Designing therapeutic spaces in schools 5: the corridor and the cupboard, a case study

After several years of working with children in a busy primary school corridor, two teaching assistants trained in emotional literacy support (ELSAs*) were finally given the opportunity to create a private, comfortable and safe space where they could work. This post uses their own words (in italics) with additional comments from me and is arranged in four parts. 

In part one, the two practitioners outline the hazards of sensitive, therapeutic work in a corridor. In part two, they detail the design choices they made when creating their new space and in part three they reflect on the immediate consequences of their move. Part four consists of my own reflections arising from this conversation, recorded with educational psychologist Sara Freitag in March 2020. 

Sara also planned to record conversations with the children who had worked with these two practitioners in both the old and the new space. Unfortunately, these conversations have been postponed due to the limited re-opening of schools in England during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

The COVID-19 health crisis has also highlighted the inadequacy of the dimensions and qualities of spaces for children in schools in England, since keeping a physical distance means that only half of the student body can return safely at any one time in most schools. 

This post will be amended to include the insights of the children from the school in this study once the school has reopened to all pupils. For now, at least, the words of the two practitioners offer an unusually clear insight how design for therapeutic spaces in schools could be improved when experienced practitioners are listened to by senior members of staff and when their expertise is trusted. 

  1. Therapeutic work in a corridor

In previous posts in this series, I have outlined some of the ideal features of a space where therapy sessions in schools take place. These include privacy; comfort and quiet. Adequate lighting, seating and protection from interruption would also seem to be a given for people undertaking this role. The corridor where these therapists worked daily had none of these qualities. Their requests to be relocated to a more suitable space within the school went unheeded and they worked there for several years. Not only was the corridor a busy thoroughfare, but their allocated space was situated immediately adjacent to the school library, a room visited by every class in the school at least once a week. This meant that their delicate work of encouraging children to explore their feelings was being interrupted by a queue of children waiting beside them for the library to be free. This is how the therapists described their situation:

‘It was a real problem. We had a little working window of about 15 minutes while they’d be in the library and we’d chat to the child and the child would totally clam up when the class were going in or coming out of the library.’

To mitigate against the poor location, a folding screen was purchased. However, the screen made the working area dark and cramped. When the screen was opened out to allow for more light and working space, a direct sightline would be opened up along the corridor.

As well as putting up a ‘quiet please’ sign, the therapists would try to offer reassurance and encouragement to the children. 

‘I used to say ‘nobody can see you, they can only see me.’

‘I think they felt that people saw them in that space. If someone walked past (…) they’d go quiet and then it’s trying to get them to talk again and somebody else would walk past and they’d go silent. There was no confidentiality really because the children were seen coming in, you know … they didn’t feel free to talk. We’d notice that straight away, almost instantly.

Constant interruptions, not only from pupils but also from members of staff was a feature of their daily work. At best, this halts the conversation between therapist and child. As one of the therapists commented:

‘It does stop the flow. And then, you know, they forget what they were going to say.

At worst, these interruptions breach the confidential nature of what a child is trying to express. 

‘At times it’s been difficult with staff as well, particularly in the old space. They’re not actually realising how confidential our work is and they’re going up and speaking to the child, speaking behind the screen. So if they’re approaching from the infants side, they could see which child we were with sometimes. I don’t think they really realise what we do.’

This final comment, ‘I don’t think they really realise what we do’ lies at the heart of the problem. When someone’s job is not understood and as a consequence not valued, poor design decisions around that person’s role are more likely to be made and these may be difficult to reverse. 

The school leadership team had invested a significant amount of money in training these two practitioners as therapists and had given them sufficient time to do their work in supporting children with emotional and psychological needs. But the financial investment in the staff was being negated by a lack of  recognition of the significance of the space in promoting feelings of safety and security for the children taking part in the sessions there. Lack of space meant that only one of the two therapists was able to work in the corridor at any one time, reducing the number of children that they could potentially support by a half. The correlation between money, space and benefit to the children could hardly be clearer here. As one of the therapists concluded:

‘We really couldn’t get on with any of our interventions really because there just wasn’t the space.’

The unsuitability of the space meant that children were, as the therapists reported, ‘clamming up’, forgetting what they were saying and becoming withdrawn as lines of children trooped past them to enter the library. 

  1. Designing a new space

Eventually, the wishes of the therapists were granted and they were allowed to repurpose a store cupboard inside an unused classroom, giving them a new therapeutic space with the protection and storage space of the classroom around it. Sara Freitag asked them both to describe the new space that they had created: 

‘It’s literally a cupboard, you know, the cupboards that people have at the back of the classrooms to store things. It looks really small but it works quite well. We removed the shelves and measured the space. We tried to make it as cosy as we can.’ 

‘We wanted it to be as cosy as possible … but quite simple. So we haven’t got loads on the wall at the moment, we’ve got it quite plain. We’ve got a couple of beanbags for if we’ve got more children, we’ve got a lamp.’ 

‘It just looks like a nice little room and they feel really comfortable in there. For them it’s their space and a safe space. It is a safe space where they can talk about their feelings, which they didn’t really have before.’ 

The cupboard was located in an empty classroom, which meant that they could also use the classroom area to support and resource their work and that both of them could work simultaneously.

‘We got a glass panel put in the door, which wasn’t there before, just a safety thing, they often say you shouldn’t shut doors but we can shut the door because there’s a glass bit there and normally one of us is outside on the desk doing our notes. We take it in turns so that one of us sees the child while the other is doing our notes. And it works quite well. We try and get the children to … we have got our specific children but we try to get them to know both of us so that if one of us isn’t there, they’re comfortable talking to the other, and just comfortable seeing the other one outside the door. And you can’t hear, you can’t really hear outside the door.’

Although therapy sessions in schools sometimes involve conversation and reflection, they are also often built around creative work, such as drama, drawing and painting. None of this was possible in the corridor. 

Sometimes children are offered soft toys or puppets through which to express difficult experiences or feelings as a proxy. Without access to any storage space in the corridor, the two therapists had stopped using puppets and were more reluctant to set up painting sessions without any facility to wash paintbrushes. This changed as soon as  they were able to use the classroom with its sink and cupboard space.

‘[Now] we’ve got our little designated area outside for drawing and stuff, whereas before it would be like ‘we have to go and get the paper, get the stuff together and bring it down’. Everything is to hand. If they decide they want to draw there and then, they can. Whereas before you couldn’t do it.’

‘Before, if we wanted something else we’d have to walk around and get it and it wasn’t always ideal if you had a child in tow.’

‘We can do our painting and the rest of the room can’t really see us because directly outside the room there’s a little table there by the window so that works really well. If you’re sitting there you can clean up really quickly. Before, painting was a massive job. I don’t like it but I have done lots of sessions and it’s been great. You’re right next to the sink and you can clear it all up so that’s made a massive difference.

When the practitioners were working in the corridor without storage space close to the site of the therapy sessions, the choices that children could make to express themselves were reduced. In the new space, children can choose how they express themselves and no time is wasted in going to find the resources necessary to begin that activity. 

  1. A more suitable space 

The effect upon the children 

Moving to a new space had dramatic and immediate consequences for the children. 

‘Within 5 – 10 minutes of their first session they’d be talking about their feelings. Before we had to go ‘round the houses’. It could sometimes take several sessions before they felt comfortable talking’. 

‘We had more issues come up in the new space. I think the children were more comfortable speaking to us quicker.’ 

‘I think the main thing we’ve got from this is how much more open they are. Most children are far more open and open up more quickly. You don’t have to have a few sessions building up to it. It kind of saves time almost having a good space because they do feel comfortable and it is a nice space. When we first started taking children there I’d say, ‘ooh, close your eyes, close your eyes, look at our new space!’ and made it feel really exciting and made them feel it’s for them. So they can feel that it’s their space and they can feel comfortable in it.’ 

‘In the new space they seem so much freer, and they know where to find us. The only thing is you can sometimes hear the class next door, although they can’t hear us’.

Even though the new therapy space in the cupboard is surrounded by an empty classroom, the practitioners are aware that the children who come to work with them there are vigilant and cautious when they arrive, checking to see if anyone else is there. 

It’s quite funny actually, as we open the door to come into the room we’ve got, you can see the children’s eyes flickering around, looking at who else is in the room. So they are very aware of other kids and what they will say and what have you.

The effect upon the adults

Primarily, both practitioners felt that their ability to do their job had been compromised by having to work in a corridor:

‘It was really difficult to do our ELSA role, almost practising in a way that you’re told not to really. But now we feel like we are doing our ELSA job properly, really, although we were before, it was difficult (because) we didn’t feel that. We almost felt that we were doing a disservice to the children whereas now I think we’re doing the right thing.’

Along with the ability to store and have resources to hand; privacy; quiet; a lack of interruption and a confidence in providing confidentiality in their new room, both therapists also felt that their roles as professionals were given more respect in the new space.

‘And you feel a bit more … respected because it’s part of the school. It was always like we weren’t that important because we were stuck in a corridor and therefore the children felt that a little bit, I think. Whereas now they’ll see the space and they’ll see ‘Oh, who else comes here?’ We obviously don’t tell them who else comes here but they’re intrigued and they think of it as theirs.’ 

And although both practitioners thought that a therapy space twice the size of the cupboard would be even more ideal, being able to use the classroom space around the cupboard meant that they could adapt different areas of the room to the needs of each child.

E (her therapist colleague) might have the room because you know you’ve got a child who will only speak in there whereas I might know I have a child who will speak quite freely colouring in and painting. We have screens we can put around the rest of the room so we have the freedom to choose which children work well in which space if we’re both using the space at the same time. 

4. Thoughts arising from this conversation 

The words of these two therapists, talking frankly with a trusted educational psychologist colleague, demonstrate how vital it is for the space to be well designed for any therapeutic work with children, particularly in schools. School buildings can feel exposed and unsafe for children who are processing difficult feelings. 

The testimonies of the therapists also reflect how much their sense of professionalism had been undermined been by having to do their work in an unsuitable space, particularly as they had made repeated requests for a protected, private space. Their words convey a strong sense of the hierarchy of spaces within a school and how practitioners who do a different type of work from their teacher/manager colleagues, are often not accorded the same status or respect. It isn’t necessarily the case that having a new room gave these therapists a higher status, but they regained a sense of being able to do their jobs in a professional manner. The new room also meant that they could work with a physical barrier to interruptions i.e. a closed door. 

The designed elements that these practitioners identified as particularly significant for their therapeutic space were: privacy/protected space (both acoustically and visually); lighting; storage space to enable them to encourage creative work; enough space for them both to work simultaneously. The cupboard space and surrounding classroom fulfilled many of these elements, although it is worth noting that the therapists, when questioned about their ideal space, said that the cupboard was still a little too small. 

The senior managers of the school had invested in recruiting and retaining two members of staff to do the important work of emotion coaching and therapy with children. These therapists were also given a generous amount of time in which to do their work. However, in the five year period before the move to a suitable space was made, senior management failed to recognise how detrimental the corridor space was to the therapists’ practice and how much it compromised the school’s investment in them as professionals.  

These two practitioners struggled for several years with the frustration of being hampered in their work by poor working conditions. By negotiating a new space and designing it carefully with the children’s needs in mind, they demonstrated how an environment can support rather than hinder important work like this. Their words convey a strong sense of professional pride and renewed self-respect in being able to do their jobs properly to the benefit of the children.

It is heartening that even a small and inexpensive change like this – moving a therapeutic practice from a corridor to a converted cupboard  – could have such a dramatic impact on the children’s ability to engage with the therapeutic process, sharing their feelings more immediately and freely. 

When designing schools, or managing the spaces within them, listening to people who know exactly what their job requires, like these two therapists, is essential. Failing to listen to experienced practitioners risks undermining their roles, wasting a financial investment in staff and, worst of all, stripping away the benefit of their valuable work to the children who need them the most.  

Photo by kyo azuma on Unsplash

* ELSA programmes are an initiative that have been developed by educational psychologists in schools to address the emotional needs of children who face life challenges, sudden or long-term. Emotional Literacy Support Assistants undergo a year of training by educational psychologists to deliver their programme in a safe space in their school. The training course run by the local authority in which this school is located requests that when ELSAs sign up to  their training course that they school commits to providing  ‘a quiet, private space where pupils feel safe and secure’ . 

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