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During the pandemic, learners have experienced emotional and psychological stress to varying degrees. Some of the effects represent themselves in depression, challenges to self-esteem, fear, and emotional and psychological anxiety. Each learner’s experience is unique to their situation. To understand how we begin to heal and rebuild our learners’ emotional and psychological well-being, we must realize that we can’t simply hit reset and pick up where we left off. The question then becomes, where do you start?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs framework provides an empathetic approach for returning learners to an environment that addresses their physical, emotional, and psychological needs – where they learn that they can survive and thrive as they continue to make sense of the world around them. This framework reminds us to create learning environments that honor the lived experiences of the learner and empower learners to own their learning.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Addressing the health and well-being of learners requires the community to work together to build new experiences. Improvements to the built environment, including air ventilation, safe drinking water, and nutritious meals, must be addressed to meet the physiological needs of learners. Counselors working with learners, their parents, and teachers to restore the learner’s sense of safety and security is essential to building resilience.

What improvements to the ambient environments of the school would best support the higher-level needs of learners? These environments are the classrooms, library, and all areas in between where learners spend most of their time. Improvements to these environments do not have to be substantial in scale or cost to make a difference. Any minor incremental improvements will make a significant difference in helping learners feel safe, feel respected, show respect to others, create a sense of connection, and realize their potential. Based on Inclusive Design and Universal Design for Learning research on the relationship between learner variabilities and the environment, considerations for rejuvenating learning environments include:

Promote flexible learning environments that allow for the personalization of space

These environments create opportunities to optimize individual choice and autonomy, foster collaboration, and build community. Personalization provides learners with structured decisions of where they work, how they approach the problem/project, and with whom they work – alone or together.

Embrace fidgeting and movement within the environment

Activity is essential to the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of the learner. Research indicates that small movements stimulate neurons in the brain that keep us attentive. The layout of the furniture and tools of the room communicates to learners that they have control over how they use the area, where they sit or stand, and what postures are best suited for their comfort. In facilitating movement, it is vital to intentionally design “negative” space for the flow of materials and people. For learners with visual impairments, moving furniture around can be a challenge. Negative space can be a means to highlight circulation paths.

Create a palette of learning environments

The floor is a great learning space, especially when supplemented with low tables and stools. Using the floor as a learning space can spark the imagination and ignite ideas for the many ways learners can reconfigure their environment. Dedicating wall space within reach of the learner provides opportunities for sharing ideas, creating content, and collaboration. Consider “getaway” areas for those times when learners who are easily distracted or have sensitivities relating to proximity with other students need a quiet space for a few minutes to reset and restore so they can re-engage. These enclaves optimize the learner’s autonomy and choice to regulate their activities.

Utilize all areas of the space

On the opposite end of the scale is an opportunity to utilize every square foot of assets for learning. Leverage the public spaces of the school to create learning zones that foster large-scale collaboration and community building.

Seek opportunities to increase daylighting and make connections to the outdoors

Build projects into the curriculum for outdoor education. If possible, when holding class indoors, open windows so that daylighting and fresh air permeate the space and provide vistas of nature outside of windows. If there is no opportunity to view the outdoors in real-time, bring representations of elements of nature into the environment through materials and color. Research on humans’ connection to nature has shown that a link to the outdoors has a positive impact on the health and well-being of built environment occupants.

Support idea-generation for teachers and staff

Create a prototype studio (innovation lab) where teachers and school leaders can test new instructional methods and experiment with a hackable space. Such a space is where teachers gain the courage to take fresh approaches back into the classroom.

These considerations might appear unachievable due to budget restrictions and reduced resources for schools and communities. The best approach is to start small and take incremental steps. Look for a colleague who has a passion for innovative ideas and high-impact practices. Seek out someone willing to take risks using existing or low-cost resources to pilot one or more new ideas. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so evaluate what works and doesn’t work to determine if it is a viable practice to scale. Build on your successes and celebrate the wins.

Learners are resilient, but the past year has tested their mental and emotional resiliency. Following a year of extended periods of stress and trauma, learners need their community to lead with empathy so they will be able to restore their sense of wonder and belonging; rebuild trust and community, and reset their path to a brighter future.

About Susan Whitmer

Susan Whitmer is an Advisor and Consultant at Susan Whitmer Studios, where her focus is on creating human-centered experiences that are inclusive, equitable, and promote well-being. Susan has written and co-authored numerous peer-reviewed white papers, articles, and book chapters on inclusive design and learning spaces, including Open House International, National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, International Perspectives on Higher Education Research (Vol. 12), SCUP’s Planning for Higher Education Journal, and Current Issues in Education Journal. She serves an Advisory role at the FLEXspace community, International WELL Building Institute (IWBI™), and Learning Spaces Collaboratory.