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?
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.
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)?