Inclusivity: Inside & Outside (part 1)

There are a lot of questions that pop up throughout the school day. How do I divide fractions? Are we going to have a pop quiz? Who am I going to sit next to at lunch? Seriously, how do I divide fractions?! These kinds of questions are expected during the school year. 

However, there are some questions a student should never have to ask. 

Am I going to be kept away from the other kids because I’m on an IEP and they are not? Do I have somewhere safe to go if I feel out of control? Am I going to physically struggle to get to class on time? Is there a place for me?

Students of all different backgrounds and identities come together in a school setting, including disabled students and non-disabled students. Roughly 17% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 experience a form of disability. Yet the schools that they learn in aren’t always designed to optimize their learning environment.

“As an architect, you know you’re going to have to meet ADA standards. But that’s the minimum,” says Jeff Parker, SHP senior architect and director of visioning. “To create an inclusive space, you have to take into account what the occupants need as individuals, not just what is required of you.”

To create schools that provide space for all students, inclusivity has to be at the forefront of each decision throughout the design process. Here are a few ways to integrate inclusive conversation and design best practices throughout your project, and how to create a space where every student feels ready to learn.

Teach Them Well and Let Them Lead the Way

Before you can even begin the design process, there are people whom you’ll need to consult, like school board members, superintendents, and administrators, just to name a few. But some of the most valuable voices that need to be heard come from inside the classrooms—the teachers.

“There should always be a very clear discussion with the teachers who interact with students with disabilities on a daily basis. Being intentional from the outset ensures these students and the decisions that impact them don’t become an afterthought,” says Olive Guess, an interior designer at SHP.

Teacher input benefits the design process in a multitude of ways. Importantly, their experience paints a clear picture of the types of students, distinct individual needs and curricular supports each of your spaces will serve, which allows for the design to be more specialized to the needs of the children.

For instance, some administrators may suggest putting any specialized classrooms in a wing of the building that is separate from all the other classrooms. However, teachers have long rebutted this idea. Integrating specialized classrooms with the other classrooms allows for more socialization between students who have disabilities and students who don’t, reducing social stigma at an early age.

“Many teachers have told us that when you integrate specialized classrooms throughout the school and encourage disabled students to interact with nondisabled students, you’re creating empathy and better teamwork,” Olive says.

It’s not just the teachers who can give you an idea of what the students need. So can the students themselves.

“Students we’ve spoken with who are required to take the elevator hate when the elevator is on the opposite end of the hall from the stairs,” Olive continues. “When all of their friends go one direction to class and they have the other direction, it makes them feel isolated and ‘othered.’” By putting the elevators right next to the staircase, students can travel together and feel fully part of their community.

So before you begin the design process, grab your favorite lunch pail and your best set of listening ears, and get back to the classroom—because the input the students and teachers can give you will chart the course for the rest of the project. 

Create Spaces People Want to Leave (Yes, Really!)

Everyone needs to walk away sometimes. Whether you’re the coach of a little league team that just can’t seem to hit the ball or you have a dog that has torn through your slipper again, there is an undeniable benefit in taking five minutes to yourself.

Students and teachers are no different.

“We all need time to disengage for a moment, but schools don’t tend to build spaces where you can do that. The kids benefit from calm-down corners, but the teachers also benefit from a space where they can go take a breather,” says Jeff. “Teachers benefit so much from a place where they don’t need to be ‘on,’ where they can catch a breath and refocus.”

One school where we see this implemented is the new Peck Expeditionary Learning K-8 School in Greensboro, North Carolina. This facility is not only designed to allow for interaction between all students but is also designed to allow students and teachers to remove themselves when they need to. Peck employs the use of calm-down corners, which allows students to self-regulate and take time to regroup in a safe space. Peck also has gracious courtyards adjacent to the interior learning spaces, giving everyone the ability to step out and take a breather when they need to.

Here’s another best practice: Situate the classroom entrance in an area that is not adjacent to the “front” of the room. Students who have to step away from the classroom—whether they’re being pulled out by an intervention specialist, need to see a counselor, or simply need to go to the restroom—can feel uncomfortable walking out the front of their classroom for all their peers to see. By placing the exit opposite the room’s focus, students can feel at ease slipping out the door, knowing they’re not drawing attention to themselves.

Regardless of their abilities, every student can benefit from architecture that allows them to process their needs and self-regulate with dignity.

It’s the Little Things in Life…

Finishing touches are arguably the most fun part of any task.

Putting sprinkles on your ice cream is always more fun than scooping it. Choosing the paint for a car restoration is a more creative process than rebuilding the engine. In school construction, the finishing touches aren’t just a chance to be creative—they’re a chance to make a positive impact on the students they’re designed for.

An easy way to accommodate the needs of students is to create proper classroom acoustics. In a classroom, there can be a lot of conflicting vocal and auditory needs. Some disabled students vocally stim, meaning they can experience repetitive vocal behaviors. This might impede the sensory needs of the students who experience auditory overstimulation. Installing a rubber floor or carpeting in these classrooms dulls the extra noise, allowing students to stim without having to worry about the effect it will have on the needs of others.

Another small way you can make a space more inclusive is the paint you choose. Olive says, “Of course, you want the space to be colorful, but by choosing more neutral colors or at least muted colors, the space will be less visually overwhelming for the students.”

Whether it’s flooring or painting a wall, these small decisions can prove to have the biggest impact on students.

A School for Everyone

Designing inclusive school spaces is a very involved, detailed process but, if done right, is extremely rewarding. 

“When we think about accessibility, we often think about people who use wheelchairs versus people who don’t,” says Olive. “But everyone can benefit from a sensory-conscious room. Everyone needs to get away sometimes. Designing for neurodiversity allows us to think about these hidden disabilities and truly design for everyone.”