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COVID-19 has directly impacted students through widespread school closures, loss of learning, and widening disparities. It has also had consequential indirect impacts on students. A troubling rise in child neglect (Thomas et al., 2020), stress related to food insecurity (Dunn et al., 2020), and mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression (Lee, 2020) all highlight the vital role that K-12 schools play for children, beyond simply educating them.

Even before COVID-19, mental health concerns were pervasive in schools. In 2017, per the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 20% of students aged 12–18 reported being bullied at school during the academic year (Wang et al., 2020). Mental health concerns influence self-esteem (Mann et al., 2004) and academic performance (Dix et al., 2012). For example, 37% of students aged 14 and over with a mental health condition drop out of school – the highest dropout rate of any disability group. Additionally, 70% of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems have a mental illness (National Alliance on Mental Health, 2020).

Students spend approximately 15,000 hours in school before they graduate (Rutter, 1982). Given this, schools are uniquely positioned to identify and mitigate daily physical and mental health issues and offer support during manmade or natural disasters because of their ability to facilitate learning, build self-esteem, and provide socialization, counseling, medical services, food, laundry facilities, physical activity, and more. One way schools are expanding their focus to better support students is through social-emotional learning (SEL). Emerging evidence suggests that SEL features may help strengthen relationships and promote health and behavior for students and teachers (Blewitt et al., 2020).

From the perspective of professionals in the public health and school building design communities, this article introduces the ways in which building design can integrate SEL to help mitigate acute and chronic student mental health concerns. This article outlines six principles that can be integrated into the K-12 school building design process to ensure we are proactive – not reactive – in addressing mental health needs.

Social-Emotional Learning: What is It and Why Do We Care?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, n.d.). CASEL’s framework for SEL includes five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Students who participate in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11% gain in academic achievement (Konishi and Wong, 2018). Other SEL benefits include lower rates of dropout, drug use, teen pregnancy, and criminal behavior (Kautz et al., 2017).

SEL improves lives over time. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, statistically significant associations have been found between kindergarteners’ social-emotional skills and future wellness in adulthood (Jones, Greenberg, and Crowley, 2015). SEL decreased a person’s likelihood of living in or being on a waiting list for public housing, receiving public assistance, being involved with police before adulthood, and spending time in a detention facility (Jones, Greenberg, and Crowley, 2015).

SEL is not just for students. The benefits of SEL extend to teachers, especially when you consider that 40 – 50% of teachers stop teaching within their first five years (Ingersoll, 2012). According to Drs. Patricia Jennings and Mark Greenberg, leading scientists in the field of SEL, teachers who possess social-emotional competencies are less likely to experience burnout because they can work more effectively with challenging students (Zakrzewski, 2020).

Acute Events as a Catalyst for Change

National attention on student mental health increases during acute, traumatic events such as climate-related threats (e.g., wildfires, hurricanes, extreme heat), gun violence in schools, personal trauma, and most recently, COVID-19. These events have the potential to disrupt health services and perceived safety. For example, Puerto Rican students who experienced Hurricane Maria in 2017 reported high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive symptoms (Orengo-Aguayo et al., 2019). Similarly, anxiety and adjustment problems reportedly increased for students in Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (Madrid et al., 2008).

Other personal trauma can affect how students might cope in school, sometimes leading to mood disorders, behavior or conduct problems, or aggressive behavior and anxiety disorders. Research shows that children exposed to trauma have decreased social competence and increased rates of peer rejection (Schwartz and Proctor, 2000). It follows that students who have experienced a traumatic event are at greater risk for academic, social, and emotional problems (Kataoka et al., 2012). During COVID-19, more children have experienced food insecurity, abuse and neglect, mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety, and loss of community and educational opportunity (Lee, 2020; Thomas et al., 2020; Dunn et al., 2020). These challenges are similar to those experienced during and after extreme weather events.

To mitigate these negative outcomes, we must adopt a more holistic approach to school design that supports SEL educational goals.

Six Principles of SEL-Informed Design

Brackett et al. (2019) suggest the benefits of SEL can be optimized when SEL is integrated into the curriculum and training is provided to school staff and families. However, much of the existing research does not mention the role of the physical building in SEL, highlighting an important opportunity to further mitigating negative mental health outcomes for students and school staff. The following six principles of SEL-informed school design are proposed to create a holistic, evidence-based approach that is supportive of SEL curriculum and educational goals.

Flexibility

Emotional awareness, expression, and regulation differ by student demographics (e.g., age, culture, socioeconomic background) (Brackett et al., 2019). Therefore, SEL programs must be adaptable for specific student needs to effectively improve social-emotional competencies. Flexible learning spaces can rapidly adapt to support the needs of students across grade levels and abilities. Flexibility can occur at different times and programmatic scales. Changes may be needed annually or hourly. Acute events or disruptions to the academic year (e.g., disease, gun violence, extreme weather) may require different design responses such as social distancing or smaller, more personal breakout spaces. For example, during COVID-19, gymnasiums were repurposed as educational spaces and school parking lots became food distribution sites.

At Charles R. Drew Charter School Junior and Senior Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, shared classrooms and project labs have mobile furniture, wireless networking, floor-mounted power, sinks, storage cabinets, and mobile and fixed presentation technology that allow these spaces to adapt to the curriculum. The Art Garden, an open space adjacent to the auditorium, serves as a multipurpose space with an outdoor pre-function area for performances, a location for weekend green markets, and a host of other school and community events. These state-of-the-art spaces provide both technological and pedagogical flexibility.

Customization

Tailored learning spaces respond to students’ physical, educational, cultural, and social-behavioral needs. Their design and utilization are influenced by Universal Design for Learning, which relies on emerging research on how students learn. Spaces need to facilitate and balance features that support visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading and writing learners. The physical environment can better support students when it is equipped with enhanced acoustics (e.g., reduced background noise and reverberation), superior lighting (e.g., provide task lighting, minimize glare, and natural light), and comfortable breakout spaces for problem-solving and collaboration.

Customization also means tailoring schools to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students, specifically those experiencing personal hardship such as housing instability, food insecurity, or domestic abuse. Supportive and restorative spaces that reduce stress create a sense of community and support focus and in-class participation. Simple amenities, such as a private shower, a clothes closet, a washing machine, or a food pantry can support high-needs students without stigma. Restorative spaces that incorporate natural elements and green views to the outdoors, known as biophilic design, have been shown to improve memory, creativity, and attention, as well as reduce stress and absenteeism (Gillis and Gatersleben, 2015).

Nature also appears to provide a calmer, quieter, safer context for learning; a warmer, more cooperative context for learning; and a combination of “loose parts” and autonomy that fosters developmentally beneficial forms of play (Kuo, Barnes, and Jordan, 2019).

Customization can take place in new construction and pre-existing buildings since changes in student demographics, health needs, or teaching pedagogy may require adaptations to the learning space and curriculum. Customization of the learning environment should be addressed early in the design process and consider sociodemographic, health, school culture, and academic data to inform which elements need to be prioritized. For example, Morrow High School in Clayton County, Georgia has a predominately minority, free- and reduced-lunch eligible student population with a strong sense of school culture. After learning how important health is to this school community, the building was designed to promote physical activity, access to nature through outdoor patios for lunch and learning, and adequate daylighting for alertness, with features that can be modified based on the needs of individual students.

Visibility

Visibility is a facet of SEL-informed design that is applied across the school facility. It is the ability for students, teachers, and staff to see each other throughout the space. Visibility can be created throughout a school’s hallway network by removing turns, alcoves, and blind spots. Longer hallways may allow adults to detect bullying and harassment more quickly and prevent students from participating in risky behavior (Domitrovich, Syvertsen, and Calin, 2017). Dispersing teacher and staff meeting, planning, and lunch spaces may foster passive supervision throughout the school, even when teachers are not actively engaging students. Research has shown that people-place cues and social wayfinding can improve psychological safety, and a nearby teacher or a public space with adult supervision can indicate that an area is safe to walk in alone (Dalton, Holscher, and Montello, 2019).

At Lisle Elementary School in DuPage County, Illinois, connectivity to transparent breakout rooms creates sightlines to all learning spaces, facilitating teacher supervision while giving students the independence they need to grow. Students can see outside from any point within the building and can easily access the outdoors, visually and physically. The design intent was to balance the security and transparency needs of indoor and outdoor learning spaces for daily building occupants and occasional community groups.

Visibility can also exist at a larger scale and inform where to site school buildings. Proximity to local infrastructure (commercial or civic) can foster a direct connection between the school and the larger community. During an extreme event (e.g., active shooter, natural disaster), this proximity can facilitate a more rapid response by emergency or relief services. Creating relationships with local emergency services (e.g., police, fire) can have the indirect benefit of reducing biased policing, which can lead to racial anxiety in students of color (Godsil et al., 2014).

Communicative

An identity-focused learning environment tells a story by sparking emotional human connections and supporting a common vision and mission. When identity is combined with architecture, interior design, and program it conveys broader goals and enhances engagement. Communicative spaces establish and reinforce a school’s values and expectations. Using stories, graphics, wayfinding, and signage can establish identities and direct students seamlessly within a K-12 facility. Cohesively composed and strategically located graphics and colors can create a positive and warm environment where students feel welcome and have a sense of ownership in their learning community. In addition, thoughtful communicative graphics and signage can mitigate implicit biases, racial anxiety, stereotype threat, and hate, which diminish student performance (Godsil et al., 2014). Similar to Visibility, social and graphic wayfinding can support safety and security for all occupants by positively reinforcing students’ self-worth, facilitating ease of movement through the space without consequence, fostering inclusion of the greater school community, and supporting students of all abilities (Brackett et al., 2019; Dalton, Holscher, and Montello, 2019). In response to COVID-19, signage in reopened schools can limit confusion and stress over social distancing, entry and exit protocols, and seating changes.

At Billerica Memorial High School in Massachusetts, the new school building’s design included a redesigned brand and visual identity based on the concept of Reflection with Direction: Honoring the Past, Aiming for the Future. Founded on the town’s culture of humble pride, a full suite of logos, colors, fonts, and graphics are intended to help the town confidently represent itself through the school’s design. It represents their mission, vision, values, experiences, memories, and legacy – specifically, it represents what they stand for, the way they treat each other, their collective achievements, and their unconditional support for one another.

Collaborative

At the heart of learning is collaboration, human connection, and engagement. Developing deliberate ways to collaborate is an essential social development skill that has implications for future job performance, building healthy relationships, and conflict resolution (Domitrovich, Syvertsen, and Calin, 2017). Design should support deliberate, formal collaboration while also providing opportunities for spontaneous human connection. These objectives can be accomplished in nontraditional places such as hallways, breakout areas, learning pods, and co-teaching spaces, requiring an openness to nontraditional learning spaces and a different approach to programming adjacencies.

At Rodriguez Elementary School in San Marcos, Texas, collaborative learning pods serve as co-teaching spaces with small group breakout areas that connect to classrooms and provide high-quality acoustical environments that foster the sound recognition necessary for early reading development. Small group areas within the classrooms support SEL through the inclusion of resources and materials that are readily accessible for struggling students. Instead of sending a student down the hall to a room for “different kids,” a “push-in support” approach brings materials directly to the student without creating stigma around the child by making them leave. The pods provide a variety of learning environments, allowing students the ability to work informally in small groups and/or prepare for large presentation settings. This work is supported by a team-teaching environment, where a dedicated teacher collaboration zone provides space for teachers to collaborate and communicate about student needs.

Dynamic

Dynamic learning spaces respond to students’ self-awareness and self-management needs while creating opportunities for choice. Throughout a school year, or even a school day, students are rapidly changing and developing their sense of self. They bring to their learning environment a unique personal narrative, influenced by their age, gender identity, emotional state, home environment, and more. Their needs and preferences may shift due to personal challenges that impact their daily academic and interpersonal performance (e.g., family, stress, disabilities, lack of sleep, relationships).

Dynamic spaces offer students and staff variety and can include areas for de-escalation or activation to support better cognitive function and attention. These spaces also support responsible decision-making by providing an opportunity for student choice, allowing students to select a space that aligns with their current needs. The North Kansas City School District wanted an engaging, dynamic space that would empower the elementary-age students in their Students in Academically Gifted Education program to take ownership of their education, explore new ideas, and spark creativity through socializing. The final design includes collaboration spaces that support project-based learning and independent study, building social and emotional skills while encouraging intellectual curiosity. Bold colors on the walls, pillars, and carpets visually indicate where different activities take place, helping students understand boundaries without creating physical barriers that stifle movement.

During COVID-19 school closures, schools debated whether to repurpose gymnasiums for socially-distanced educational space and reimagined how other spaces in the school could be used for physical education. Providing a range of energizing, non-academic spaces can have lasting benefits since greater physical activity and dedicated recess time have been shown to reduce the risk of depression and anxiety, provide physical and intellectual benefits for students with disabilities, and improve academic performance (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018; Lang et al., 2010; Institute of Medicine, 2013). Examples of these types of spaces include informal break-out areas for group work, outdoor classrooms, large corridors, cafeteria spaces (during non-food service hours), and areas within the media center and library.

Rachael Dumas
Dr. Erika Eitland

About the authors

Rachael Dumas (Rachael.Dumas@perkinswill.com) is Research Knowledge Manager for Perkins&Will’s K-12 Education practice. In this role, Rachael focuses on current and developing trends throughout the country and globally and works closely with project leadership to maximize the return on planning and research. She is a great asset to the team because of her focus on innovation and resilience, as well as her ability to connect clients with the firm’s global knowledge base which includes research labs, marketing teams, and design leaders. Rachael holds a Master’s in Architectural Preservation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Bachelor’s in Consumer Communications from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

Dr. Erika Eitland (Erika.Eitland@perkinswill.com) is a Research Analyst at Perkins&Will whose focus is K-12 schools, affordable housing, and urban resilience. She received her doctorate in Environmental Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. There, Erika was lead author of the Schools for Health: Foundations for Student Success report, which examined more than 250 scientific articles on the association between building quality and student health and performance. She also holds a Master of Public Health in Climate and Health from Columbia University.

Article originally published and reprinted with permission from the Green Schools National Network, within the Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly.

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