Create safe spaces for SEN pupils

  • 16th January 2023

Epsom College (Credit: Infinite 3D)

Claire Mantle, education director at ADP Architecture, says schools should be designed to be inclusive and accessible for those with special needs

The proportion of students with special educational needs (SEN) support is increasing, and now stands at just under 1.5 million in England. As such, wellbeing, neurodiversity and educational differences are becoming a much more significant focus of pupils’ personalised plans. However, in many cases, schools are lacking the support spaces to reflect these plans. So as teachers, parents, school leaders and the government alike turn their attention to identifying and meeting children’s individual learning needs, we need to have in mind the role that architecture and design can play – working together wherever possible to help create optimum learning environments for all.

Designing effectively for pupils who are neurodivergent is rooted in an understanding of how different students experience their school routine. For children with a level of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), causes of anxiety within the daily structure of school life include dealing with the unexpected, planning ahead, shifting between tasks, and controlling impulsive behaviour. Pupils with ASD generally need more physical space surrounding them to move around comfortably, while socialising and communicating can be particularly challenging aspects of the school day. In addition, ASD students may be hypersensitive (with intensified senses) or hyposensitive (with dampened senses) and may take longer than their peers to process information.

In response, having a variety of spaces that can be easily accessed by students is an important design principle. In addition, when designing a dedicated SEN school, we always seek to integrate the natural environment into the everyday learning, by blurring the boundaries of inside and outside and providing inspirational external learning spaces. In terms of adapting existing facilities, we would recommend utilising outdoor space to create external classrooms, breakout areas and sensory gardens for everyday learning and activities.

There are many well-documented benefits to bringing learning into nature and creating outdoor classrooms. Outdoor spaces are known to relieve stress and anxiety and help develop social skills and motivate learning – particularly for those with special educational needs. Green spaces also help to facilitate informal play and provide a social space, where children can safely test boundaries with each other and develop emotional skills. In addition, they can also provide quiet social areas for individuals and small groups.

Internally, places of refuge are also important, as there will often be times in the school day that pupils with ASD will want to retreat and have time on their own. Where possible, it is beneficial to have ‘calm’ rooms adjacent to classrooms and incorporate quiet seating areas off the corridors for reading and respite. Unstructured times such as lunchtimes and breaktimes can be especially challenging for children and young people with ASD, and so having different dining areas for students seeking quieter surroundings is also a valuable consideration.

Other dedicated support spaces may include a therapy room, and access to therapy suites, where facilities such as sport and hydrotherapy are available. Looking beyond the student community, it’s also important to consider support areas for parents and support staff, such as group areas and garden zones.

In terms of building layout and design it’s important to design schools that students can independently navigate. To achieve this, spaces need to be clearly zoned, with visible, legible entrances and exits. Using simple landmarks can be powerful in helping pupils to orient themselves, and all signage should be simple, visual, clear and relevant. These simple changes can alleviate daily frustrations that pupils with ASD face, empowering them to feel confident and comfortable within their surroundings.

Proxemics – the science of understanding personal space and how people move among groups – points to wide corridors and generous room proportions as key design considerations for students with ASD who can struggle in crowded spaces. Clear circulation routes and one-way systems can also assist, and timetabling can also help by staggering students’ movements throughout the day – changes which can have demonstrable benefits for all students.

In terms of the technical considerations of an inclusive classroom, it’s important to specify high levels of sound absorption, and a combination of uplights and diffusers to make learning spaces feel calm. Visuals within a school environment should not be overstimulating, and materials should be natural. Another way to reduce avoidable anxiety is to design any closed-off spaces with multiple exit points.

Children are given the greatest chance of success when they feel safe and secure within their surroundings, and taken together these guidelines can make schools more inclusive and accessible, not only to neurodivergent pupils but to the wider student population as a whole. We hope that school leaders will increasingly see the holistic role that architecture and design can play in helping to meet children’s individual learning needs and personalised plans, while improving wellbeing for the whole school community.

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