Designing therapeutic spaces in schools 4: how to create a space from scratch

Here, I offer a practical perspective on creating a therapeutic space in a school, with comments from people who have set up their own space and who currently work in one. If you are interested in designing space like this, whatever your professional background and experience, this post is for you. Alternatively, if you are an architect who is interested in educational design, the tips and suggestions below may also give you an insight into the types of arrangements that need to be made in schools to facilitate the success of a therapeutic room. 

 

Staff who design and work in therapeutic spaces may be formally employed in various roles such as teaching assistant, assistant head, Educational Psychologist, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Co-ordinator (SENDCo) or counsellor. For simplicity I’ll refer to all staff who create therapeutic spaces as ‘teachers’ throughout this article. 

 

Despite their varying roles and responsibilities, when I visited teachers who had set up therapeutic spaces, I observed many commonalities between them. These include a purposeful, thoughtful approach to the design of their rooms and a pride in those rooms; a passion for their work with children and a deep sense of care for those children; and the flexibility to adapt to crises while also building and managing steady routine of sessions for individual children. These teachers had all also clearly earned the trust and gratitude of the staff and headteachers with whom they work. Here, a headteacher praises the therapeutic space that Amy has created:

She needed a space where she could be based where the children knew where to go to. We were lucky that we had that space. She’s made it what it is, it’s totally come from her.  She came up with the name, she’s created it into what it is and we’ve then bought the little carpets.

 

Setting up the therapeutic space that Amy named The Butterfly Room required her to address a number of design questions as she made decisions about the space.  To give a sense of the practical challenges involved, I have posed five broad questions about designing therapeutic spaces that I hope will provide a context to the insights of the teachers I had conversations with. 

 

1. What types of space might be available and how do I choose the best one?

 

I have used the term therapeutic space rather than therapeutic room in my descriptions here and in my other posts because spaces that are not entirely enclosed can certainly be utilised for therapeutic activities. However, it’s important to think very carefully about how much a compromised space diminishes the  benefit of your therapeutic work with children. A space that isn’t an enclosed room, such as a partitioned area of the hall or a corridor may be all that is available in a busy school building. If that appears to be your only option, you may need to make the case to senior management that the children you work with are far more likely to benefit from a therapeutic intervention in a suitable space. I asked Amy what she would do if she didn’t have her own room: 

I don’t think it would work. I honestly don’t know how .. I made sure I would find a space. It was in my head (…) I was like, we’ve got to find somewhere, they need to feel safe.

 

Once you have an idea of the numbers of children you’ll be working with, the age range and whether you will be working 1:1 or with small groups, you can start to look at potential rooms. These might be ex-medical rooms, class or small-group rooms, offices or even large store cupboards. Amy was lucky to find a room of a good size with a good location and her only immediate obstacle was the amount of unwanted furniture and resources that had been stacked inside:

This was once a medical room and then it got to be a dumping ground so before I started I took it all out. I was ‘I want to do this, I want to do that, I want to put seats in there, I want them to be able to see out of the window. And it worked. And they wanted to come down and see me and it wasn’t outside a toilet, which a lot of schools do, let’s be honest. 

 

Don’t be put off by having to negotiate with other staff. Even if the space is currently being used as a store cupboard that some members of the school community might be resistant to changing, converting it into a therapeutic space will be a far better use for it.  

 

If, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to have a wide range of choices about the location of a therapeutic space, you may have to balance different qualities against each other to see which room is the best choice for you. Given how busy schools often are, having more than one room to choose from may be an unusual position and some options may only be available for a limited amount of time, for example, if you happen to work in a new school which has several empty rooms due to a staggered intake. In this situation, it may be useful to reflect on the principles for designing a space and qualities  of spaces that I’ve discussed in previous posts to help you to consider what potential spaces offer, how reliably and for how long. If you are comparing one or more locations, visiting potential spaces at different times of day to see how movement around the school might impinge on them can be helpful, especially after assemblies or at the start and at the end of play and lunch times. 

 

In another school I visited, Carrie’s room is in a quiet area there is a sofa in the corridor adjoining the room that has been set aside for adult reading volunteers. The corridor is only separated from her room by a frosted window.

I’m really careful to remember that they probably could hear through the glass so if I’ve got someone in here, I’ll ask (them) to move from the sofa. 

 

Carrie has set up her space on the first floor of the school, whereas most of the classrooms and consequent movement around the school is on the ground floor. This is an advantage in terms of calm and quiet around the room but she is aware that in getting to the room there is a bit more of a distance to cover for a child who is very upset:

It’s quite a journey up here. Sometimes you just want to bring them out of class for five minutes, talk about it and send them back and that can be done downstairs if it’s a small thing that I can deal with quickly. Or we might go for a quick walk around the playground. I’d bring them up here when there’s a more extreme emotion involved: if a child might cry or if they get angry.

 

Prioritising particular aspects of the room, as you will need to do, may mean that others are less achievable and you will need to think carefully about how to balance these qualities. Ease of access for all, for example, might be a consideration especially if children are sometimes expected to visit the room independently rather than being fetched from their classroom. If the room at the top of a steep flight of stairs, might this be impractical? Balancing a sense of privacy with ease of access is a consideration, although in the case of Carrie’s school, a lift is available.

 

The dimensions of the space are a matter of personal preference: you might want a smaller or larger room, depending on how cosy or expansive you would like to make it. Children will have more space to stretch out and move around in a larger room but it might be more vulnerable to requests for the space to be shared with others, which would reduce its effectiveness.

 

In Amy’s school, a room known as Toadstool is used for nurture groups. This room illustrates the  tension of competing qualities because of its dual-usage, as her headteacher explained:

Toadstool, off of the reception classrooms, is used for nurture. In some ways we’d like to develop that more as a nurture space but it’s also used as a teaching space for reception four mornings a week. So we’ve got a bit of a tension between ‘kitting it out’ and we’ve got four-year olds who’ve got to go and learn in there so if you make it too cosy, you know, if you have beanbags on the floor, it’s hard to say you can’t jump on them. We’ve got to work that one out. 

 

In summary, when choosing where to create a therapeutic space, it is important not to overlook unused or underutilised spaces; to consider the range of affordances the room offers, including its size and accessibility and to assess the ability of the whole school to respect the boundaries of the therapeutic space amid the pressures of day to day school life. 

 

2. What do you do if your only choice of room is a windowless cupboard?

 

While no space is likely to be perfect in every way, working several days a week in a windowless cupboard is unlikely to benefit anyone’s mental health. If such a space is the only option currently available to you, it may be advisable to return to the four principles outlined in post 2, in particular, ‘a whole school understanding and commitment to supporting the emotional needs of children in the school setting’. One course of action may be to consider how you can best persuade senior staff members to make a room available  that is fit for purpose i.e. suitable for you and the children. Making a member of staff available to support children in a therapeutic space is a major investment by the school. This value of this investment could be impoverished without a suitable space in which to work.  

 

There will be a need for a therapeutic space in your school, even if that need is not immediately obvious to all staff. Teachers working directly with children in these spaces are the ones best placed to share an understanding of how valuable they can be. Amy talked movingly about the ‘precious children’ with whom she works and their urgent need to see her when they are troubled:

They’ve all got something they need to tell. They’re so delicate, some of them, it could be the slightest little worry but they just need to talk about it. I’ve got about twenty of them. I have to let go of them when they get to Year 2. Not let them go, but they are more able by then. They can raise their hands in class, they can express their feelings, they know how to put their hands up, they know how to read. So then I concentrate on reception, Year 1 and 2. But they still come to me. 

Emotionally speaking, if they are in class and feeling upset, they will ask to come down and sometimes I’ve got two or three of them outside and I’ll be like ‘I’ll come in a minute’. As long as they’ve seen me, and they might just want to say ‘so and so really annoyed me today because they couldn’t get in the front of the queue’ or it could be something from home. So every time I go to that door, there’s someone outside. But it makes them feel better. And coming here they feel safe. If I’m not here, it’s panic stations. I can hear them.

 

Sharing observations about the needs of the children with other members of staff can help to create an understanding of the value of having a therapeutic space that is accessible, seculded and hospitable. This, in turn, demostrates to the children that they are valued.   

 

3. How do I make the space feel distinct from the rest of the school?

 

A therapeutic space can be greatly enhanced by features and qualities that show it to be separate from the formal context of the school environment. A powerful way of indicating this is for teachers to take the initiative in personalising a space by making changes to the design of the room. This establishes a differerent type of environment within the school in which a child can build trust and to which they can retreat if they are overwhelmed. Teachers need to be empowered to make design choices about the therapeutic space and feel safe in expressing their personal choices about what is best for the children.

 

To establish this, it might be necessary for the chosen room to be significantly changed. Even if the room already has functional furniture inside, don’t be afraid to remove it. Try not to accommodate pieces of furniture that offer no discernible benefit to you or the children: it may be more helpful to imagine the room as a blank canvas. Sophie’s room was already being used as a therapy room by a colleague who was retiring and although it was beautifully decorated, Sophie knew that she wanted to change it: 

It was Abigail’s room and she had a really big poster of trees and it was all greens and blues. It was lovely, really lovely, and I think it probably reflected her personality. But I wanted to make it as clutterless as possible because I feel that if your head’s full then you don’t want lots of fullness in a room. I’ve taken the cupboards out, I took a desk out and I’ve tried to make it so you sit in here and you don’t think you’re in school. I think that’s really important. 

 

To make the room feel more like your own, you might want to choose a name for it. Some schools have themes for classrooms, named after, for example, trees or painters and you may wish to reflect your school’s theme  in your choice. In the therapeutic rooms that I visited, some were named in this way while others echoed the names that the teachers were known by in the school. In naming the space, you can establish a degree of ownership and help it to play its important role in the school community. In this way, the room can feel distinct and different but still under the wider-school umbrella.

 

When Sophie had finished clearing her room, she acquired some second-hand furniture and soft furnishings to give it a homely feeling: 

I brought in an armchair and a bean bag and I was going to bring in another armchair but (I realised that) the children actually quite like to choose between the armchair or beanbag. And then I brought a bureau, it just feels like it’s not anything to do with school. And we’ve got the record player because some of them like music and up there on the wall, ‘the pedal thing’ I’ve found that works really well with children who are anxious or children with ADHD, or ADD, they doing that as they’re talking to you and releasing quite a lot of anxiety through that and that’s helped quite a lot of children already. 

 

Carrie, working in another primary school, also made a deliberate attempt to make the room feel less like a schoolroom:

I’ve tried to make it more homely, I guess, and more about thoughts and feelings. We’ve got toys in here, we’ve got the dog* in here. It’s just something that is quite different from the rest of the school. A lot of the other rooms would have learning aids and times table things on the wall and they’re nice spaces but they’re definitely to do with learning. So I think there is a different feeling when you come in somewhere that’s got none of that.

 

By establishing this space as ‘homely’, Carrie clearly signals to children that her work is non-judgemental and has no connection with academic study:

The children come in here and know that it’s nothing to do with their work and that my job is nothing to do with their work and I quite like that role in the school. It’s really important to me that I don’t care if they’re good at maths or good at English or if they’ve done their homework. That’s nothing to do with my role. 

 

As a teacher managing a therapeutic space, don’t forget that this space needs to be comfortable for you as well as the children who visit. If you are relaxed, it will help the children to relax there too. 

 

Other questions you may want to consider: Are the seats comfortable and supportive of my posture as an adult? Do I feel at home in here? Are there any people in the school that I need to have a conversation with about respecting this as a protected space for therapeutic work. 

 

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4. How do you create a space that feels private enough to encourage children to share difficult feelings while ensuring that you meet your school’s requirement for child protection? 

 

All of the teachers I talked to had gone through extensive training about safeguarding and confidentiality. All were aware of the balance between auditory and visual seclusion for their children — not being overheard or overlooked — and safety. Amy talked to me about how the children often asked for the door of her room to be closed so they could talk in private:

As they get older, towards Year One (ages 5 and 6)  you notice it in them and they’ll start shutting the door (behind them). I’ll put it on the child lock and they’ll be like ‘Can we shut the door?’

 

Schools have different policies about adults working in rooms alone with children. In Amy’s school, the child lock means that the door is generally slightly ajar whereas for Sophie, the door can be shut and the blind that covers the glass panel in the door is pulled down if she feels that an interruption could be detrimental to the child. 

 

For Sophie, the frosted glass in the window that opens out onto a corridor makes it clear that someone is inside. She explains that it can be:

An open-door place, which it is most of the time, but because I’ve got the net curtains it can be private. Most of the time I’d have the door half-open but then a child can feel that they’re not seen. You need to be able to look in and see that there’s two figures because otherwise it’s just, it’s not very suitable so you can’t have a very solid closed door.

She adds:  

It’s really important that if a child is crying or very distressed, they feel they can be away from the public gaze. 

 

An awareness of your own school’s practices and policies is necessary when considering how private a space can be but frosted glass or transfers on glass to conceal the identity of who is inside the room can be a solution if your school expects everyone to be visible from the outside of any room.

 

5. How do you create access for all?

 

In post 3 in this series, I highlighted the quality of easy access to this space, even though many children in the school may never use it themselves. When designing the space, however, it is important to consider every pupil who might need to visit one day. Physical access is the first consideration: is there a lift if they aren’t able to walk upstairs? Is its location off-putting to the younger children who may be nervous about walking past the toilets when the Year 6s are getting changed. Have children with autism and ADHD been thought about?

 

Mostafa’s research (2008, 2014)** recommends that a ‘baseline neutral sensory’ escape space (2008: p205) should be designed into schools as ‘a haven for times of sensory imbalance’. 

 

If your school has a sensory space, then it may be more appropriate for those children to visit it when they are overloaded by sensory experiences. However, a therapeutic space might also be designed to cater for that need. The school’s special educational needs co-ordinator might be a useful person to liaise with when setting up this space as they will have an insight into the particular needs of children who are likely to visit and also potentially some expertise in the adaptations that can be made for those children. 

 

In Carrie’s school, children are able to self-refer to her through a worry box that is placed in every classroom for all children to use and which they know she will check if they want to send her a message in this way. Remember that any child might potentially come to visit, above and beyond the children who their teachers and senior staff identify as in need of extra emotional support.

 

To conclude, therapeutic spaces cannot easily be created by following a formula. Once you have identified the best possible space in your school for you and for the children, interior design choices can be made to establish a your presence and a homely informal context in the space. This may sometimes require taking a risk and making an intuitive choice like bringing unusual furniture, such as Carrie’s bureau, into the space. This is important and necessary work but it can also be enjoyable so don’t hesitate to move things out or in. As Carrie says, you can enjoy feathering a new nest: 

It’s like moving into a new house. You can either rush in and get everything settled at once or you can wait and live with it for a bit and get to know what you need. I didn’t want to get everything in the room at once, I wanted to leave it for a while. 

 

Carrie sees her room as a work in progress and has enjoyed the process of letting it evolve and change as more children visit her there. Her advice to anyone else setting up a new therapeutic space is to remember that it can be very daunting talking about emotions, 1:1, so make sure that it’s comfortable for the children:

I got the children involved a little bit, asking ‘what would you like to see, what would you like to have in here?’ And then I obviously thought about how it could be different to what they’re experiencing in the classroom. That’s the key thing. 

 

Notes

This post is written in the context of UK primary education, although many of the points discussed also apply to secondary schools. 

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* therapy or ‘pets as therapy’ dogs are becoming an increasingly common sight in UK primary schools. They must undergo a period of training to ensure that they are suitable for the role. Some dogs belong to the teachers and working in schools and are in situ every day, others visit once or twice a week and are facilitated by a charity such as Pets as therapy.

As Carrie, who brings her own therapy dog into school every day explains, sometimes children are more comfortable to share their feelings with the dog than with a human:.

‘Its nice that they have the opportunity to interact with Alfie up here because sometimes that’s quite a gateway into what they’re feeling.’

 

**Mostafa, M. (2008). An architecture for autism: concepts of design intervention for the autistic user. Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, 2(1), 189-211.

Mostafa, M. (2014). Architecture for autism: autism ASPECTSS in school design. Archnet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, 8(1), 143-158.

 

 

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