Environment: The Third Teacher

The changing face of schools for our special children

 My brother has Down Syndrome, and I have clear memories of visiting prospective schools and residential programs for him when we were both younger. It was the 1970s, and at that time most of the educational and residential settings were in isolated areas, and generally institutional in physical appearance. Accessibility was not a requirement in design work back then, and thus, many elements of the built environment were obstacles to those individuals with physical handicaps.

It was not until the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 that buildings were mandated to be accessible. Even though two decades have passed since then, it has taken the full 20-plus years to adequately integrate accessibility into existing buildings. Now, in 2012, the ADA has created opportunities for more inclusive environments allowing for the education and employment of individuals with disabilities. Classrooms, campuses, government and private sector buildings are more accessible and the opportunity of access is visibly apparent in our built world.

Increasing Accessibility

Through legislation of the past 35 years providing rights to children with disabilities, the buildings supporting these and all children have transformed to what they are today: accessible, modern, well-lit, spacious and more. As an architect and the 53-year-old mother of a 20-year-old son on the autism spectrum, I’ve watched what the congregate voice of parents of children with autism has done for change to the academic world. This massive wave of vocal individuals is impacting not only the environments for children and adults with autism, but also the settings for individuals with disabilities as a whole. Further, I believe that the Autism Movement has given a greater voice to parents of children with other disabilities as well.

The result is that our school settings are changing. First and foremost, the primary focus has been on developing and implementing new teaching methods and behavioral management plans for our kids. These efforts have definitely consumed the past 10 plus years. Now, with the immense population of transitioning ASD youth and the need to understand their future as adults, the parents of these kids are focused on reinforcing life and vocational skills in our school settings.

Environment: The Third Teacher

With the more-recent identification of toxins that may impact children on the spectrum, our material selections for these environments are beginning to be clearly defined. Also, as science identifies other health and development nuances in our children with autism, architects must be aware that the visual and auditory systems of children with autism are more sensitive and require building adaptations to material selections and way-finding methods. Thus, designers are beginning to implement changes to the physical fabric that composes a school for our special kids. Further, understanding that the proper placement and orientation of the school program spaces can have an impact on the learning and development of a special needs child is the most significant key to the success of their learning.

In reflecting on the Reggio Emilia approach of the “Environment as the Third Teacher,” a common thread connects this concept for early childhood education to the concepts developing today for children with special needs. It is clear that our environment plays a major role in our overall human development. So, why should it not be also true that when we properly shape and build our schools, we help teach and develop our special children?

I have had the great opportunity to visit many programs across the country as well as be involved as a special needs architect on large currently developing schools. And as a designer experienced in raising a child on the spectrum and working with educators as an advocate, I see that together we can discuss the literal teaching goals and how our shaping a room or connecting two rooms can help or hurt their program. Further, we can together creatively adapt the standardized settings to reinforce skill-building techniques.

Full Inclusion A Driving Force

For schools, the initial significant factor that began the transformation of school environments for children with special needs was the enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. This act required all public schools to provide equal access to education for children with physical and mental disabilities. Note that access is not meant to imply the same access as required by the ADA, or physically gaining access—rather, it means the opportunity to attend the same programs.

This marked the beginning of what eventually became law as full inclusion. In a landmark case, Daniel R.R. v. State Board of Education (1989), it was concluded that students with disabilities had a right to be included in both academic and extracurricular programs of general education. After this, the adoption of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), signed into federal law in 1990, marked a significant change in how public agencies provided special education and related services to children with disabilities. The language of “least restrictive environment” defined the end goal.

Reshaping Our Classrooms

People in my generation may be wondering what has happened to the home economics classrooms once central to the vast majority of high school programs. In many cases, this space is now being used to reinforce life skills.

Areas are being developed into mock apartments with clearly defined and well-organized areas for cooking, prepping food, washing and folding clothes, practicing telephone skills, general cleaning, changing sheets and making beds, brushing teeth and shaving, etc. Imagine the possibilities and imagine further how the proper spacing of these areas and the material selections can further help support the success of this program for our children.

It is evident that the structure required for children with autism for successful behaviors and focused attention is molding our classrooms. Further, concerns for the possible impact of toxins in the environment are beginning to drive material selections. Considerations are being given to different seating styles for teaching, from laying on the floor to 360° pivoting chairs; view cones are being managed to reduce connections to highly active areas thereby reducing stress for the students; fluorescent lighting is being deleted due to flickering lights; the acoustics within the spaces are being managed to reduce reverberation; more lockable cabinetry is being designed to minimize clutter; classroom links are being created so staff can offer support to each other through internal door connections; and floor patterns are being used for wayfinding and management of staying in place. (See picture above for an example of two typical classroom layouts currently developing in a private school for children with learning challenges in Delaware.)

Efforts are also being made to develop built elements within programs that further reinforce skill sets needed by our kids. An example of this would be the use of swimming pools or natatoriums. Decades ago, it would not have been thought of to integrate special students into the actual efforts needed to support a therapeutic pool within a school building.

Fast-forward to a large public school special needs architect Purple Cherry is consulting on in Utah. Programs are being developed to incorporate the students into the laundering, folding and organizing of the multiple towels and bathing suits required to run a school for over 250 students from kindergarten to 21 years of age, and the space has been designed to support these vocational and life skills opportunities. A full laundry area is attached to the lobby space with multiple washers and dryers and large folding tables; the counter area at the lobby has been designed for two greeters, and multiple cubbies at ADA height are indicated to allow specifically designated slots for each and every size option of bathing suits. This integrated thinking of architecture will allow the students to develop the vocational skills for possibly working at a hospital as a greeter, managing laundry at a hotel, or working at a library or retail store organizing items.

Impacting Life Skills

I can testify first-hand to the fact that the earlier life and vocational skills training is implemented, the better. Within my own house, our family was supported by an autism waiver program. This allowed for an IISS (Intensive Individual Support Services) technician in our home regularly during the week.

My primary focus for my son, starting at age 12, was developing his life skills. This translated into him folding laundry, emptying the dishwasher, raking leaves, changing his sheets and so on. Over time this developed into his ability to cut the grass in a circle with a riding lawnmower, make a shopping list and complete the shopping in a familiar grocery store by himself. To obtain this achievement, it took about five years. Now, at 20, he is employed in three job settings.

So, you may wonder how my personal story above translates into explaining the changes in academic environments for children with special needs. Our educational leaders (principals, directors and teachers passionate for our children) are focusing on the future for our special children. With the implementation of the TEACCH approach, educators are developing individualized person- and family-centered plans for each student and structuring the physical environment to support this within the limitations of elements they can physically move. Architects and designers now need to structure the built physical environment to further support the teaching methods being implemented.

Expanding The Options

What other rooms and opportunities are being created? Outdoor gardens are being created to reinforce landscape job training. Small rooms with tiered floor seating are being designed for the development of social skills and viewing in the round. Social nodes for small group teaching and developing bonding opportunities are being created at special areas along corridors. School stores for the “purchase” of items based on the behavioral plan are being designated—but push this concept further and you can see that allowing students to run and organize this store reinforces vocational training as well as promotes elevated self-esteem. How might the architecture support this function? A well-structured organizing system, an ample storage closet and a “sales” counter all promote learning different skills.

Now, how do we take these simple isolated examples and thread them together—and not by simply drawing them on a plan and placing them where we might typically believe they would go. In developing any school for children with special needs or specifically for children on the autism spectrum, there are opportunities through the building and throughout the design process—at the initial steps of planning, during the assembling of the defined spaces, to the selection of the materials for the inside of the interior wall to the outside of the exterior property limits—to create schools that support our children at the highest level of leadership, that elevate our child’s self-esteem and that continuously reinforce learning, growing, life and vocational skills to ultimate independence as defined by their abilities!

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