Doing Our Homework to Protect Students’ Social and Emotional Well-Being During a Pandemic

School officials across the United States are busy evaluating how — and whether — to reopen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who do choose to return should be concerned not just with the physical health of students but also with their psychological well-being.

Students’ daily experiences in and out of the classroom teach them how to manage their behaviors and emotions with others, a process known as social and emotional learning. As designers, we play a major role in that process through the learning environments that we create.

Our surroundings directly influence our behavior and emotions. And since we spend about 90% of our lives indoors, there are design and research interventions that we must consider to protect the minds of students when they return to school.

Social and Emotional Skills

Beyond the necessary physical distancing and infection prevention protocols, we owe it to students to devote the same attention to their psychological safety and social and emotional health. Kids learn to cope with their emotions, set constructive goals and show empathy not only through the academic curriculum and extracurricular programming but also through spatial experiences and interactions precipitated by their physical environments.

When designing physical spaces to support students’ social and emotional wellness, we should consider the three domains of social and emotional skills identified by the Council of Distinguished Scientists of the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. This prominent group of scholars issued a report in 2017 that outlines the scientific consensus on the social and emotional skills needed for academic success.

Below are the three domains of social and emotional skills, matched with potential design interventions:

Domain 1: Cognitive skills, including executive functions such as working memory, attention control and flexibility, inhibition and planning, as well as beliefs and attitudes that guide one’s sense of self and approaches to learning and growth.

Design interventions:

  1. Students who spend time in nature benefit from increased concentration and cognitive skills. Exposure to nature is also credited with minimizing ADHD and ADD symptoms. Natural materials (such as wood or soft colors found in nature), flooring with underfoot comfort and wall art such as watercolor graphics and soothing nature scenes can evoke the natural environment.
  2. Sound is an environmental variable that can make it difficult for students to concentrate in academic settings. Schools can support cognitive and learning processes by reducing unnecessary sound stressors with ceiling materials that have a high noise reduction coefficient, acoustic wall treatments, sound-absorbing flooring materials and furniture placement that absorbs, disperses and directs human voice frequencies.
  3. Warm lighting and unique fixtures can be thoughtfully incorporated into spaces to create visual interest and to foster calm and focus. A variety of accent lighting, natural lighting and access to natural views are linked to higher cognition and happiness.
Watercolor graphics such as this one at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital in Baton Rouge can evoke the natural environment, which has a soothing effect on the human brain.

Domain 2: Emotional competencies that enable one to cope with frustration, recognize and manage emotions and understand others’ emotions and perspectives.

Design interventions:

  1. Social spaces can lead to interactions that elicit empathy and understanding among students with different perspectives and experiences. Schools can activate social spaces by incorporating digital displays with positive messages, moving art or other playful features that spark conversations and connections.
  2. Subtle natural sounds can help students ease into a changed school environment. For instance, a speaker can reproduce the sound of a breeze rustling the leaves as students walk through a security vestibule to mask the clanking of doors. Natural elements promote the feeling of safety and help students manage emotional needs. The sense of being in nature reduces anger, fear and stress and increases pleasant feelings.
  3. Playful and age-appropriate signs and graphics can be incorporated throughout school pathways to offer guidance related to COVID-19. For instance, students might be drawn to creative signs and posters with messages such as “masks can be beautiful” and “let’s protect each other.”

Domain 3: Social and interpersonal skills that enable one to read social cues, navigate social situations, resolve interpersonal conflicts, cooperate with others and work effectively in a team, and demonstrate compassion and empathy toward others.

Design interventions:

  1. Clear wayfinding eases stress as students traverse the school and signals points for safe social interactions. Digital wall graphics with imagery that evokes community can identify social gathering spaces and create point-of-decision prompts. Changes in flooring materials and intentional patterns underfoot or on the walls guide students as they move through the building. Decorative graphics on room dividers, signage with a consistent color palette and the texture of materials used throughout a space act as visual identifiers and celebrate the destination.
  2. Thoughtful adjacencies can prompt social cues while promoting physical safety. Arranging lounge seating in appropriately spaced groupings in a large area invites students to gather in specific locations that allow for social distancing. Providing playful outdoor furniture under the shade of a tree within the boundaries of the school can serve as a cue to read a book outside with a friend or create an opportunity for instruction outdoors.
At Dallas Independent School District’s Dan D. Rogers Elementary, logs were painted in bright colors and adapted into seating for outdoor classroom time.

The Power of Personas

Every person decodes stimuli from the environment in his or her own way. While it is impossible for designers to identify the perspectives of every student, they can define a range of representative student voices to inform designs and protocols. These personas can help us understand the thoughts, emotions and needs of students — knowledge that is especially important during a pandemic, when decisions as simple as whether to take  an elevator or open a door represent a gamble on our health.

This persona identification exercise is a user-centered methodology that should drive the thinking behind operational policies and procedures, the built environment and behavioral strategies for a variety of scenarios. This is important because a positive experience of place is tied to our sense of belonging and elicits positive cognitive, social and emotional responses. A positive sense of place makes people happier and more empathetic, and it promotes feelings of safety and community. A school environment that makes a good impression on students can energize kids about learning.

Identifying personas helps school leaders understand how different students move through a school building or campus and how they navigate their learning experience. These insights can guide schools in creating touchpoints along student journeys that reinforce mental well-being and promote equity and the inclusion of underrepresented students. These touchpoints can be connections to nature, opportunities for safe social interactions and easy access to school resources.

While it is impossible for designers to identify the perspectives of every student, they can define a range of representative student voices to inform designs and protocols.

Easing students back to school is about the details, from those that shape the learning environments of kindergarteners to those of college students. Research shows that social and emotional wellness improves students’ academic performance and overall behavior, with school programming and spaces playing a significant role.

All of us, from designers to researchers to educators to administrators, must treat each student as a whole person who has needs beyond academic instruction. Like their parents and their teachers, students are weathering a stressful, overwhelming time, forming memories that will follow them for the rest of their lives. We must prepare to make kids feel safe and connected once they return to school, whether this fall or next year.