Designing therapeutic spaces in schools 3: how to communicate safety, security and stability

It is important to be aware that open-plan formats are not that helpful for these pupils. Let’s recognise how that kind of arrangement might be experienced by someone who has little or no trust, is suspicious of others’ intentions, doesn’t believe confidentiality exists and needs to constantly check out where threat might be coming from. What we’re trying to do is communicate safety, security and stability; so let’s be sensitive to the need for spaces that convey those feelings.

Louise Bomber (2011, p. 33).


In this, the third in a series of linked posts about the design of therapeutic spaces in schools, I consider how Bomber’s values of ‘safety, security and stability’ might be communicated to children in and by these spaces with the aim of maximising the therapeutic benefit to the children who spend time in them. To this end, I have created a list of qualities that may enhance this type of space. The list is by no means exhaustive and I would love to include any further suggestions from you that might augment or improve it. The qualities are arranged under three broad headings of privacy, comfort and access for all.


i. Privacy

I use the terms privacy and seclusion* interchangeably in this context with respect to both the visual and the auditory world of the child. 

Visual seclusion is important in the context of therapeutic spaces because talking about one’s deepest feelings in a public space is liable to make anyone feel self-conscious or uncomfortable. Children are no less likely to feel a sense of shame or embarrassment than adults, even if they don’t have the vocabulary or confidence to express this to an adult. Sophie, who has set up a therapeutic space for emotional support in her school, understands this very well:

  I just feel it’s so important for a child to feel safe and not to be looked at by other children. No matter what age, you’re embarrassed, you still have feelings. From a tiny age even, you have the feeling that ‘Someone’s looking at me’.  We have these children, these valuable children and they’re all affected in some way. And I thought, where am I going to take these children? They’re going to get looked at (…) they’re going to be looking behind their shoulder (thinking) ‘Can I talk? Is my friend there?’


Every teacher I have spoken with who has set up a therapeutic space was concerned to ensure that it should be as protected from the gaze of others as is reasonably possible. For this reason, a room with a door that can be closed (perhaps with a frosted-glass window in the wall or door) is preferred by most schools. As one teacher told me: ‘It’s about having a safe space where they’re not a goldfish in a bowl’.


Referencing Bachelard’s evocation of the nest (2014), architect Herman Hertzberger, who has been associated with school design throughout his long career, promotes the idea of a ‘safe nest’ in schools (2008, p. 35). Taking the protective qualities of the nest a step further, he extends the metaphor to that of a baby kangeroo in a pouch: ‘an essential quality in this respect is what we might call ‘cupboardness’ with the kangaroo as an ideal’ (2008, p. 108). Proximity to a trusted adult is one key feature of a safe space but a vantage point from which to look out is also a valuable one when considering the design of that space. Like the baby kangaroo in its pouch, the child can scan the boundaries of the space without being seen. A window that looks out onto a vista of trees or natural outdoor space can be very calming for children. 


Some schools develop a sense of privacy in an outdoor space: a yurt, a hobbit house or a shepherd’s hut but many of these options can only be used during the warmer months of the year. With any secluded therapeutic space, indoors or outdoors, it is also wise to be aware of the route that the child needs to take to access the space. If a therapeutic space is being designed into a new school, thoughtfulness and care about its location can also make a difference. 


Auditory seclusion may also be extremely beneficial in the context of creating a therapeutic space. Children do not want to be overheard being upset or expressing their feelings loudly even when they cannot be seen. If the walls of the therapeutic room are very thin or the room itself is in close proximity to other, busy rooms, both child and adult may be aware that their voices can be heard and this may inhibit their work together. Similarly, loud noises from outside the space might also disturb and distract so, again, location of the space is important.  A partitioned space in a corridor or hall is particularly unsuitable since children’s voices are amplified by highly reverberant surfaces. Children are also less likely to be concerned about being overheard if they can’t hear loud noises from outside their room.


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ii Comfort

Comfort encompasses a variety of elements such as a freedom of movement in a less restrictive context than the classroom; a choice of furniture (or cushions and soft rugs on the floor) to sit on and a sense that there is no hurry in this welcoming space and that the teacher has time to listen. A sense of comfort also includes a thoughtfulness about the sensory stimuli and environmental conditions in the room itself. 


The comfort of having some influence over the use of time and a sense of unhurriedness is a vital quality of therapeutic spaces. When children experience what psychologists describe as ‘dysregulation’, i.e. a loss of the ability to manage negative, heightened emotions, they also lose a sense of their own physicality and of the world around them. It is important that the child has the sense that there are no other demands on their time and that when they are present in this space and in their body, they can begin to connect with and regulate their emotions. They will also benefit from being in a calm space where there are no competing demands for the attention and time of the trusted adult


The architect Mary Medd (1907-2005) observed how very young children, left to their own devices in a comfortable space, often enjoy a freedom of movement, stretching out or curling up as needed (Medd, 1976). By allowing the child to choose how and where they sit, sprawl or lie down, children may be more likely to feel that they have a sense of choice about how they express themselves, both physically and emotionally. If the therapeutic space is tiny, it may have the advantage of feeling cosy, but this may have the disadvantage of there being fewer choices of places to settle. Adult-sized chairs, especially plastic moulded ones, can be uncomfortable for children. If there is more than one option of where to sit, the adult may ask the child to choose a spot before they sit down themselves, giving the child an increased sense of agency. In terms of furniture and soft furnishings, easy chairs that are moveable and beanbags or cushions can help to establish a feeling of comfort through their softness. Weighted or ‘sensory’ blankets are often particularly calming for children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD).  


The comfort provided in therapeutic spaces might helpfully stand in stark contrast to the hierarchy of comfort in the classroom, with the teacher at the top of the pyramid (Kenkmann, 2011). In infant and primary school classrooms, children are often placed in a particular position on a rug or carpet area or at a desk Harden, (2012); McCarter & Woolner (2011) while the teacher is free to walk around unimpeded. This confinement and sense of restriction can be particularly oppressive for children when they are feeling vulnerable to difficult feelings. Reversing this hierarchy in the therapeutic space can bring a more homely feel to the room because homes, unlike classrooms, usually offer a choice of furniture and places to settle comfortably. In therapeutic spaces that work well, children can rest and relax while they explore their emotions and in many schools this sense of unrestricted movement often extends to being allowed to run around the playground when they need to. 


Environment has an impact on children’s sense of well-being. In a school setting, environmental conditions, such as room temperature, ventilation and lighting are set up to cater for the needs of the majority of pupils. Individual children are usually required to adapt to the general environment and so making changes to the room where individual children are offered therapeutic support may have a positive impact and change a child’s relationship with the school setting. The thoughtful design of the therapeutic space, paying attention to sensory stimuli, could make all the difference to a child who is struggling to label and manage their emotions. As they become more adept at this, they may be able to transfer this ability to less hospitable environments in the school. 


It is helpful to be able to manage the temperature of the therapeutic space. If children are ‘hot and bothered’, they may also respond well to having a fan playing on them to cool them down. There might even be a fridge in the room with ice-cubes, a refreshing spray of water and cold drinks to hand. Ventilation is also important: ‘fresh’ air from outside is desirable, although speaking from personal experience, opening a window that is 20 metres from a busy dual carriageway is not necessarily advantageous. 


An inexpensive and easy design choice is to use soft furnishings to dampen unwanted sounds, such as scraping chairs. Some sensory experiences in schools are not noise but related to smells that may arrive from nearby toilets or kitchens. It may require a special effort to pay attention to these qualities but doing so can enhance the effectiveness of the space. Lighting can also make a  difference to both child and adult using the space, especially if overhead strip lighting is harsh or tends to flicker. Natural light through a window or, at a minimum, through a skylight, is a desirable option. 


Objects that would not normally be common in school spaces may be brought into the space by the adult and made available to the child to support them in feeling that they can make positive choices for themselves. In one space I visited, there was a record player, a variety of board games spilling out of drawers and boxes of lego. Puppets and soft toys were on hand for children to use as a proxy for their own feelings. Different types of fidget-toys were also be available in the room and even if these are banned from the rest of the school, they can help children to relax in the therapeutic space. 


The qualities of homeliness and comfort are particularly enhanced when visual prompts about learning, such as times tables charts and enriching vocabulary are removed. Displaying timetables can also be unhelpful, as the therapeutic space is likely to benefit from a sense of being set aside from highly regulated time. A more sparse decor may also be particularly helpful for children with autism. Children should be invited to share in these choices too, for example, do they want their own drawings and paintings to be displayed, for example. 


In the second of this series of posts, I explored four principles to support the effectiveness of a therapeutic space. To return to the third of these principles, concerning a whole-school understanding of the importance of such spaces, all members of staff need to know why the additional comforts discussed above are being made available to individual children. After all, adults in schools often work very hard to offer all children the same opportunities and providing additional comforts to individuals could appear to be a counterintuitive strategy to some. The recognition that therapeutic spaces provide an opportunity for individual children to learn how to cope better in school should be communicated to all staff. Experiences of the succesful regulation of emotions in a therapeutic space can ultimately enable a child to join the school community on an equal basis rather than feeling increasingly excluded because of their individual needs. There is no simple formula for creating this whole-school sensitivity but it can grow from a common understanding that providing comfort and support when it is needed can be uplifting for the entire school community as well as for individual children. 



iii. Access for all

For a therapeutic space to be at its most effective, it should extend a sense of welcome to all children, even those who might not be at the top of the list in terms of immediate need but who might visit to accompany a friend. For this to be accomplished without compromising a sense of privacy, a warm and evolving whole-school understanding of the room’s function as a supportive space needs to be shared and nurtured. Ease of access must be considered in terms of all members of the school, including children with special educational needs, autism or ADHD and physical disabilities.


Requesting and negotiating access to the space may become problematic if a child is triggered by an event in the classroom or the playground and becomes so distressed that they are non-verbal. Following the third principle of involving the whole school in discussions about mental health, children need to know how to access the space in an emergency. Some schools give every member of staff, including all non-teaching staff, a set of cards to be available on their ID lanyard with pictures that represent safe spaces in the school. If a child needs to visit the room but are in a non-verbal state, they may still be able to point to the card with a picture of the space on it. This may also be useful for children who feel embarrassed to ask to visit the room in front of other children. 


‘Reverse inclusion’ is a phrase that is used to ensure that the therapeutic room is seen as a desirable, inclusive space for all. Children might want to occasionally bring a friend with them to the space to build with lego or play a board game. Freedom of access to the relative luxury and comfort of the space within the school can also be an indication that it is welcoming and desirable. 


A lack of reward charts and behaviour sanctions separates the space from the rest of the school as somewhere free from judgement but not as a privilege to be ‘earned’ as a treat. The trusted adult will ensure that children feel that there is nothing that they could say in the room that would lead to them to ever be excluded from it and that their confidentiality is respected within safeguarding** considerations. Creating this sense of safety in the room can help to begin to break the cycle of rejection for children who have experienced loss, neglect or abandonment in their early lives. 


In the fourth post in this series, I offer suggestions for how to design a therapeutic space in a school from scratch. 



*The words that people use to describe the qualities of educational spaces can be interpreted in many different ways. I use the term ‘seclusion’ here to describe protection from unwelcome interruption with the choice to tuck oneself away. However, the Centre for Positive Behaviour Support in their document publication Information on seclusion, isolation and time-out (2015) defines seclusion as The supervised confinement and isolation of a person, away from other users of services, in an area from which the person is prevented from leaving.’ Department of Health, Para 87 P and P 2014. 

The agency and free choice of the child is a cornerstone of my work with children and my use of the word is in direct opposition to this definition. 

** safeguarding in schools is designed to protect children from abuse. Staff cannot promise complete confidentiality to children, since they may disclose a piece of information that reveals that they are in danger. Carrie, a teacher in a primary school, told me how she explains this to children:

I always say to them, everything I say to them here is confidential but if there’s something that would put them in danger then I would let Mrs M (head teacher) know but I always say to them, I’m never going to judge them, I’m never going to say that anything they say is silly because that’s often what they’re afraid of, of sounding silly. So we have that conversation at the start so they know. So they don’t feel that I’ve lied to them if I have to let (headteacher) know about something.



Bachelard, B. (2014). The poetics of space. (M. Jolas, Trans.). New York: Penguin Books. 

Bomber, L.M. (2011). What about me?: inclusive strategies to support pupils with attachment difficulties make it through the school day. Duffield: Worth Publishing.

 Harden, J. (2012). Good sitting, looking and listening: the regulation of young children’s emotions in the classroom. Children’s geographies, 10(1), 83-93.

Hertzberger, H. (2008). Notes from space and learning: lessons in architecture. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers.

Kenkmann, A. (2011a). Power and authenticity: moving from the classroom to the museum. Adult Education Quarterly, 61(3) 279-295 

McCarter, S., & Woolner, P. (2011). How listening to student voice can enable teachers to reflect on and adjust their use of physical space. Educational & Child Psychology, 28(1), 46-63. 

Medd, M. (1976). A Right to be Children. York: University of York, Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies.




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