How Design can Support Social and Emotional Learning
Over the past year and half, we’ve investigated how to improve the well-being of schoolchildren through the intersection of social and emotional learning and the built environment. The timing of our effort couldn’t be more crucial. From existential concerns triggered by climate anxiety to the trauma experienced by gun violence in schools, many school children are understandably experiencing a mental health crisis. This is the context of our research exploring the intersection of social and emotional learning and design.
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an approach to education that helps children gain skills outside of typical school subjects such as math, reading, and comprehension. It matters because the approach helps children and adolescents understand and regulate their feelings, communicate with and relate to others, build strong relationships, and make empathetic decisions.
The culmination of our research project is a visual design guide — a library of evidence-based design (EBD) strategies formatted as a tool for designers of learning environments to quickly reference during the design process. Whether the intention is to create an enriched environment, understand the impact design strategies have on students and teachers, or both – the EBD strategy cards are a tool to help create enriched environments that support social and emotional learning.
Our Methods & What We Found
Before creating our visual design guide, we conducted a comprehensive literature review and in-depth interviews with primary, middle, and high school teachers. We initially sourced 143 articles, white papers and books, that resulted in 18 evidence-based strategies supported by 102 empirical research studies that have demonstrated outcomes associated with teachers and learners. We then interviewed school teachers who participated in one-hour semi-structured virtual interviews where they elaborated on how they define social and emotional learning, their ideal working environment, and their perceptions of the current school environment in regard to SEL. Here are a few findings from those conversations:
- From focus work to preparing lessons, collaborative work to plan with peer teachers, to direct instruction with students – teachers engage in a variety of work modes and utilize multiple tools to effectively do their jobs.
- Teachers expressed the importance of having a variety of psychological needs met within their working spaces and their students’ learning spaces.
- All teachers are committed to advancing the social and emotional development of their students, but there were two distinct groups within the sample. One group is more comfortable with a self-driven organic approach, prioritizing relationship building with their students to then model SEL competencies. The second group relies on formal strategies through curriculum and predetermined lessons provided to help them navigate teaching the competencies to their students.
What the Findings Mean
The visual design guide provides a research-informed framework to create spaces that augment and support social and emotional learning. Our guide is intended for stakeholders as they move throughout the design process, and when they are documenting design intent. Those who use our guide are instructed to print out cards, fold them in half, while referencing the comprehensive evidence to provide rationale for design decisions.
The design of physical space can be used as a tool to support or augment existing pedagogical practices in classrooms – advancing the agenda to provide students with competencies in SEL by stimulating diverse affordances (sensory, cognitive, motor, and social) within their learning environments. Being intentional through design can help attain social and emotional learning goals for the environment . A good school building has spaces for both learning and working and should include a multitude of spaces. A few of the recommendations we suggest in our design guide are to institute:
- Variety, where students have autonomy and choice for multimodal learning.
- Opportunities for privacy, movement, and sensory control for comfort.
- Support for the whole person, where health and well-being are prioritized.
- Localization, where history, culture, nature, and the relationship between them is emphasized.
Why Is This Important?
This work underscores the critical role of social and emotional learning (SEL) in education, especially given the current mental health crisis facing children and adolescents. Our visual design guide emphasizes the need to integrate SEL considerations into the design of learning environments to foster emotional regulation, empathy, and communication skills. By doing so, this visual design guide serves as a valuable tool for designers, offering evidence-based strategies derived from a comprehensive literature review and teacher interviews to positively impact students and teachers in their learning and working spaces.
This report emphasizes that intentional design cues can have a significant impact on the social and emotional well-being of students and educators. It highlights the importance of incorporating a range of design elements, including variety, privacy, sensory control, and support for the whole person, in school buildings. By stimulating diverse affordances within learning environments, educators and designers can help students develop competencies in SEL.
Our next step is implementation. In designing educational facilities to improve K-12 students’ outcomes, researchers and designers will leverage our design guide—a library of evidence-based design strategies formatted as a tool for designers of learning environments—to create and implement better learning and working spaces.
Teachers engage in a variety of work modes and utilize multiple tools to effectively do their job, and the guide can help designers provide a variety of psychological needs met within their working spaces and their students’ learning spaces. The design of physical space can be used as a tool to support or augment existing pedagogical practices in classrooms by stimulating diverse affordances (sensory, cognitive, motor, and social) within their learning environments.
This work is a product of coalition-based research bringing together the Center for Advanced Design Research and Evaluation (CADRE), Uplift Education, HKS – funded by the ASID Foundation. Next steps for the coalition include an impact study, investigating how the move of a Pre-K-12 school from a dense urban setting devoid of green, open space to a new location with an open quad green setting and enriched interior affordances transform well-being, academic outcomes, and college-readiness for at-risk and first-gen students. Learn more about the coalition.