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In the constantly evolving landscape of education, understanding a student’s mind is as crucial as delivering knowledge. Today’s educators, architects, and designers are presented with a pivotal question: How do we create spaces that not only facilitate academic learning but also nourish the emotional and social well-being of students?

Enter Social Emotional Learning (SEL), a paradigm that bridges cognitive development with emotional growth. But SEL is not merely a pedagogic buzzword. It’s an intricate tapestry of understanding a student’s unique developmental stage and crafting an environment that meets them right where they are.

In an interview with Mike Pirollo and Paul White, Educational Planners with MLP Integrated Design, we delve deep into this intersection, highlighting why SEL has taken center stage in contemporary education and how the very spaces where students learn play a quintessential role in this narrative.

Q: Why is there such a growing emphasis on SEL in classroom design these days?

Mike Pirollo: Gone are the days of the stand-and-deliver approach. With students grappling with a myriad of challenges, from trauma to the influences of social media, schools are now sanctuaries—places of safety and growth. Life-long skills, once dubbed “soft skills,” are now in the spotlight. They’re the tools students need to succeed, prompting both educators and designers to rethink the classroom’s role.

Q: How can physical attributes of a classroom bolster a student’s emotional well-being?

Paul White: Think student-first! A classroom should speak to its students, saying, “This space was crafted just for you.” Subtleties such as positioning materials within easy reach are important; it’s all about the details. Even color plays its part—blues soothe, greens focus, and purples inspire. The message is clear: learning is a journey, and every classroom should celebrate every step.

Q: Considering students’ innate social tendencies, how can furniture and layout promote positive interactions?

Mike Pirollo: Flexibility is the name of the game. From spaces that accommodate whole-group interactions to cozy corners for small-group collaborations, every piece of furniture should cater to diverse needs. Remember, it’s not just about providing desks or chairs—it’s about creating environments that adapt and morph to each unique student interaction.

Q: What are the challenges in marrying SEL principles with classroom design, and how can they be tackled?

Paul White: Design isn’t one-size-fits-all. Different age groups have varied needs. Younger ones need room to move and play, while older students might require more collaborative spaces. The key is understanding and aligning SEL, child development, and space utilization, ensuring that every design choice echoes the ethos of holistic student development.

Design best practices

  • Reflective libraries: Ensure library selections are windows to diverse worlds, allowing students to see themselves reflected in the stories they read.
  • Classroom identity: Let displays shout “our space” rather than “Mr. Garcia’s space.” It’s all about community and collaboration.
  • Celebrate the journey: Perfection isn’t the goal; effort is. Honor the hard work, the trials, the errors, and the growth in classroom displays.
  • Works in progress zone: Dedicate areas to celebrate ongoing projects. Let students understand that learning is a beautiful, ever-evolving process.
  • Anticipation boards: Begin the year with blank bulletin boards. It’s a silent promise to students: “We’re waiting for your brilliance to fill this space.”

Embark on this vibrant journey with us, where the magic of Social Emotional Learning intertwines with the art of design. It’s a world where furniture isn’t just about sitting or storing but about nurturing and inspiring. Dive into the Natural Pod Ideabook and immerse yourself in designs that echo the essence of SEL. But remember, we’re not just about showcasing designs; we’re about sparking meaningful conversations. So, let’s dream, discuss, and redesign your learning spaces, ensuring every corner speaks to and uplifts the spirit of every young learner.

About Mike Pirollo

Mike Pirollo, founder of MLP Integrated Design is an Accredited Learning Environment Planner (ALEP) as designated by the Association for Learning Environments.

Prior to his work in educational planning and design, Mike served as a public school teacher for nearly 20 years, holding positions including middle school English/drama teacher, English Department Chair, high school TV production teacher, and elementary technology integrator/media specialist.

As a current licensed educator, consultant, and educational planner, Mike brings a unique, on-the-ground passion and integrated perspective for all things teaching and learning.

About Paul White

Paul White is a licensed PK-2 early childhood educator in the state of Massachusetts and PK-8 licensed educator in Maine. He is also a certified Responsive Classroom (RC) consultant.

Paul has served as a public school educator since 1997 and has experience teaching kindergarten through third grade in a variety of diverse academic settings. In addition to his work at MLP Integrated Design, Paul is a kindergarten teacher at the Francis T. Bresnahan Elementary School in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Paul’s passion for the RC approach and social-emotional learning developed early in his teaching career after he saw the positive impact it had on his students. Paul decided to become a certified RC consultant to share this passion with other educators, which he has done nationwide since 2014.

As a Senior Education Consultant at MLP, Paul loves working with educators to link social-emotional practices with the design of the learning environment itself to ensure space and practice are in full alignment.