Inclusion and the Typical Classroom

Special education is an umbrella under which many niche groups reside. When a district adopts a policy of inclusion, many special needs students spend most of their day in general education classrooms, with both a special education teacher and a classroom teacher. Design elements that can positively impact specific populations, such as students with autism, also positively affect the greater student body. By incorporating simple strategies that impact special needs students positively, SMMA creates designs that benefit the health, safety, and general welfare of ALL students. 

Our charge is to bridge the difference between the design of general classrooms and special education classrooms, thereby creating spaces in which all students are comfortable. Included below are some specialty groups typically found in public K-12 schools, as well as some special design elements that SMMA has implemented to provide the best spaces possible.  

Early Education

Pre-kindergarten programs typically serve children aged three to five; some classrooms have both special needs and integrated (i.e., non-special needs) children. All classrooms are based on typical preschool curriculum. Populations vary according to ages, developmental levels, and childrens’ needs. The main goal of pre-kindergarten programs is to assist students in growing and reaching their full potential in all areas of development. Most classrooms are held in half-day sessions; some students attend both morning and afternoon sessions, depending on their individualized education program.  

Inclusion Autism

These students have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, or other related disabilities, and typically receive push-in/pull-out services. A focus of these programs is including students in general education classrooms as much as is appropriate for each individual student. Pupils may be included into regular education for both social opportunities and academics, depending on their individual needs and functioning levels.

Social/Emotional

Students with significant emotional and other needs that require therapeutic and academic support comprise this group. These students also typically receive push-in/pull-out services, and are mainstreamed as much as possible in general education classrooms. 

Language

This group comprises students with average to above-average cognitive abilities, significant language-based learning disabilities—these students have trouble with processing language, language acquisition, and learning to read. Programs typically start when students begin applying their reading and writing skills in earnest. Similar to the Inclusion Autism and Social/Emotional groups, these students typically receive push-in/pull-out services—mainly focused on reading, writing, and English—and are mainstreamed as much as possible in general education classrooms. They receive specialized instruction of reading, written, oral, receptive, and expressive language skills, and their curriculum is modified and supplemented to meet their individual needs; the students are also taught compensatory strategies to address their learning needs. 

As I began researching best practices of special education design, and learning about the unique challenges these students face in typical classroom settings, I realized there is very little information available—existing research barely scratches the surface. It is also difficult to gauge the successes and failures of classroom design—do you base it on test scores? Post-occupancy evaluations? Word of mouth?

SMMA has developed some basis-of-design ideas for school design that support ALL students, particularly focused on aspects that are beneficial for special education students.

Design Guidelines


Rather than having all spaces be rectangular boxes, incorporating curves creates more “flow.” Predictability can be very important for certain special needs groups. Using curved walls at intersecting corridors allows students to be aware of what is ahead of them. Wayfinding, with signage or color-coding, also provides students an understanding of where they are within a larger building.

Curved Wall design to support special education needs

Carving out small group rooms that are adjacent and connect to larger classroom space for break-out/pull-out instruction allows students to receive specialized instruction while still being part of the classroom environment. Corridor seating encourages student interaction outside of the classroom, which benefits students’ social skills. These spaces can also be used for break-out work.  

Acoustics

Acoustics are the largest contributing factor to over-stimulation. Many students become distracted from activities that take place in the corridors. Creating transition spaces, like vestibules and “front porches,” between the classroom and the corridor eliminates distracting sights/sounds/smells. 

Including technology for students with hearing issues is also imperative. Strategically locating acoustical panels throughout a classroom can absorb sound and eliminate noise. Additionally, small group rooms with acoustical isolation may be helpful for those who are easily distracted or have hearing issues. 

Mechanical design can be a large source of ambient sound in a classroom. With the incorporation of vibration-isolation devices and more sophisticated systems throughout buildings, noisy wall units in classrooms are a thing of the past. This allows students to focus without distraction. A good example is SMMA’s strategy at Andover’s Bancroft Elementary School. Pre-K students spend a significant portion of their day on the ground; therefore, we incorporated displacement ventilation and radiant heating in pre-K classrooms, because the air is delivered at floor level, which not only decreases sound but is more energy efficient. 

Classroom with Daylighting Skylight

Lighting


Daylight is beneficial for general well-being, but views to the outside world can be distracting when learning needs to take place. Clerestory lighting is a great way to get daylight into a classroom while avoiding disruption from outside. If full-height windows are used, shading can be handled in two ways. The first method involves applying a film to the glass, to obscure vision without blocking daylight. The second is using a roller-shade device. Making sure window shades and frames are similar colors helps to make the window wall feel more like one object in the space.

For artificial light, the old school of thought was: avoid fluorescents at all costs, because they flicker. Modern fluorescent light bulbs do not have the flickering issues of their predecessors and are available in a variety of color temperatures, allowing for warmer-feeling light. Indirect and more diffuse lighting is encouraged to provide a more pleasant learning environment.For artificial light, the old school of thought was: avoid fluorescents at all costs, because they flicker. Modern fluorescent light bulbs do not have the flickering issues of their predecessors and are available in a variety of color temperatures, allowing for warmer-feeling light. Indirect and more diffuse lighting is encouraged to provide a more pleasant learning environment

Color

Most children with autism see colors with greater intensity, so muted colors can have a calming effect. Monochromatic color schemes are preferable, with any patterns in the space also subdued. Many early education classrooms feature bursts of primary colors, but choosing softer, more calming and relaxing colors—with the neutral earth tones of the natural environment as inspiration—is more beneficial. 

Support Spaces

Carving out small group rooms that are adjacent and connect to larger classroom space for pull-in/pull-out instruction allows students to receive specialized teaching while still being incorporated into the classroom environment. Corridor seating, which can also be used for break-out work, encourages student interaction outside of the classroom, which benefits social skills. 

Reducing Flair

In most elementary classrooms, the misguided efforts of teachers to make their spaces feel more comfortable are readily apparent—decorations, splashes of color, and, for lack of a better term, flair. Although well-intended, this flair can actually be a huge distraction for students, particularly for those with autism. Increasingly, principals are introducing guidelines for teachers that limits such decoration to certain specified areas (e.g., bulletin boards opposite the primary teaching wall). This creates a more inclusive classroom and limits distractions for all students.

Furniture


Flexibility and durability in furniture are important. In the learning environment, furniture needs to support students’ ability to engage in classroom activities, and numerous solutions can be employed as a means of achieving this end—from traditional student desks and tables that are more easily reconfigurable, to foam bean bag-like chairs, to mat areas on the floor. For storage, plenty of built-ins and organizational spaces, to keep clutter to a minimum, help with distraction. It is also good reinforcement for children to know that certain items have “places,” so they learn where their coats, shoes, and other particular objects reside. 

SMMA Design of Cubbies for Special Education Classroom

Spatial Sequencing

The idea of creating zones of transition—personal versus social, with clear delineation—is particularly important for autistic students. A way to achieve this is to have spaces for different activities partially enclosed or separated. Designers should also create predictability. Wayfinding and signage allow students to perceive their spaces better. Additionally, a one-way flow or path can be an effective strategy because it creates a routine for the students—in one door, out the other. 

Outdoor Spaces

Many successful projects create transitional sensory gardens that separate zones of low and high stimuli. Differentiation of space can be achieved via zones for perching, as well as zones of low scale for safety/shelter. Including soft materials that break up large asphalt play zones is also important, and the inclusion of water elements, curves, and natural shape planting areas contribute to a calming environment.

  • Outdoor School Design