SEND Focus: Why classroom displays could be doing more harm than good

A primary headteacher explains why we should be paying more attention to how our learning spaces accommodate children with SEND

Jeremy Thompson

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Schools are generally good at making interventions for children with SEND, but most balk at making environmental changes. And yet many classrooms are unsuitable for pupils with SEND, who can be sensitive to too much sensory stimulation.

As a headteacher, I no longer have a classroom of my own. Instead, I have to teach in my office or borrow a space from another teacher – a headache-inducing, cosmic-coloured space. 

I began to wonder if we had too many things cluttering our walls and whether our bright displays were actually providing too much stimulation. And then I questioned whether the risk of overstimulation applied not only to pupils with SEND, but to all of our pupils.

Of course, I don’t want to see children staring at blank walls, but I also don’t want to be creating unnecessary stress or making it harder for pupils to concentrate on their learning. Especially pupils like Chris, who has ADHD and can’t settle in a busy classroom because he finds it overstimulating. Or pupils like Martin, who I taught nearly a decade ago.

Martin had an autism spectrum disorder and a significant sensory need. I should have pushed for an environment that helped him, and quite possibly his peers, rather than pursuing a leadership-driven desire to fill every inch of my room with bright colours that made his eyes “buzzy” and “busy”. Instead, in order to destress and desensitize him, I placed him in the corner of a room like a naughty pupil.

I don’t want pupils like Chris and Martin to be excluded from their peers. What I want is to make sure that they are always included. That’s why my school has started to take down displays and to empty the rooms of the paraphernalia that we no longer use.

So far, the children have not been negatively affected by the lack of posters and Technicolor “learning walls”. In fact, they don’t seem to be bothered in the slightest.

When I ask them what they want to do with the paintings that they have done in class, they all want to take them home. Nobody asks for their masterpiece to be double mounted and arranged perfectly on a display board, too high up for anyone to see.

I know that the idea of removing display boards will be unthinkable for some teachers. Displays do have a place, but they also have a limit – especially when it comes to improving provision for children with SEND.

Jeremy Thompson (pictured) is a headteacher of an urban primary school in South Wales

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Jeremy Thompson

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