Considering Learning Spaces: How Do We Design Inclusive Classrooms?

tags: Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education Linking Research to Classrooms: A Blog for Educators

By Lisa Carey
September 6, 2016

Several years ago, I highlighted the following sentence in A Research Reader in Universal Design for Learning (2012), “From a UDL perspective, all learning situations are most effectively thought of as dynamic ecologies that capture transactions among learners, teachers, and the designed curriculum.” I recall being struck by the use of the term “ecologies” because it instantly drew to mind the biomes my students had studied in biology, with the multitude of species interacting with the environment, each attempting to use what was available in order to thrive. Earlier in my career, I was introduced to the TEACCH approach which includes designing the physical aspects of the classroom to support intentional movement through the space as well as cues for behavior, and academic supports. Already primed with the idea of the learning space as an instructional tool, the word “ecologies” set off a whole flurry of ideas about the role a learning environment can play in student learning.

Fast forward to 2016 and I am still fascinated by learning environments. True, the quote I highlighted years ago included the curriculum and culture of a classroom within its definition of the classroom environment. But since then, I have been increasingly drawn to considering the physical spaces in which we teach.

I find myself asking questions like: “How does the space we inhabit impact our learning? How do the spaces we create impact our students’ learning? Are the spaces we choose for learning similar or different from the spaces we are forced to learn in?” In addition to these questions, as a special education teacher, I always come back to the question of accessibility.  “Is this space accessible to all?” While there are many ways to approach designing an instructional space, I will share the guiding questions I often ask myself when stepping into a classroom:

1. Does the physical space match the learning activity occurring?

This question should move us beyond the low hanging fruit of grouping desks for group work and moving desks apart for individual work activities.  If having a whole group discussion, can my students interact with one another, or is it difficult to see and/or hear  a multitude of potential speakers?If using stations, are the spaces for those stations physically delineated with materials that match the task? I often visit classrooms in which teachers say, “this is my seating arrangement.” For the year? For the activity? For the moment? Consider how many ways you can move your classroom objects and furniture to support learning.

The next step is teaching your students the most common configurations you might use and having them help you move the desks. One brilliant middle school teacher I had the pleasure of working with used to provide pictures of the different arrangements and then timed her students to see how quickly they could transition into a different formation. By gamifying the changes in seating arrangements, her students became proficient and impressive in their ability to transition between activities.

2. Can all of the students move around the classroom?

I always knew if the desks in my classroom were not arranged in a manner that allowed for easy movement – I would develop desk height bruises on my legs and hips from walking into them. Are there clear and open pathways around your room? Can a student get up from his/her desk and walk to where materials are stored or to the stations and/or centers you have set up in your room? If someone who uses a wheelchair, walker, or cane were to enter your room, can they move around, or would you need to retrofit the space to accommodate them?

3. Are learning materials accessible?

Labeling materials areas with pictures and words will help keep classroom items orderly and will make the support staff and parent volunteers that might enter your room in feel confident in the space. When placing items around the room, consider who needs to access each item. Can they access the item safely and easily? If your space is tight, you might consider having materials stored at student desks or in multiple places around the room to cut down on traffic jams.

In addition to locating materials in the classroom, you should also consider if the materials are functionally accessible materials. “Righty” scissors are not accessible to a left-handed student. A glue stick with a top may not be accessible to a student with limited fine motor skill abilities. Do you provide materials that will allow student to engage in their work in a multitude of ways? For example, can students select to write or type their compositions? Are there other ways to demonstrate their knowledge such as create a presentation or video? Can students use math manipulatives and paper and pencil to work out problems? Plan your materials with a variety of students and abilities in mind (Jiménez, Graf, & Rose, 2007).

4. Does the room offer options to provide comfort while learning?

Have you ever watched undergraduates in the library? They enter the space with the purpose of learning and then navigate it in their own unique ways. Some go straight for the couches and arm chairs, others go to the study carrels, while others rush to reserve the group study rooms. In k-12 classrooms in which students are offered options in types of seating, elementary through high school students begin to resemble undergraduates in their variety of preferences. Feeling comfortable in a learning environment is linked to higher student achievement (Gilbert et al., 2013). These feelings of comfort are related to both the physical space and the culture.  By offering choices and supporting students in valuing individual differences, a classroom with multiple seating options can positively impact student feeling toward the learning environment.

5. Are supports for behavior and learning visible and easily understood?

I once entered a kindergarten room in which the rules were clearly posted on the wall. But, in a room where most students were still learning to identify the letters of the alphabet, the poster did little to reinforce behavior expectations.

Conversely, at Halstead Academy in Baltimore County, Maryland, I saw room after room with pictures of expected behavior next to images of inappropriate behavior. In one room, the teacher had taken photos of the students acting out multiple scenarios. The visual cues for appropriate behavior in her room were images of a learning activity the students had engaged in and therefore were far more powerful. Find ways to model this behavior support in your own classroom.

6. Does this space make learners feel safe and respected?

Teachers take pride in their classrooms. But, whose space is it really? There are power dynamics that play out in a room both through our personal interactions and the way we design our physical space. How students feel in a space is correlated to the learning that  occurs (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007). Sit in the different chairs in your room. Examine the walls. Navigate the space. If you were a student in that room, would you feel welcome and safe? Would you feel respected? If you are unsure, the solution is simple. Ask your students. Ask what they like and what they would change and then, within reason, make changes to adapt to their needs.

I know I am not alone in spending time thinking about classroom space. There are multiple Pinterest boards, Facebook posts, and Twitter discussions the show a variety of approaches to designing a learning space. But, beyond being esthetically pleasing, we need to consider how our spaces lend themselves to supporting our ultimate goal - ensuring all students learn.

As a second grader, my teacher gave me the option of sitting by myself next to the window whenever I felt overwhelmed. I would move silently to that place, look at the oak tree outside of the window, and feel less stressed. She gave other students similar options in our room. I recall discovering a love of writing that year. It was a simple act, but a profound one. It communicated the idea that “I value you and want you to feel comfortable in my room.” Isn’t that the message we want all of our students to receive?


Gilbert, M. C., Musu-Gillette, L. E., Woolley, M. E., Karabenick, S. A., Strutchens, M. E., & Martin, W. G. (2013). Student perceptions of the classroom environment: Relations to motivation and achievement in mathematics. Learning Environments Research, 1–18.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3–10.

Jiménez, T. C., Graf, V. L., & Rose, E. (2007). Gaining Access to General Education: The Promise of Universal Design for Learning Toward Greater Accessibility, 41(2).

Rappolt-Schlichtmann, G., Daley, S.G., Rose, L.T. (2012) A research reader in universal design for learning. Harvard Education Press. Cambridge, MA.

Have a topic or question you would like to see addressed in a future Linking Research to Classrooms blog?

Enter your topic /question in our contact form.