How Clutter is Distracting Your Students (And How To Fix It)

After years of creating and collecting, second grade teacher Erin Klein experienced a catharsis. In a recent article about her experience she wrote, "Entering my classroom one day, it struck me. The space looked more like a teacher storage facility than an inspiring place for students to work together and learn. I knew this needed to change."

With a background in interior design, Klein knows that the space, layout, and light of a room can effect well-being. But can it also effect learning?

Decorating or Distracting?

In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers found that children in a highly decorated classroom were more distracted and made smaller learning gains compared to when in a minimally decorated classroom. These researchers found that the visual environment can indeed affect how much students learn. 

In the study, 24 kindergarten students were placed in classrooms for six introductory science lessons over the course of 2 weeks. Three lessons were taught in a heavily decorated classroom, and three lessons were taught in a sparse classroom.

The decorated classroom was furnished with science posters, maps, and children’s art works -- items commonly found in a classroom. In the sparse classroom, all materials irrelevant to the instruction were removed. 

The researchers found that children learned in both classroom conditions; however, they learned more when the room was not heavily decorated. Children’s accuracy on the test questions was higher in the sparse classroom than the decorated classroom.

The researchers also measured off-task behavior, such as talking to peers. They found that children spent more time off-task in the decorated classroom compared to the sparse classroom.

Reevaluate &  Declutter

Given these findings, the researchers suggest that teachers should consider the following when decorating their classroom spaces:

  • Do the visuals serve a purpose to learning?
  • Are they interactive teaching tools?
  • How distracting could they be to young children?

Klein takes reevaluating even further adding,  "If we haven’t used something within the past six months to a year, chances are we won’t end up using it." She suggests storing unused items away, outside of the classroom space. She emphasizes that its not the environment but rather what is being taught that should be stimulating for students.

Beyond just removing clutter, Klein challenges teachers to take additional steps to make nature visible in the classroom (such as with indoor plants) and utilize natural light as both have shown to improve mood and health. 

Most importantly, Klein suggests taking into account the perspective of the students. This includes neatly displaying their artwork, allowing them to independently access school supplies, and offering seating choices "that allow for movement, collaboration, and creativity." Classrooms don't have to be filled with desks; furniture can be flexible and personal -- a table with stools, bean bag chairs, and an open area rug can all provide eating for students to do their work. 

StepUp Summary

Reducing classroom distractions while increasing students' responsibility for their own learning has been shown to improve attention and engagement. When students are focused on learning and problem solving and then experience success, they continue to look for ways to be more successful. Likewise, the daily NeuroNet exercises provide opportunities for students to practice sustained attention, auditory memory, visualization, math readiness, and handwriting readiness just to name a few! 

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