Beyond the




6 Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Classroom Decorations

Various arts and crafts supplies on a wooden table.

Do your classroom decorations represent your students? Do they inspire or distract?

My seventh-grade classroom had two posters taped on the wall. The first said, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." The other read, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Each poster depicted a beautiful scene from nature. Despite the chaos and confusion in my life at that time, looking at those prints every day gave me hope for the future, and they buoyed me when I needed it most. Over the years, I've seen classroom decorations that range from over-the-top to sterile.

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Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, points out that students' brains connect emotion and cognition, processing pictures at twice the speed of words. Young brains immediately work to confirm their surroundings are "physically, socially, and intellectually safe," and then students go into a state of alertness in which they are primed for learning. A student's physical environment can go a long way in communicating that safety and inspiration, and it can work to create the perfect atmosphere for students to achieve.

Here's how you can master the art of classroom decorations for a positive impact on student learning.

1. Less Is More

Too much of a good thing is just that—too much. The Association for Psychological Science notes that an over-decorated classroom can be distracting and disruptive to students, especially younger students. They found that students in highly decorated classrooms "were more distracted, spent more time off-task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed."

The Journal of Experimental Child Psychology posted similar results to their studies: a high-load visual environment adversely affected students' cognition, and students actually performed better in a low-load visual environment. So, teachers, remember to exercise restraint, choosing decorations carefully, and with purpose.

2. Convey the Values of Your Classroom

Hammond notes that the visual displays convey what and who is valued in the classroom. Even unconsciously, Hammond says, we pick up clues about "affirmation and validation from our surroundings."

For this reason, I often include photo displays of my past and present students, as well as student work. Think about the values you want to communicate through your environment. Hard work? Perseverance? Resilience? Love of learning? What kinds of displays transmit that message? It's tempting to order some pre-made cut-outs or posters of heroes, but Hammond encourages teachers to find authentic cultural elements, including those from the community, that add value to the classroom.

3. Representation Is Essential

In a professional development activity this past year, a principal at a school in my district, who is African American, told a story about going to tennis camp and seeing a photo of famous tennis players on the wall. After a quick scan of the facility, she noticed that Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes to ever play the game, was conspicuously absent. That absence was crushing to this young player.

Every student deserves to see themselves represented in their classroom. Hammond says that teachers should "work on finding culturally congruent images that communicate a positive sense of accomplishment, success, and triumph." Images like these can help empower students and help them see themselves in the success stories of the world.

4. Inspire, Empower, and Quiet Negative Self-Talk

Hammond encourages teachers to post positive and inspirational images, quotes, and poetry in order to ignite students' imaginations about what's possible and to quiet negative self-talk. Laminate those images, and post them in your classroom. You can even ask students to pick out their favorite and explain why.

Those motivating quotes, Hammond says, can become a mantra or empowering manifesto. Many students have told me over the years that my display of a Robert Frost poem left them with the lingering refrain: "Miles to go before I sleep."

5. Authentic and Age-Appropriate Designs Matter

Displays that use vocabulary that is far above grade level or vice versa—works that seem overly childish—can work against a teacher. Put yourself in the student's position and try to think whether you'd find these decorations appropriate, motivating, or inspirational. Do they seem fake or phony, or do they try too hard? Share your concerns with your colleagues or even ask your students for their opinions.

6. Apply Feng Shui

Even the art of feng shui—the practice of creating living spaces balanced with the natural world that harness forces and establish harmony between the individual and their environment—has weighed in on classroom decorating. The Feng Shui Studio suggests personalizing the learning space, including depictions that represent subject matter goals, school colors, and other items that help build community. Avoid clutter, add student creations, and store items away to create feelings of calm and prevent students from feeling overwhelmed.

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This year, as you return to your physical classroom after a year of remote or hybrid learning, consider how you will provide a place where students feel safe, inspired, empowered, and ready to learn. Classroom decorations do make a difference!