We can learn so much from special education learning environments—recognizing the considerations and design elements strategically developed to support special education students can bring similar benefits to the general student population. This idea coincides with a shift in how we program and design SPED spaces in general: no longer repurposing offices or storage spaces, but instead offering an opportunity for inclusion and belonging every student deserves.
This intersection is where design can make a measurable difference. An estimated 7.2 million students live with one or more disabilities in the United States, which is about 13% of public school enrollment. That’s why it’s so beneficial when those design elements we typically associate with special education – tactile surfaces, sensory rooms, etc. – can also benefit the development of all children. And as our neurodivergent student population grows, recognizing and honoring the same truth becomes even more important, as Melissa Turnbaugh writes in Real Clear Education:
“Inclusion is more than just a buzzword; it requires taking actions that tangibly enrich the student experience. Creating inclusive-learning environments starts with changing how we design schools and educational infrastructure.”
As we consider Universal Design, we must approach special ed learning with the mindset of providing the Least Restrictive Environment for students, an environment that supports a student’s needs while minimizing restrictions to his/her participation in general education situations. Our team recently parterned with the Park Hill School District on the renovation and addition to Russell Jones Education Center, a facility supporting the unique needs of special education students with emotional and behavioral concerns. While the resource-intensive addition is tailored for the specific, unique needs the student population presents, the lessons learned allow our team to better understand how to apply key space characteristics to other schools to support the overall mental health of students and teachers. Given the current mental health crisis most schools are now facing, the topic has become a priority for many districts and community members.
Dr. Christopher Daniels is director of special services for the district and is a firm believer now’s the time for school design to start with special education first.
“It’s that thoughtful planning process of saying, ‘Let’s look through the lens of special education and then plan the other stuff around it,’” he said. “And that’s completely opposite of what we have done for years and years and years.”
Hollis + Miller is collaborating with the Park Hill School District team designing a new elementary school, working to integrate SPED learning spaces into the academic wings in the new design.
“We’re thinking forward in terms of where we place these classrooms, and also having sensory rooms and sensory areas for kids who struggle in big environments. And you’re seeing this all throughout the industry.”
Special education is quickly expanding in size and shape throughout many school districts. It can also be one of the populations which fluctuates the most from year to year, creating a need for increased flexibility to support additional students who may only stay in the school or the district for the rest of their academic career.
The Americans with Disabilities Act changed the modern building design in so many ways, but educational facilities must go beyond just the required wheelchair ramps and accessible bathroom sinks. School design must rethink the learning environment holistically to ensure classrooms are inclusive and supportive of all student populations.
Through our work with schools across the country, we’ve identified some key design considerations that should be priorities that go beyond what is written in law, and how it applies to daily life.
The placement of special education classrooms for students with physical mobility concerns starts even before the student steps into the building. Sometimes, just the task of navigating to their classroom can be taxing both mentally and physically for students. But it doesn’t end there – the distance to the playground or to art class can add to the struggles students must navigate every day. For some students, visual distractions and noise levels can contribute to the day-to-day stressors, such as walking by a bustling cafeteria full of their chatty peers.
“Students in these classes are everywhere in our community, so they should be in every single building and not isolated,” Daniels said.
As we consider distance or triggers, we need to consider how we can integrate students into the mainstream of the student population as much as possible so they aren’t excluded from special experiences or connections with their peers.
One supportive feature at Russell Jones includes a “calming corner,” a space within the classroom for students to work on self-regulation when they feel triggered in the classroom. This dedicated area allows the teacher to intervene when a student begins to escalate without having to exit the classroom. These kinds of additions are part of a transitional plan to allow supportive spaces at the appropriate level needed when students are in crisis. Students needing additional support can transition into an adjacent sensory room, a separate room often filled with proprioceptive elements such as rocking chairs or swings, enabling students to work through their emotions and appropriately respond to stimuli.
This same concept can be translated in any school—and not only for students but for educators, too, said Daniels.
“Our adults in education are stressed just like everybody is, but they’re really on the very edge of burnout. And our special education staff is probably at the top of that. So, we’re trying to incorporate these calm down areas for adults as well … areas for them to decompress, to have a safe place to go and sit for a minute—seated areas or even treadmills and things like that. … Trying to incorporate some of those things for our staff is really important.”
Many high schools have begun to integrate “chill rooms” near the guidance counselor’s office. These rooms are often repurposed office spaces, providing a safe space for a student or staff member to self-regulate, reset and simply take a minute before jumping back into the bustle of their normal day.
Beyond the interior calming and sensory rooms, the opportunity to simply go outside and take a deep breath is an incredibly important component of self-regulation for us all. Despite opportunities to go outside for a break or for a lesson, Russell Jones staff will have a new enclosed exterior courtyard that will enable students to have access to nature without the security risk of student flight. Beyond a protected connection with nature, this space is also connected to the Active Sensory space, providing yet another opportunity for students to move and use their voices in working through anxiety filled moments.
Along with physical opportunities for students to connect with nature, the idea of natural light is also important to this and any student population. However, when placing windows in Special Education designated classrooms, we want to consider the possible distractions that may come from activities seen through the glass. Because of this, we will often consider utilizing film on the lower portion of existing windows that obscures the view, or place windows in more of a clerestory position, to allow for views of the sky, above the people activity zone to decrease the amount of visual distraction clear views can sometimes cause.
These small but powerful changes in school design can yield some big benefits. Daniels said he’s witnessed many of them firsthand, including less bullying:
“I think there’s a greater understanding in general of students who have special needs, who look and sound different than a typical peer does,” he said. “I also believe we’re figuring out that there’s not really any such thing as a ‘typical peer’ anymore. Most students feel like they are dealing with of some type of issue, which I think might make kids more receptive to our special education students.”
That’s really what it all comes down to—design for everyone. Special areas like resource rooms, intervention spaces, areas designed for small groups – along with soft surfaces, sensory walls, etc. – allow educators to access the tools for different types of educational interventions.
Check back in late 2024 for final photos and results of inclusive design at the Russell Jones Center.