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Design for Wellness

May 28, 2020 by Jody Andres AIA LEED AP in Wisconsin School News

An increasing number of students are struggling with mental health issues. Students who are facing or have been affected by trauma or who have persistent physical and emotional challenges can benefit from a space that is respectful of their circumstances and supports their educational pursuits. Therefore, schools should be prepared to offer them a safe space to address these issues when they arise.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided a sense of the scope of the issue in an April 2019 Children's Mental Health Update:

  • 7.4% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.5 million) have a diagnosed behavior problem. 
  • 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety. 
  • 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years with depression also have anxiety, and almost 1 in 2 have behavior problems. 

Mental health issues among children and teens have steadily increased since 2003. Students with mental difficulties and those affected by trauma need the barriers to educational attainment eliminated. The preceding CDC data can influence the design of educational construction and remodeling projects, the choices of purchases of such items as paint and furniture, and the selection of professional development and faculty/staff education.

The Appleton Area School District is designing its schools with mental health in mind, including creating spaces for collaboration and student wellness.

Designing for self-regulation
Self-regulation is a critical skill for young people to master. It essentially refers to the ability to regulate or control one's own emotions. A child's environment plays a big role in his or her ability to self-regulate.

The main goal of a self-regulation space is to keep a student engaged in education. To help students success in its classrooms, Appleton schools have created "Nests" -- regulation stations to focus their physical and mental attention. Some schools place stickers on floors and walls that invoke physical stimulation. Handprints on walls and words such as "smash" on the floors provide a helpful physical and mental break from sensitive student routines. A change does not have to be extravagant -- kinetic, visual, tactile, and auditory features can truly make a difference.

Create calm with colors
It is increasingly common for school districts to consider how colors will affect the mood and feel of an area. More natural materials, pleasing and varied textures, and an array of warm colors create a less institutional feel that benefits all, especially students with mental health struggles. For example, red can stimulate exhilaration and increase alertness, which would be appreciated in most school settings. However, for those who struggle with anxiety, red can also be tremendously upsetting.

Be conscious of the calming effect of certain colors:

  • Green diminishes conflict and anger
  • Purple promotes peace and tranquility
  • Yellow aids in creativity, attention, and a general sense of positivity
  • Brown provides a sense of relaxation or helps students feel more protected
  • Off-white advances attention and instills feelings of positively
  • Blue creates a calming environment

A new paint job is one of the most cost-effective ways to freshen up a school and brighten students' and teachers' moods and perceptions.

Lighting makes a difference
In addition, be mindful of lighting options. Seek out opportunities to replace fluorescent and incandescent lighting with LED lighting. Fluorescent bulbs create issues with oscillation frequency (sense of flickering) for some students and teachers, which can be distracting and disconcerting. Dimmable LED lights can create warm and cool environments and less glaring light. That benefits both teachers and students. As a bonus, schools will use less energy and considerably fewer bulbs, resulting in significant long-term cost savings. 

In addition, always seek to provide natural light and views of outdoor spaces whenever possible. A 2012 study, "The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Performance" by Lindsay Baker and Harvey Bernstein, noted numerous benefits of daylight going back more than a century. A well-positioned school that uses quality windows can reduce glare and add insulation. Tubular daylight devices, sometimes known as light tubes, are another viable option to bring daylight into the interior of the building. Overhangs and interior baffles are also worthy of consideration, as they provide uniform lighting. Appleton staff members have observed that lighting plays a significant role in elevating moods and improving attitudes in students and teachers. 

The function of flexible furniture
Flexible seating and kinetic furniture are more examples of tools teachers can use to reduce anxiety escalation in students. Teachers can alter the arrangement, create diverse activity areas and provide for groups of varied sizes. Triangular or trapezoid-shaped desks can aid adaptability, allowing teachers to quickly rearrange a space to meet unique and separate needs. Also consider providing informal options such as stability balls, bean bags, and standing stations to add to the malleability of the environment, whether in classrooms, cafeterias, learning labs, resource centers, or breakout spaces.

Staff and partners matter
It is important to inform all staff of these measures. There will be more buy-in and less push-back if staff members understand why the measures are important. For examples, explaining to the maintenance team why tape or other types of pattern-forming substances are applied to floors can reduce frustration and competing ideals.

The Appleton Area School District joined forces with local mental health agencies for district-wide mental health screenings for students in the third, ninth, and 11th grades.

Students aren't the only ones whose positive mental health we should strive to maintain. There is a growing trend to create regulation spaces for teachers and other adults, including allowing them to "tap out" or remove themselves from a situation by using adult regulation stations.

Pause and reflect on how you could be the catalyst for helping those who need it most. Be mindful of design, colors, lighting, furniture, staff, and partners as you prepare to build, remodel, or refresh your facility for the coming school year. 









Jody Andres, AIA LEED AP, is a senior project architect and the K-12 market leader at Hoffman, Planning, Design & Construction, Inc. Andres is a past president of the American Institute of Architects Wisconsin and the regional representative for the North Central States to the AIA Strategic Council. He has worked with more than 50 school districts on PreK-12 educational facilities, providing needs assessment, planning, programming, and design services. Jody can be reached at jandres@hoffman.net. 



Photos taken by the author depict sensory equipment for students designed, built, and donated by Keyheart Sensory Gyms of Appleton.

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