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Designing for Mental Health: Educational Facilities

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Chloe Hosid
Specialist, Education Design Research

Children spend most of their waking hours at school, in an environment that is largely out of their control. To be truly user-focused, school design should consider the whole child: not just their physical safety and their educational progress, but also their emotional and mental wellbeing. Chloe Hosid, an Education Design Research Specialist, reviews strategies designers can take to support mental health through school design.

 

The Kids Aren’t Alright

According to the CDC, rates of depression and anxiety in children between the ages of 6 and 17 have increased over time. A 2023 study focusing on loneliness and the mental well-being of children during the COVID-19 pandemic showed depression and anxiety symptoms doubled when comparing pre-pandemic and post-pandemic numbers. The loneliness epidemic has become so severe that in 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy authored an advisory on the topic, noting that “loneliness and social isolation among children and adolescents increase the risk of depression and anxiety.” Correspondingly, social connection is a protective factor against developing depression, even for those who are predisposed to depression. Considering these factors, designing schools to support children’s mental health is an increasingly important enterprise.

Making "Place" Palliative

At its best, we want a place to convey belonging, value, opportunity, and connection to its inhabitants. A good school can – and should – do that by activating place attachment. The benefits of place attachment include connection to memories, belonging, comfort and security, relaxation, and positive emotions like happiness and pride.

Cypress Springs ES Reading Room
Young children respond best to vibrant, colorful spaces for open-ended use.

For younger children, researchers found that this attachment is best accomplished through an environment that facilitates exploration, sensory engagement, and play. Vibrant, playful spaces that facilitate open-ended use are better for children, who show a heightened attentiveness to place and tend to focus on what they can do in an environment.

The same study found that for older students, place attachment is better achieved by focusing on cognitive engagement rather than sensory engagement, allowing adolescents to find deeper meaning in their environment. For these students, the emphasis should be on spaces that promote connection with mentors and peers; opportunities for learning to support their autonomy, passions, and identity; and restorative environments that promote well-being.

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Hands on classes provide opportunities for students to explore their passions.

Since children spend most of their time outside the home at school, it can become a second home. Research shows that children have increasingly less independent access to the world, making safe places – like schools – important opportunities for children to develop place attachments outside of their homes. Therefore, schools have a vital opportunity to foster social connection and belonging for students.

 

Case Study

Place Attachment

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The entry to the school — where parents can walk their children in — was built around a massive existing oak tree.

To foster place attachment at Arlington ISD’s Thornton Elementary School, designers focused on enhancing memory and belonging:

  1. Inspired by Folklorico dance and the community’s predominately Hispanic heritage, the design imparts a sense of belonging and identity for the students and their families through the use of colors, patterns, and materials as a celebration of community culture.
  2. Welcoming community spaces have been integrated into the design to support parent and community involvement and the high percentage of students who walk to school with their parents.

 

Thornton Elementary School, Arlington ISD

Reducing Stressors

Providing a learning environment that supports mental health should be designed to mitigate common stressors in the school environment. Stressors can include too much sensory input, poor environmental quality, developmental misalignment, limited personalization, lack of opportunity for psychological restoration, and concerns about safety and cleanliness.

A 2015 study indicated that stimulation and individualization each comprise about a quarter of the environment-related impact on student performance, while naturalness factors like air quality, temperature, and light accounted for the other half. When designing schools, designers should keep the following considerations in mind to reduce stressors and enhance the learning environment:

Express Yourself

For a lot of students, quietly sitting in a classroom for hours on end can be like putting a square peg into a round hole, a mismatch that can be deleterious to their self-esteem and mental health. As school design (and the field of education) evolves, we are constantly looking for opportunities to nurture student potential in its many forms, celebrating multiple forms of intelligence to enhance their school experience and improve their mental health.

A growing body of research shows creative expression can positively impact mental health. Engaging in creative activities can help students feel empowered, encourage problem solving, and support social activity, all of which enhance their mental health. Integrating creativity—and other opportunities for self-expression—into schools gives students an opportunity to display their hard work and natural talents.

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Opportunities for self-directed creativity give students a constructive outlet that bolsters their self esteem.

These opportunities for creativity and self-expression can be rooted in music, fine arts, and performing arts education, but this focus can also be expanded to integrate STEM, career technology, community engagement, and entrepreneurship to allow students’ passion and ingenuity to make an impact beyond the classroom.

Designers can support students by providing constructive opportunities for self-expression within the school building. Creative activities can be supported by spaces designated for performances and presentations, display of student work, hands-on projects, and even “incubator” spaces where students can collaborate, problem-solve, and develop innovative ideas. These features don’t just enhance learning, they also make students feel valued and show that what they are learning in school matters in the real world.

 

Case Study

AmTech Career Academy

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Students are empowered by spaces that allow them to learn real-world, career-based skills.

At the AmTech Career Academy in Amarillo ISD, Corgan focused on providing students with activity support and opportunities for personal growth:

  1. With learning on display throughout the facility, a wide variety of skilled trades – ranging from creative to technical – are showcased, providing pathways to career opportunities in the local region. Through this visibility, students are encouraged to explore new possibilities, make connections, learn from their peers, and showcase their talents.
  2. The facility provides high-fidelity learning environments that mirror the real world and encourage students to see themselves as capable young professionals, providing the tools and experiences needed to kickstart a successful career.
  3. Unifying AmTech’s 36 programs under one roof allows students to forge their own path- AmTech students have even started their own businesses while in high school.

 

AmTech Career Academy, Amarillo ISD

 

What’s Next: Supporting Teachers with Disabilities Through Inclusive Design

Educators are a critical part of supporting mental health for students, but their own needs are often overlooked. Expanding a focus on supporting the needs of teachers and filling a gap in existing literature, Corgan is exploring the unique perspectives of teachers with disabilities through a research study supported by the American Society of Interior Designers Foundation. Gathering insight from real teachers with visible, invisible, temporary, and chronic disabilities and conditions – including learning differences, chronic illness, physical disabilities, and visual impairments – Corgan aims to identify opportunities for design to better support these valued educators in their working environment.

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