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Nicola McDowell’s Blog (20) The war on cluttered classrooms

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

The war on cluttered classrooms begins

As a teenager, I didn't have much control over many of the environments that I spent time in, including my classrooms at school. This meant that the majority of my day was spent in an environment that was visually cluttered with pictures, art work and posters plastered all over the walls, covering the windows and at times, hanging from the ceiling. This clutter, combined with the overload of other sensory information, such as the constant noise, movement and smells of a classroom full of students, meant that I spent the whole school day feeling anxious and on edge. Being in these cluttered environments was also exhausting and I soon learnt, that the only way I was going to survive each day, was if I allowed myself some quiet time during break times. These solitary time outs ended up becoming one of my most important strategies for dealing with the anxiety, confusion and fatigue my visual issues created.

Although I didn't really understand why, I soon realised that visually uncluttered, quiet environments made me feel calm and relaxed. So, I turned my bedroom into the quiet oasis that I so desperately needed, since it was the only place that I had any control over. To do this, I removed the pictures of pop stars and sports players off my walls, I found a better storage place than my spare bed for the hundreds of teddy bears that I had been given while I was in hospital and to my mum's great surprise (and delight), I started keeping my room tidy and organised. Everything had a place and everything had to be in that place at all times. I was also very strict about who could move objects or furniture in my room - absolutely no one apart from me! As a result, I loved spending time in my bedroom and would shut myself away in my 'safe place' whenever I possibly could.

As I continued through life, attended university, went flatting, rented houses with my husband and then eventually bought our own home for our family, I continued to develop safe places in every house I lived in. To start with, it was just the bedrooms, but now my whole house is a safe place and just walking in the front door, can calm me down, no matter how stressed I am. But as I started a career as a vision education and rehabilitation specialist, I started to have the same problem with cluttered classrooms. Being an itinerant teacher, I didn't often spend a whole day in a classroom, but I would visit many schools and spent up to two or three hours in each location. I started to find that being in these cluttered classrooms made me feel anxious and exhausted all over again. At times it even made it hard to think straight and concentrate on what I was doing with the students I was working with.

This got me thinking.

As an adult with CVI, most of the time, I can control my emotions. And when I find an environment overwhelming, I have strategies in place to make it easier. For instance, having small breaks away from the chaos, finding a quiet spot in the classroom where I can shut out the sensory information, or even something simple as staring out the window for a couple of minutes to give my eyes a break from the jumble of visual stimulus in the classroom. But what if I was a kid again? Could I tell the teacher how I am feeling? Could I explain to them that the clutter is making me anxious? I know I certainly couldn't at 16, so there is no way I would have been able to it 6 or even 10. And what if I was a kid with CVI that was non-verbal? I would have no way of explaining to anyone that the classroom environment is making me anxious and tired.

So, in my view, the responsibility needs to be placed on the adults that set up the classrooms. But I realised that no one is going to believe this and change the long held perspective that classrooms should display as much of the children's work as possible, unless I proved to them that cluttered classrooms affects the learning experience and behaviours of children with CVI. So that's what I did. I started my war against cluttered classrooms and I conducted research on two special school classrooms with students who had CVI. First, I de-cluttered these classrooms by:

  • Covering glass panel sliding doors between the two classrooms with thick black paper.
  • Hanging sheets over open shelving.
  • Creating what became known as the 'black hub' - an area in the classroom that had black, blank walls, that was used for concentrated, focused work.
  • Removing unnecessary equipment and furniture from the room.
  • Removed information that was on windows, walls and hanging from the ceiling.

Teachers, teacher aides (paraeducators) and students then worked in these classrooms for a period of two weeks, following their typical daily routines and completing usual activities.

Following this, I interviewed the teachers and teacher aides about whether they felt there was any change in their students behaviour. To their surprise (but not mine), the entire teaching team saw great improvements in the students learning capabilities and behaviours while the classroom was de-cluttered. Students were more focused, concentrated better, and some students even showed improved visual responses! But what surprised the teaching team the most however, was that both teachers and students found the classroom calmer and there was less tension in the room!

Let's think about this some more.

Adults, without visual impairments, enjoyed working in the de-cluttered classroom so much, they wanted to make the changes more permanent.

These are adults that can articulate how they are feeling and can understand their own emotions. So if they noticed that the de-cluttered classroom made it easier for them to teach in that environment, imagine what it did for the students with CVI! Although these students weren't able to describe the difference of a de-cluttered classroom, it was evident in their actions and behaviour.

This highlights an important message, not only for teachers that support children with CVI; but for all teachers.

A cluttered classroom that has colourful displays on every available wall space, may not be a conducive learning environment for your students! So, if you are a teacher, why don't you try an experiment of your own? Try de-cluttering your classroom and see if you notice a change in the learning and behaviour of your students. You may be pleasantly surprised!

Who wants to join me in my war against cluttered classrooms?

If you would like to read an extract of my research 'The Perspectives of Teachers and Paraeducators on the Relationship Between Classroom Clutter and Learning Experiences for Students with Cerebral Visual Impairment' or purchase the full article, from the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness (JVIB), please click here.

Please also see our section on Clutter.

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.


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