Learning from places for Special Educational Needs

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Why learn from Schools?
Schools play a significant part in society and can have a huge impact on the social, communicative and creative development of children. The environment in a Special Educational Needs (SEN) school can have a big impact on student’s behaviour, interactions and anxiety levels. In a healthcare environment, people may be similarly anxious, disorientated or distressed and so design strategies that work for SEN schools may be of assistance when considering how to design to reduce these stressors.

What to consider?

Reducing anxiety through familiar intuitive wayfinding and a choice of social interactions.

Creating an environment that enables people to feel in control of themselves and their surroundings is critical to reducing anxiety and promoting wellbeing. The approach and entrance for a SEN school is designed to be welcoming, familiar and of a human scale. Overwhelming or dominating arrival spaces that feel unfamiliar often make people feel more uncomfortable, particularly if they are already in a vunerable state.

Adopting the SEN approach to both the entrance area and overall environment of a healthcare building, could possibly reduce the levels of anxiety and stress associated with visiting them. In particular many people find navigating larger buildings difficult and stressful; therefore, clear and easy circulation can make a big difference to a person’s confidence and feeling of self-control. Circulation with visible destination points, wayfinding markers or with views to the outside can all aid orientation and help reassure people that they know where they are and where they are going. Circulation space needs to consider how a person’s sense of personal space might be affected, particularly on busy routes, in waiting areas and over long periods of travel. Separation of waiting areas and quieter routes from busier routes may be appropriate for those patient groups who feel vulnerable orintimidated by constant activity. SEN schools posess a variety of spatial characteristics that different children find useful to feel at ease, ranging from wide open spaces to smaller, quiet recesses that allow retreat or one-to-one learning. For healthcare buildings, this might mean designing pockets of space off circulation routes that afford users the choice to move into semi-public or private spaces based on the level of social interaction they are comfortable with. Access to external courtyards with calm, soft landscaping can provide safe, accessible play space without compromising a person’s privacy or sense of security. Outdoor play and engaging with nature can also help stimulate the mind, fire the imagination and relieve frustration, particularly for children.

In SEN schools, tactile, curvilinear walls have been found to aid navigation and help direct people calmly and safely around buildings. Creating interesting yet efficient circulation routes in healthcare buildings can help make navigation feel much less institutional and much more achievable. Symbol-based signs, tactile objects, sounds and colours can also supplement word-based signs to help those who process information in other ways to navigate more easily.

Creating environments that are sympathetic to a range of sensory stimulations

SEN schools are designed to accommodate those that are hypersensitive (oversensitive) and hyposensitive (under-sensitive). Healthcare environments must also consider the sensory impact of the environment on a persons stimulation levels in order to not amplify stress levels. Flexible control of lighting (natural and artificial) in an environment is crucial where people can be easily overstimulated. Lighting that is even, glare-free, doesn’t flicker or hum is used in special needs facilities to create a less distracting environment. Lighting control that can be dimmed, change colour or provide task lighting can really help calm people, particularly in areas where people spend a significant amount of time.

Interpretation of colour is such a subjective and individual response that there can never be any one ideal solution. People with SEN can find vibrant hues very disturbing whereas those without SEN may find bright colours anywhere from uncomfortable to playful. Colour can be used to identify spaces and pick out physical features (such as window frames, doors, skirting, or thresholds) for those with visual impairments. When successful, the right application of colour in an appropriate context has the power to create a pleasant and welcoming experience which resists the sterile healthcare stereotype. For example, colour may really bring artwork or graphics to life, or support wayfinding strategies that help to highlight elements on the journey.

Hard surfaces that contribute to noisy spaces can impede people from talking comfortably with one another, disrupt people’s thoughts, disturb sensitive conversations and generally make the environment unnecessarily distracting. For people who are in a sensitive condition, this can be a real problem. Rough textures, sound absorbent materials and soft furnishings produce a warm, friendly atmosphere that can make a big difference to a persons level of concentration and relaxation. It is important that Infection Control requirements are also achieved and this will influence where sound absorbent materials can be placed. The shape and proportions of spaces, therefore, become particularly important in contributing to sound attenuation.

Sensory rooms (or “snoezelens”) have been common in SEN schools for a number of decades and are becoming more common in hospitals to help people cope with sensory overload. For hyposensitive people, these rooms provide safe, soft play and interaction with multi-sensory equipment; helping a person to de-stress or de-escalate.

An article by Building Better Healthcare explores the impact and current thinking behind the use of sensory rooms and sensory equipment in healthcare environments. For more information on designing for the senses see Designing environments for children and adults with ASD by Christopher Beaver, The sensory world of autism by the National Autistic Society and an online study of New Struan School by Scottish Autism. For wider reading on the impact of colour, see The Application of Colour in Healthcare Settings.

Environments that balance care and supervision with building maintenance and security

Security and supervision are essential to a person’s safety in both a healthcare building and in a SEN school. The location of play spaces, waiting areas and external spaces should be visible on staff circulation routes or from staff areas. Similarly, the approach to the building should have discreet visual links that permit passive supervision from staff areas without people feeling watched. This allows staff to keep an eye on their safety and prevent unauthorised access but also provides a sense of security for people so they know that help is always at hand if they need it.


The brief for SEN schools and healthcare facilities often seek the same human qualities for its users: reassurance, safety, familiarity, comfort, and control. The layout of the building as well as its sensory impact can make a big difference to how patients and pupils respond to stress or can indeed lead to further stress if not thoughtfully designed. If patients or pupils do become too distressed, then options to go outside or sit into a quiet corner can provide positive coping mechanisms.

This feature identified a number of strategies and design approaches that could influence design in the healthcare sector more widely. It is perhaps worth noting that when looking for guidance or precedents for a healthcare building, the best model may not be one considered a national or even international exemplar. There are many buildings across many sectors that are successful; the opportunity to learn how and why these buildings make a difference to people lives should be encouraged and explored.

Further reading

Architects’ section at autism.org.uk

Building Bulletin 102 by the Education Funding Agency

Designing environments for children and adults with ASD by Christopher Beaver.

Designing learning spaces for children on the autistic spectrum by Ian Scott

Online study of New Struan School by Scottish Autism.

Sensory Rooms article by Building Better Healthcare.

Sensory world of autism by the National Autistic Society.

The Application of Colour in Healthcare Settings by The Centre for Health Design (USA).

Biological Design: Brain Boxes by Urban Realm

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