The Classroom

The classroom is the most common type of room in a school building. An appropriate classroom environment is important for successful teaching and learning and for ensuring that all students can participate equally in classroom activities.

The following guidance applies to both general and specialist classrooms. Additional guidance that is specific to different specialist classrooms is provided in the following sections.

It is important that all students can circulate freely around the classroom, and can access storage areas, equipment, sinks, sockets, and so on. The provision of ample space and level access is important for those using assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, crutches or canes. Worktops and sinks should have knee space underneath to allow a wheelchair user to use them comfortably.

Students with emotional, psychological or mental health issues may need more space around them, or they may need access to quiet rooms to allow them to refocus. In some cases, they may need spaces that allow for engagement with a number of adults at one time. Appropriate use of lighting and colour can help to create a calming environment.

Students who have intellectual or learning disabilities will benefit from a design approach that reduces visual and auditory distractions. Distractions can arise from other students passing through nearby corridors, or from noisy sports or music activities, or from external distractions, such as buses or grass cutting.

The Summary Guidelines for School Design to Include Children with Disabilities, from the Center for Architecture and Building Science Research at New Jersey Institute of Technology, notes that distractions in the classroom can result from "the close presence of other children: sharing a table that is too small, other kids' materials (books, papers, devices, etc.) extending into their space, etc,." and "excessive visual stimulation from glare, clutter, displays, equipment, and supplies that fill the classroom".

Students who have difficulties with remembering and concentrating will also benefit from reduced distractions. They may need access to assistive technology (such as a laptop computer with specialist software) to help them to manage their learning processes.

Students who have speech disabilities may need alternative ways to communicate with their teachers and their peers. Classrooms designed to facilitate the use of computers with assistive technology can be very helpful in meeting and supporting these needs. Requirements include appropriate desk space, power points, and network connectivity (fixed or wireless). A suitable acoustic environment that avoids or reduces noise distractions will also be helpful.

Classroom Acoustics

Speech is a key element of teaching and learning in most classrooms: it is the main method of communication between teachers and students. Up to 80% of all classroom activities require listening and speaking.

The quality of a classroom's acoustics can influence speech intelligibility and is therefore an important consideration in classroom design.

All students need good acoustic conditions to help them concentrate and learn. The Department of Education and Skills publication, 'Technical Guidance Document TGD-023 Post-primary School Design Guidelines', notes that: "Good acoustic separation (min 45dB) is required for all teaching spaces and noise-sensitive rooms".

Good acoustic conditions are especially important for students who are deaf or hard of hearing.

A poor acoustical environment is an architectural barrier to students with hearing loss as much as a set of stairs might be a barrier for a child in a wheelchair. (Roy, 2006)

Good acoustic conditions are also important for students:

  • with speech and language difficulties
  • whose first language is not English
  • with vision loss
  • with attention deficit hyperactivity disorders
  • with central auditory processing difficulties (British Standards Institution, 2009)
  • with autistic spectrum disorders (Mostafa, 2008)

Acoustics is a complex area and may require expert advice. Two of the main areas for consideration are background noise and reverberation time, both of which are affected by the construction materials and finishes in a room.

Background Noise

Background noise can mask speech and decrease intelligibility. It can also cause teachers to speak louder, which can lead to voice strain (UK Department of Education and Skills, 2003, Building Bulletin 93, Acoustic Design of Schools, A Design Guide p.54).

People with hearing loss are affected more by background noise than those with normal hearing (Ecophon, 2002, p.94).

Background noise can come from outside the building, for example, from traffic noise; and from inside the building, for example, from adjacent circulation spaces.

Background noise can be minimised at design stage by locating noisy activities away from rooms that require a quieter environment, and by ensuring that the school layout responds to external noise conditions.

Construction materials should be selected to provide sound insulation that will minimise background noise in classrooms.

In existing schools, management solutions can help to reduce problematic background noise and improve acoustics. Solutions include keeping windows closed; using window blinds; putting rubber caps on chair legs; and using soft materials on walls, ceilings and other hard surfaces to reduce echo. Tablecloths, mobiles hanging from the ceiling, and wall displays using soft materials can all help to reduce echo. If these management solutions are not sufficient, expert advice should be sought in relation to the installation of suitable sound insulation.

Reverberation Time

The term 'reverberation time' relates to the time that a sound is heard after it has been spoken. Long reverberation times mean that a word does not have time to finish before the next word reaches the listener - this can cause poor speech intelligibility. In classrooms with long reverberation times, teachers are competing with their own echo for attention from students.

Classroom reverberation times can be calculated based on the sound absorption qualities and areas of wall, floor and ceiling finishes. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for the acoustical design of schools S12.60-2002, "Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements and Guidelines for Schools" specifies maximum reverberation times of between 0.6 and 0.7 seconds for classrooms.

The finishes used in a classroom can affect the reverberation time in the room. In general, hard reflective surfaces will increase the reverberation time in a classroom, whereas softer surfaces tend to absorb sound and help reduce reverberation times.

In practical terms, using soft furnishings, carpets, or sound-absorbing noticeboards may help to reduce the reverberation time in a classroom. Where sound-absorbing floor and wall finishes and fittings may not be appropriate for maintenance and durability reasons, providing a sound-absorbing ceiling may be more appropriate.

Further detailed guidance on acoustics is available at:

  • Here to Learn - a DVD resource for schools, (National Deaf Children's Society UK)
  • Building Bulletin 93, Acoustic Design of Schools, A Design Guide, (Department for Education and Skills UK)
  • Quiet Classrooms - alliance of non-profit organizations working to create better learning environments in schools by reducing noise. http://www.quietclassrooms.org

Equipment for Students with Special Hearing Requirements

Students who use hearing aids may benefit from a range of technological solutions in the classroom, including radio aids (sometimes called personal FM systems), induction loop systems, infra-red transmitters, and classroom soundfield systems. Care should be taken when purchasing these systems to ensure that they are suitable for the school's particular needs.

All these systems require the teacher to wear a microphone; usually a wireless mic worn around the neck or clipped to a lapel. These systems will not work successfully unless teachers wear the mic for every class. This can be problematic, particularly in secondary schools, where the teacher will change for each class period. Staff may also need to be trained in basic troubleshooting techniques, such as replacing batteries and ensuring that microphones and receivers are using the same frequency.

Radio aids, induction loops, and infra-red transmitters provide more direct sound input, while reducing or eliminating reverberation: they can provide optimal sound clarity.

Induction loop systems can overspill into neighbouring areas. This makes it difficult to fit loop systems to adjacent classrooms. Where loops are required, it may be more effective to fit loops to selected classrooms, and allocated students and subjects accordingly.

Soundfield systems may offer some benefit to students with mild hearing loss who don't use hearing aids. The classroom will be fitted with speakers in the ceiling or walls to ensure that the teacher's voice is heard clearly throughout the classroom. Soundfield systems differ from traditional public address systems by making the sound clearer, not louder. Portable soundfield systems are available that can be moved between classrooms as required.

Some of the technology may improve the student's ability to hear the teacher, but may not help the student to hear their classmates in group-work scenarios. In situations where a student with hearing loss is part of a mainstream class, advice should be sought from a specialist as to the most appropriate technology to suit the student's needs.

Space and Layout

A key element of an accessible environment is the provision of sufficient space.

UK guidance points out that a student with learning aids and a special needs assistant may need the same space as two non-disabled students. A student using a wheelchair and/or mobility aids may need the space used by three non-disabled students. Additional storage space may be required for large objects such as crutches, walking frames, and standing frames, which may be required at certain times of the day. It is important that space is managed to keep adequate circulation space available over time.

Furniture layouts in classrooms need to be carefully planned to ensure space at the entrance and access to key facilities such as the whiteboard, storage areas, and practical zones.

An 1800mm turning space at these areas should be maintained as should a preferred circulation width of 1200mm for movement between them. A minimum of 900mm circulation width should be available on all routes. This space is based on the requirements of wheelchair users, but will also benefit a range of other users.

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Figure 13 Classroom

Accessible features:

This primary school classroom has good visual contrast between the floor and walls and between the floor and furniture.

A section of acoustic panelling is visible in the ceiling.

What could be improved?

In general, the furniture layout has good circulation space between the tables, although the area in front of the door is cluttered.

Lighting

Lighting has a significant impact on the ability of students to concentrate and learn in comfort. Controllable lighting systems, which can increase or decrease light levels in particular parts of the classroom, are very helpful for students with disabilities.

It is important that lighting levels are reasonably consistent, so students do not experience wide variations in light levels when moving their vision from their own desk to the teacher.

Day-lighting is an important factor in all schools. The Department of Education and Skills Technical Guidance Document 020 states that: "The geometry and distribution of glazed areas shall be carefully designed to provide a high level of natural light while avoiding glare and ensuring a good quality day-lighting distribution in the room with average day-lighting factor in the range of 4.5 to 5.5%".

Lighting systems should accommodate the inherent variability of daylight by allowing the levels of light provided to be controlled or automatically adjusted. Automatic controls can help save energy costs by maximising use of daylight.

Lighting should take into account the different needs of all students. Students with vision loss need good lighting levels to enhance their sight, and may require additional lighting for certain tasks.

International standards for classroom lighting range from 300 Lux to 500 Lux. German standards require 1500 Lux for high-precision tasks. Emerging research shows significant improvements in classroom performance arising from improved lighting.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students need clear visibility for lip-reading. Some students may be particularly sensitive to glare. Therefore, it is important to be able to control the sunlight entering a space by installing suitable blinds, for example, as detailed in the Department of Education and Skills Technical Guidance Documents.

Venetian blinds can create lined patterns of light that may be distracting or confusing for some students.

Environmental Controls

Effective ventilation is important for all students. A lack of fresh air can cause concentration and drowsiness issues.

Where mechanical ventilation systems are used, it is important that their operation is virtually silent: background noise can seriously affect the acoustic performance of a classroom.

Excessive heat or cold can be a distraction from learning. The UK publication 'Building Bulletin 102 Designing for disabled children and children with special educational needs' recommends temperatures of 18 - 21 degrees Centigrade for normal conditions.

Where radiators are used, care should be taken to eliminate any risk of burn injuries though contact with radiator surfaces, particularly for younger students, students with intellectual disabilities or people with reduced sensation.

Assistive Technology

Students with disabilities may use a wide range of assistive technology, including magnifiers, screen reading technology, and portable writing and communication devices.

There should be a sufficient supply of electrical outlets around a classroom to facilitate those who need access to electrical power. Using floor-mounted sockets can avoid the hazard of cables trailing across the floor.

Managing the Classroom Environment

Schedule periodic reviews to ensure that classroom accessibility is maintained.

Some items for consideration include:

  • Periodically testing equipment such as induction loops and audio systems to ensure they continue to function
  • Ensuring an adequate supply of fresh or freshly charged batteries to power any portable accessibility devices or microphones
  • Maintaining audio visual equipment, such as projectors, to ensure they do not cause difficulties such as background noise or excessive heat
  • Removing clutter from equipment or class projects and so on to keep access routes clear throughout the room
  • Ensuring that lighting is kept in good working order by replacing any used bulbs or fittings
  • Inviting students and teachers to point out any problems that they notice with lighting or acoustics, so that these can then be addressed within a reasonable time