Designing a Special Educational Needs Classroom
We've been lucky enough through our work to enhance the facilities for a number of schools across the UK. As schools seek universally to improve facilities, we have worked closely with a number of Special Education Needs (SEN) schools and departments in particular, to deliver buildings and spaces that can exceed expectation and importantly, address a variety of complex needs.
SEN builds require additional work on both the practical and sensory level to ensure you address the individual educational needs of the children and create an environment where they can flourish. We’ve pulled together this short guide, which is aimed at helping schools when they are considering a special educational needs classroom.
It is essential that you provide the highest quality learning environment for all pupils, but especially for those who have special educational needs and disabilities, which is why special care and attention must to into designing a special educational needs classroom.
Children benefit from attractive and accessible classrooms but most importantly of all from learning environments that can empower those with SEN and disabilities to fully participate in all aspects of school life.
Addressing children’s special educational needs
Children can have a wide spectrum of special educational needs and requirements, which can fall into at least one of the following four areas:
Cognition and learning - children with these needs may require practical sensory or physical experiences to support the development of abstract ideas and concepts.
Behavioural, emotional and social - children who have these needs may require a more structured learning environment, that has clear boundaries for each activity, additional space to move around to ensure a comfortable distance between themselves and others and safe place to calm down following any outbursts.
Communication and interaction - here the need is for an easily understood environment with a low level of distraction and sensory stimulus to reduce anxiety levels. They may need a safe place to calm down.
Sensory and/or physical - children with sensory or physical impairments may need special acoustic or lighting conditions, specialist aids, equipment or furniture. Some may need extra space and additional signposting to help them negotiate their environment unaided.
Planning the build of a special educational needs classroom
It is important to think about children’s SEN and disabilities from the outset, placing them at the centre of the design process and fully understanding the key issues involved in designing a SEN classroom to ensure a range of needs are met and that appropriate provisions are made.
Children with SEN and disabilities share the same aspirations as other children and want to use the same range of facilities. Any practical issues that may arise need to be addressed so that they don’t detract from the children’s everyday experience.
An obvious but significant consideration, especially if your space is planned as a flexible or multi-use space. Children need the room to participate in solo and group activities that may include them utilising walking aids, wheelchairs and more. We address this through features such as ramps and low-level thresholds for wheelchairs and/or buggies.
Some SEN pupils may tire easily and will require a place to rest so routes around the classroom should be planned to minimise travel time and make is as easy as possible for the children to move around with sufficient space for any of the equipment to be stored.
They’re a necessity - but accessible facilities should be fun and engaging, too. We want all special educational needs pupils to feel comfortable, confident and independent wherever possible, so we include facilities that everyone could use without assistance, such as well-placed handrails, low level storage and appropriate door and cupboard handles - these help retain a sense of inclusivity for all pupils no matter what age or learning level.
The design of a SEN classroom needs to take into consideration the impact of the school’s environment on the children’s sensory experience. Appropriate materials should be used to help the children access, understand and negotiate their environment. It is essential to provide the correct level and right type of sensory stimulus to help inform or calm the children and not to confuse or overload them with information.
Health and wellbeing
Schools should encourage health and well-being and promote respect to create pleasant, comfortable learning spaces for all. Appropriate facilities such as hygiene, toilet and changing rooms should be spread around the school in convenient locations.
All SEN pupils need to feel safe, secure, and free from being stigmatised. In addition, they need to feel a sense of belonging and to be able to fully participate in all aspects of school life without any dangers.
Children with behavioural difficulties may require additional space to move around, or to ensure a comfortable distance between themselves and others. They may need to be able to access quiet indoor place or a safe, contained, outdoor space within a close distance to the main teaching space.
Activity and expression
Children have different needs relating to activities and some will require a space in which to release emotions whereas others will require one to calm down. Careful and well thought out design of a SEN classroom can provide for both active and passive play in a variety of indoor or outdoor spaces.
Social awareness and participation
Regardless of school setting, children with SEN and disabilities should be able to take part and participate in school life and life outside of the classroom along with their peers and the design considerations must reflect this.
It is vital to ensure that children with special educational needs have a sense of belonging and feel entirely comfortable in their environment where they can make choices and experience challenges regardless of their condition or behaviour. Design can make this a reality by providing both the appropriate level of ambience and practical assistance needed.
Timber suits the education sector because it offers a more flexible, sustainable and often, cost effective alternative to traditional build materials. Its ability to ‘blend in’ to outdoor spaces without seeming incongruous alongside the existing facilities is also a factor when wanting to minimise any disruption for special educational needs students.
Timber, in addition, fits environmental standards, which has become a key driver for SEN projects, as funding can be easier to secure for builds where increased effort has been made to reduce environmental impact. Under our Complete Care scheme, we work with schools to design spaces from planning and consent, through to interior fit out and full specification, all to meet green targets. This means we are able to meet the full range of needs, from those of the pupils in terms of the layout and finishing touches, to the needs of the teachers and school such as planning, consents, funding options and sustainability considerations where needed.
The learning environment
It is absolutely essential to focus on creating a positive learning environment through good design. Understanding the users point of view, the use of space, and multi-sensory environments all contribute towards ensuring that the design is fit for purpose.
How the building ‘feels’ and functions - as well as how it looks - is hugely important. A SEN build might need to adapt several times in a single day to fit to students’ individual needs; so your building should fit sensory as well as practical elements.
There should be sufficient space for the children to move around with easy access to everything they need. The space should be light, airy and present a feeling of warmth with an emphasis on pleasant colours and the use of comfortable furniture.
Low sensory environment
Perception of the world around can be confusing for some children with special educational needs so creating a low-sensory, non-distracting, calming environment can help with focused individual learning. You should consider the impact of elements such as lighting and acoustics on pupils with particularly sensitivities. Bespoke features can aid this, such as glare-free or remote controlled lighting and sound proofing to eliminate exterior or neighbouring room noise.
Flooring, too, is a primary way in which our buildings can fit to evolving requirements and meet these sensory challenges. Changes in flooring type can be used to create ‘zones’, outlining separate areas and learning environments for differing uses.
Small teaching spaces
These spaces should be used to focus on individual learning, group work or behaviour support and are a highly valuable addition when it comes to supporting children’s individual needs. SEN students may need to withdraw from the classroom to a safe place or for a break from the main classroom activities. All quiet places should can be calm, still, and create a therapeutic environment.
Helping pupils with learning difficulties to improve their coordination and develop an understanding of cause and effect can be achieved with the use of multi-sensory stimulation and interactive training techniques that use light and sound.
Therapy rooms can make a considerable contribution to special education needs classrooms by supporting pupils’ health, well-being and enabling them to access learning.
It is essential to have good storage options in order to support effective teaching and learning activities. Each space should be designed with this in mind so that is has its own storage space that is easily accessible.
Having a clear connection to the outdoors is essential for students with SEN and disabilities. To improve the outdoors learning provision a number of different types of space are required around the school that can be used as an outdoor classrooms, sheltered or covered play areas, and for social and recreational use. Our builds regularly feature bi-fold doors which allows for greater adaptation, offering flexibility in ‘bringing the outdoors in’, with canopies utilised to protect from the elements and encourage the use of outdoor spaces - something which our education clients are increasingly interested in.
SEN builds in practice - Keelman’s Way School, Hebburn
Keelman’s Way School is a special school that provides Early Years, Primary and Secondary Education for children with severe, profound and complex learning difficulties.
Built in 2012 in an urban area, Keelman’s Way required additional space to provide changing facilities for its disability football team, combined with teaching space that would help to meet outdoor learning objectives for the rest of the school. The build was designed to be flexible, allowing use by the wider community in the long term.
Built on an ethos of belonging, Keelman’s were eager to increase their provision in a way which was sympathetic to the existing building, maximising available space while reflecting the fun, engaging and inclusive atmosphere promoted throughout the campus.
We worked with Keelman’s Way on a building which met the range of complex needs presented by the student population, using considered design, well-chosen materials and a wealth of special touches to ensure the build performed both in terms of the sensory and practical experience.
The outcome: ‘The Hide’
The Hide is a single-storey timber construct, 138m², and was designed to complement existing amenity space practically and aesthetically.
The building was positioned on the edge of the sports playing fields and in close proximity to the outdoor learning space. We utilised natural timbers to blend the building with its surrounds and used contrasting colours for external decking and doors to enable the children to navigate their way around. A seamless transition from outside to inside was created with sliding folding doors and gently sloped access paths.
“The Hide”, as the school have named the building, gives off the visual impression of having always ‘belonged’ there - in keeping with Keelman’s ethos.
The finished building contains a kitchen, two fully-equipped changing rooms for the disability football team and a generous teaching space.
“The Hide is a valuable and exciting new asset for our pupils and soon, the wider community. We are thrilled with the finished product.”
- Paula Selby, Headteacher at Keelman’s Way School
Finding the right solution
It is vital you find the right contractor for your needs. If those needs are complex, which is often the case with SEN projects, get someone with expertise and a willingness to tailor their service. Your space is unique, and the facilities that come with your SEN build will need to be just as unique to ensure everyone benefits and you get the right result from your investment.
If you're considering a SEN build we'd love to hear from you.Contact us now