Looking at classrooms in a new light

Posted on 22nd May 2023 in School News, Prep Schools Guide, Wellbeing

Mrs Rachael Cox, Headmistress at Eton End School, reflects on how classroom environment can affect child development and wellbeing.

Eton End School has always prided itself on offering a nurturing family environment. It is a school where children excel because they skip through the gates every day knowing and feeling that they are valued and loved by those who are working with them daily. Our children take risks in their learning because those leaps of faith are celebrated unhindered by whether the outcome leads to success or full marks in tests. We are lucky to have fantastic outdoor space where our children can climb trees, build dens, and sit around the fire pit on a cold day.

Always looking to be a leading school in well-being, we developed our Sunny Selves initiative several years ago. Now part of the daily fabric of school life, the key messages of solid sleep, fabulous food, love learning, real relationships and mindful moments are the backbone of a school working in partnership with parents and determined to offer the best environment for children and their learning. Since September 2023, we have added the WeekEnd Walks, Saturday Socials and West End family theatre trips to the school calendar: offering families and staff the opportunity to spend social time together in a way which builds our community and enriches lives.

In the spirit of Charlotte Mason and the original PNEU schools, the team at Eton End are actively engaged in educational research and understanding the neuroscience behind learning and child development. This has led us to look more closely at our classrooms and how they are set up and furnished: the key question being does the traditional classroom environment offer the best opportunities for children in 2023 to learn and succeed?

In October 2022, the school refitted the Nursery and Reception classes using beautifully crafted wooden furniture from Community Playthings. This made a significant impact on the learning space, but it was also accompanied by stripping out the bright colours traditionally associated with Early Years spaces and replacing them with muted hues and soft furnishings. As much as possible, the team used natural tones and rustic materials to create a gentler learning environment. The impact on the children was immediate: they were calm; engaged with their play and learning for more sustained periods and levels of conversation and interactions with the EYFS practitioners increased. In the Reception classrooms, we noticed less fidgeting during carpet time and small group work. Interestingly, the children also started using quieter voices and while they are still totally engrossed in their play and directed work, they are less frenetic in their endeavours.

Research is telling educators, at every turn, that for children to take on new learning we need to reduce the cognitive load and give their brains chance to forge new connections and to focus on the core learning in hand. The cultural norm of brightly coloured display boards and prompts all around the rooms may be contributing to some of this cognitive and sensory overload. In addition to this, the traditional classroom with plastic chairs and rectangular tables is not particularly physically comfortable, especially when we consider children occupy them for up to 7 hours a day, 5 days a week. Very few of us would consider setting up our own working spaces with a hard chair and limited personal space, yet the style of classrooms and the furniture which sits in many of them has never really deviated from this model.

More children than ever are finding they need extra support in many areas of their lives; whether this manifests as anxiety, friendship struggles, or simply feeling pressure to do well to make their parents proud and reach the highest attainment levels. There is undoubtably an increased level of need for emotional support in our schools from counsellors, ELSAs and the wider pastoral teams. While some of this can be attributed to the pandemic, school leaders were becoming more aware of the need to strengthen this aspect of provision for all age groups before the Covid era.

Access to technology and social media also has a part to play in the struggles some children are having with their mental health and sense of self-worth. What the science does tell us is that when children are under emotional stress, something that can occur for many reasons – from a difficult start to the day; lack of sleep; a falling out with a friend or sibling to something much more significant like a family breakdown, a traumatic event or bereavement – their rational brains are unable to take on new learning or to regulate their feelings. Walking into a bright, busy classroom can amplify these feelings and impact on their ability to learn effectively.

Over the coming months, Eton End will be completely redesigning all our classrooms to create a warm, comfortable environment that is inclusive and supportive of mental health and well-being. Soft chairs, sofas and beanbags will become the norm, along with a variety of desk types including standing desks and round tables. Wall displays will be reduced, and work celebrated in a unique way through scrapbooks or frames on the wall. The 1:1 device policy will allow the resources which have traditionally adjourned the walls of the classroom, to be at the pupils’ fingertips and personalised to their needs. The round tables will support collaboration and interaction; replicating the world outside the school building that we are preparing our children to enter. Muted tones will replace the bright primary colours, to reduce sensory overload and classrooms will all have an area where the children can relax, read, and self-regulate.

Eton End is a Prep School committed to preparing our children for a future which is hard for those of us currently leading schools to imagine. We want our children to leave our school with a secure sense of self and a quiet confidence which will allow them to embrace every opportunity and challenge that comes their way. The foundations of good mental health, resilience and being a lifelong learner are laid in the Prep School years. Our ambitions for our children are high; we are passionately committed to preserving and celebrating childhoods, whilst offering an environment in which children feel psychologically safe to embrace challenge and be the best that they can be. We dare to do things differently because we have high aspirations for our pupils to excel and be courageous in their approach to their own lives.

This article appears in the 2023 edition of John Catt's Preparatory Schools, which you can view here: