read some version of the study that went absolutely viral on social media: Heavily Decorated Classrooms Disrupt Attention and Learning In Young Children. But have you seen the classroom used for the study?

highly decorated classrooms study

The bottom image shows the researchers’ idea of “highly decorated,” which looks like a pretty typical elementary classroom to me. The picture above shows the same classroom with the decorations removed–that’s the room in which students made learning gains later on.

Honestly, I don’t think those gains would last for long if the learning environment was that bare permanently. Who wants to spend six hours a day surrounded by 4 blank white walls? I don’t think anyone is holding that up as the ideal. I imagine most of us–the researchers included–would agree there needs to be a balance between sterile and over-stimulating.

That said, I definitely believe there are some pitfalls to heavy decoration, and they’re not limited to kids being distracted or hyperactive. Too much decorating can create the opposite effect of what was intended, and make children feel less “at home” because they’re fearful of ruining the elaborate and expensive set up created by the teacher. Heavily decorated classrooms can also keep kids from feeling a sense of ownership in the classroom and prevent them from using the learning aids that are buried among all the other materials.

The biggest issue here is that no one thinks their classroom is overdecorated. Each teacher creates classroom decor that fits his or her personality, and a heavily decorated room feels right to many of us. So how do you know when it’s too much? Here’s my take on it.

Sign #1: There’s no blank wall space.

Why It Can Be Problem: The room can feel overstimulating and students become unable to focus on any one particular item because everything runs together in one massive display.

Solution: Instead of having all your displays touching edge to edge, leave some white space in between for the eye to rest. Decide how much room you want your wall displays to take up, and rather than continually expanding on them, make it a habit to take down something old whenever you add something new.

Sign #2 : Most displays are teacher-created.

Why It Can Be Problem: Classrooms should be a reflection of EVERYONE who’s in them.

Solution: At the beginning of the school year, I like to leave at least 50% of my wall space completely blank. I hang bulletin board borders so things don’t look bare or uninviting and ask the kids, “What do you think could go inside that space?” I want the kids to recognize that the classroom walls are ours, not just mine, and encourage them to have some ownership of its appearance and input as to what’s useful as a display. As we use new posters and resources, I invite students to give input as to where we display them so I can make sure they’re prominent.

Sign #3: A large percentage of displays are purely decorative.

Why It Can Be Problem: Nonfunctional  items  take up precious classroom real estate and leave no space for things that enhance or support student learning

Solution: I love to have beautiful art prints, colorful lamps, and plants displayed in the classroom: it makes the room feel like home to me. But I know there’s limited wall space and the potential for kids to get distracted, so if I have new learning aid I need to display, I’ll remove one of the decorative items for a period of time. Bringing it back later makes it feel even more special.

Sign #4: Students aren’t referencing most of the materials.

Why It Can Be Problem: There’s no point in making or purchasing learning aids if the kids completely ignore them.

Solution: If none of your students look at the number line or check the calendar, it’s possible those materials might be buried among non-useful stuff. Figure out which materials enhance kids’ learning and take the rest down. Ask your students outright: Does anyone use this? Is it helpful to have this here? Where else could it go? Is there something else you’d like to see in this space?  Have that discussion at the end of each month or unit of study to ensure you’ve chosen to display the most helpful items and underscore for students that they’re supposed to use the reference tools displayed.

Sign #5: You don’t teach with the materials on your walls.

Why It Can Be Problem: Displays behind you compete for students’ attention while you teach, but don’t actually support  the lesson.

Solution: If an item isn’t being used by anyone in the classroom, ask yourself: what purpose does it serve? The majority of items displayed near your whiteboard should be a useful enhancement for your lessons: make your word wall is interactive, use your hundred chart for math games, or review the reading strategies poster during your mini-lesson. Bonus: when you actively model and practice how to use your classroom displays, students are more likely to use them independently.

how to recognize and fix an overdecorated classroom

If you have a suspicion that your classroom might be overdecorated, trust your instincts and scale back a little bit. Pay attention to the reaction from people who visit your room for the first time…if they frequently gasp or double take while walking in, that’s not necessarily a compliment. You can also ask a colleague you trust: “What’s your first impression when you walk in here? Do you think this is too much? If you were a child in this classroom, would you find this distracting?”

Of course, each group of kids is different. Some children seem to thrive in colorful, stimulating classrooms, while others need a more calm and distraction-free learning environment. I believe classroom decor should change a bit each year to reflect the current group of kids’ interests and needs. Why not let your classroom theme and decorations evolve based on your kids’ personalities?

I encourage you to be purposeful as you set up  your classroom. While placing each item, mentally check to make sure it’s meaningful, relevant, current, and child-friendly. If the room begins to feel cluttered, take down a few things and reevaluate. The wonderful thing about decorating a classroom is that it’s always a work in progress. You can experiment with different materials until you find the right balance for you and your students.

What makes a classroom feel overdecorated to you? How do you determine what goes on your classroom walls (and what doesn’t)? 

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tonya June 5, 2014 at 7:34 pm

I love this and agree! #4 is something I talk with my students about. We use the calendar like a graph for knowing the date to write in our journals. (kinder readiness classroom) We talk about where in the room can we find numbers in order to remember how to write them, same with letters. The more we discuss it, the more they use it.

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2 Lisa DeBord June 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm

I find that a classroom with too many colors is overwhelming for me. I try to stick with 2-3 colors, the main one being a calming color, and use those same colors everywhere. It ties the classroom together and makes it look purposeful.

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3 Eric June 5, 2014 at 8:49 pm

I’m not taking my TEXAS flag down! :)

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4 Donna Castillo August 10, 2015 at 1:14 am

I’m with you Eric. Take a stand. Some things are really important and need to be displayed even if it doesn’t particularly have a question dedicated to it on the STARR test.
My Texas flag isn’t coming down either.
🌸

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5 Karli Lomax June 5, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Angela, this is a fantastic post (maybe because I agree with you on every point!) :) I think wall space is valuable teaching space; I feel it should be interactive and a resource for your students. I suggest a sing #6, “Your ceiling is full.” Personally, I find myself feeling overwhelmed when I walk into another classroom and there are (a lot) things hanging from the ceiling- not just decorative objects, but everyone’s project, a mobile, for example! Thanks for sharing these insights.

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6 Brandy July 24, 2014 at 1:27 pm

If there is ANY thing hanging from the ceiling in a classroom, it is a fire-code violation. I still see it all the time and I don’t know how people get away with it.

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7 Carrie July 21, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Fire codes vary state to state, county to county, and even municipality to municipality in some cases. Hanging things from the ceiling is not a fire code violation where I currently teach. It has been other places, but it is not in southern Illinois.

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8 Jaraun June 5, 2014 at 11:20 pm

I feel great! Most of the things I do are student generated. Years ago when it wasn’t vogue I went to miniature word walls that students keep in their desks. I wanted to teach how to use reference materials. I have always disliked the word walls that clutter the walls. Thanks for sharing!

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9 Michelle July 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Jaraun,
How do you create a mini word wall for the students’ desks?

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10 Betsy October 26, 2014 at 9:10 pm

I would love to know as well!

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11 Stef April 29, 2016 at 1:54 am

Yep count me in on that as well

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12 Denice May 7, 2016 at 8:11 pm

I’m not the original poster, but I’ve done this. I staple two file folders together so they become a trifold. Students then record typical word wall words on this and it folds neatly inside their desks.

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13 Alayna May 8, 2016 at 10:10 am

That’s a great idea! I have a tool I give my students with many sight words they should already know from prior years, but I love this idea too.

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14 Shauna June 6, 2014 at 10:38 am

I saw this post at the perfect time! I just moved into a new classroom for next year and I was thinking about how to decorate four blank walls. Now I think I’ll put up the teaching aids I know I’ll use every day—a world map and a number line, for starters—-but leave the rest of the wall space blank for now. I’ll be mindful of your suggestion to let the students decide what should be displayed in the classroom.

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15 Maggie June 17, 2014 at 10:07 pm

Great article! My rule of thumb: If the students don’t reference it, it doesn’t go on the wall. I keep binders of things we have made for sharing, and I have a wall of fame in one area for various student work.

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16 Amanda July 19, 2014 at 11:49 am

Teachers and principals have always said my classroom didn’t have enough stuff on the walls but my students say that they find my room calming and they really like it! I place one visually balanced arrangement on each wall (that makes sense – a wall of windows doesn’t get an arrangement) and the material is changed weekly to keep it relevant.

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17 joan July 19, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Thank you for posting both the research article and 5 key points to ponder! As we all walk back into our rooms, this posting offers us something to guide us….and to reflect upon. I think it was a fashion designer who said, “Put on your accessories and then, just before you leave, take away 1 or 2.”

I know that I am going into my classroom with NEW eyes – and will keep the 5 key points in my mind when setting up. Sometimes I think we feel pressured to make our rooms “visually entrancing” to the PARENTS and not the children. “Oh, I like Mrs. So-and-so’s room soo much – it is soo appealing with so much to look at…” Yikes – that could describe me!

Again, thanks for posting!

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18 Susan July 21, 2014 at 12:13 pm

I totally agree! I have a son on the autism spectrum who really struggled with elementary classrooms because of his sensory disintegration issues. Most K-3 classrooms I’ve seen overwhelm ME when I walk in. I agree with Lisa and try to stick to a 2-3 color scheme and have a least one wall that is pretty bare to give kids a visual break if they need one. Also, I use large pieces of foam insulation with clips hot glued on them to hang my reading/writing/math workshop anchor charts on them so they’re easy to store and display. There are hooks to hang them high on the wall but are very light and can easily be taken down. I have 4 of these to charts are always at my fingertips but not all displayed at once.

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19 Angela Watson August 4, 2014 at 2:12 pm

I like that!

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20 Brandy July 24, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Most of the time, if sign #2 isn’t a problem, then sign #4 will not be a problem.=)

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21 Angela Watson August 4, 2014 at 2:12 pm

GREAT point, Brandy! Yes!

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22 Stephanie Jacobs July 24, 2014 at 3:43 pm

I believe almost all five signs describe my classroom! For the last two school years I decorated my classroom in bright colors and inspirational and creative displays. However my students tell me my classroom sparks their creativity and provides a welcoming environment. Testing data isn’t all there is to teaching but I’ve experienced more growth in the past two years than I have my entire seventeen years of teaching. Behavior issues have almost become nonexistent as well. Is there a correlation? I have no idea! Maybe I will take some of your suggestions and tone down some areas!

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23 Angela Watson August 4, 2014 at 2:11 pm

I love your honest reflection! Thanks for sharing.

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24 Gretta Williams July 13, 2015 at 5:24 pm

What a great checklist! I find the students looking at the walls in my middle school orchestra room regularly in the beginning of the year, because their music autobiographic worksheets are there. Each grade period they update them. They check to see who has gone farther than they have in their orchestra experiences. It is a fun reference.

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25 Angela Watson July 17, 2015 at 2:13 pm

I love that idea–thank you for sharing.

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26 Rebecca Smith October 11, 2015 at 2:32 pm

Our mantra in Montessori schools is, ” If you wouldn’t hang it in your home, don’t hang it in your classroom. It’s a public Montessori school and it is a constant battle with the BOE to keep the clutter out of our classrooms.

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27 Angela Watson October 24, 2015 at 4:32 pm

Ooh, that’s good!

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28 Beth April 11, 2016 at 7:49 pm

There are “decorations” and then there are student resources. I try to make each area in my classroom a content area so students know where to look if they need to find sight words, money, numbers, etc. I also have a section for artwork and student samples. Some days I do think my walls are too overwhelming but when I see students using their resources, I feel my room is well put together.

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29 Dan May 22, 2016 at 3:59 pm

As a 5th grade science teacher, I have latitude to change my wall hangings to reflect the current unit of study. Of course, I have items of curiosity as well to keep kids engaged and encourage hands on exploration. What I find disheartening are teachers who put up the minimum wall fodder (because they must), without much thought to content or relavence and leave it there for years. I’ve been in those classrooms for meetings and felt a little depressed and wondered how the students might feel. Great article…a must read for all teachers!

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