Heavily Decorated Classrooms Distract Children from Learning

classroomTissue paper flowers, banners, rainbow chalkboards, and loads of glitter adorn the walls of many elementary classrooms. While these classroom décor ideas provide hours of entertainment on Pinterest, they probably shouldn’t go any further than a wishful “Pinboard.”

A new study, published in Psychological Science, found that children in highly decorated classrooms are more distracted and make smaller learning gains compared to a minimally decorated classroom.

Children’s visual environments can affect how much they learn, researchers explain. Therefore, it’s important to maintain focused attention in the classroom since young children usually spend the entire day in that environment.

For the study, 24 kindergarten students were placed in classrooms for six introductory science lessons over the course of 2 weeks. Three lessons were taught in a heavily decorated classroom, and three lessons were taught in a sparse classroom.

The decorated classroom was furnished with décor commonly found in classroom such as science posters, maps, and children’s art works. In the sparse classroom condition, all materials irrelevant to the instruction were removed.

The researchers also measured off-task behavior, such as talking to their peers, in both conditions. They were interested in finding if children’s attention would shift to another distraction once the visual displays were removed.

The results showed that children learned in both classroom conditions; however, they learned more when the room was not heavily decorated. Children’s accuracy on the test questions was higher in the sparse classroom (55 percent correct) than the decorated classroom (42 percent).

Children also spend more time off-task in the decorated classroom (38.6 percent) compared to the sparse classroom (28.4 percent).

minimally decoratedThe researchers suggest instead of removing all classroom decorations, teachers should consider whether the visuals serve a purpose to learning and how distracting each display may be to young children.

Furthermore, visuals that also serve as interactive teaching tools may boost young children’s memory skills and learning (similar to the map in the picture above). Teachers – you may want to consider a minimalistic, yet relevant, classroom design for the next school year.

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Peer-reviewed journal reference:
Fisher, Anna V., Karrie E. Godwin, and Howard Seltman. 2014. “Visual Environment, Attention Allocation, and Learning in Young Children When Too Much of a Good Thing May Be Bad.” Psychological Science.

Photo credit: Kathy Cassidy and  BES Photos via Flickr CC

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  • Linda Ranson Jacobs

    I have touted for years that our classrooms are distracting. Not mentioned but in my history shows that ADHD kids fare ever worse in highly decorated classrooms. Too many distractions and too much stuff make minds whirl!

    Thanks for proving me correct.
    Linda Ranson Jacobs
    blog.dc4k.org

    • Leslie

      I have been teaching for 18 years, and I have had MANY ADHD students in my “decorated” classroom, and I have never had problems with them. Honestly, it all falls to the teachers, and how they teach and reach those students, no matter what classroom you have. I respectfully disagree. The teachers who teach in fun creative ways using hands on activities tend to get “through” their students. P.S. The cover picture is way TOO decorated!! I don’t think many classrooms are like that, at least to my knowledge. For instance, my classroom is simply, yet elegant…Gives that “inviting and warm” feeling when you walk in. Classrooms should help students feel safe and secured.

      • reader80

        Well then your classroom does not fit under the category in which this article discusses. You even mentioned the illustrated photo is to the degree in which the article discusses. You are fine! LOL

  • judy

    Lots of thoughts here- one study with 24 children is not a large enough sample to be very valid. Two weeks is not a long enough time to test the theory either. Also- BOTH class situations did not score very well- 55% and 42% scores on tests would not make me feel like I did a successful job at teaching…. Decorated rooms or not…. That all being said- I DO feel that when a classroom is so heavily decorated that you cannot see the forest for the trees that the purpose for the “decorations” is lost. I think there is nothing wrong with having a cheerful atmosphere- but knowing when to stop is important too.

    • Melania Bernarda

      To add to your great points, there is also the novelty factor. The more used to a space someone is, the less distracting it is. Those kids were in that room for just 3 lessons. It was new to them. Had they been there longer, how would it have affected them?

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  • Linda Ranson Jacobs

    Just wanted you to know that i put this on my FB page and so far it has been shared 32 times. Just passing on this great article for ya!

    • jrrowe

      Thanks, Linda!

  • Sunshine Anstine

    This seems like too small of a study to be conclusive. Also, I wonder how those same children would perform if the lessons had been taught in their regular classrooms. Any new environment is going to be somewhat distracting. Had it been a classroom where the decor was something the children were familiar with, I imagine the results might be different.

    • Melania Bernarda

      Agreed!

  • julez2oz

    In my opinion as a 26 year Kindergarten teacher, don’t start your year with “stuff” everywhere. That is distracting and is for me as well. Gradually, you can add things to the room that are relevant to your unit of study. The children love their work on the walls and can’t wait to see it displayed and then take it home. I agree with Leslie, the cover picture is way too decorated.

  • Annette

    A teacher that is highly qualified and knows best practice already knew this. It’s common sense. Any child with behavioral disorders or sensory issues will have a problem in a room like that. Any teacher who disagrees needs to ask themselves one question: “Is it cute, or does it count?” If you are “decorating”, it does not count.

    • reader80

      I am highly distracted and a teacher. Personally, I need bright colors in the classroom to make a sense of life, but on the other hand, I put it all together in the most soothing ways. Does that make sense? A feng shu type of thing maybe. I agree though. Calm and supportive is best.

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  • mr_t_teaches

    Were BOTH groups exposed to BOTH classroom environments? As a 32 year classroom teacher, I’ve tried both approaches…the relevant factor that I don’t see here is the type of student personalities, including gender, economical background, etc. The one variable that ultimately is never really factored in is the student him/herself…just food for thought before another new trend in education destroys good teaching and teachers.

    • Mrs. S

      It was the same group of students, so yes.

  • Lee Cross

    My room eventually becomes decorated by words, student work, and anchor charts as they are created this allows students to easily draw on prior knowledge and support new growth throughout the year.

  • sue

    This study supports what I felt was true for most of the students I taught (high school students with behavioral challenges.) Our district encouraged teachers to cover classroom walls with information but I felt that was counter productive. Most of my students performed better when there was a single focal point for them; sometimes that was the white board, sometimes that was their small group, sometimes it was a speaker, and sometimes it was a printed page… but learning was usually better when the focal point was clear.

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  • Ashley

    Food for thought: We teachers know how important it is to model during our lessons. Perhaps they chose to teach the science lessons in the decorated classroom first. By the time the children were taught the science lessons in the sparse classroom, they could’ve performed a bit better because the format of the lessons made more sense to them.

    I am not posting this to defend heavily decorated classrooms. I’m just bringing up something to consider about the test situation described above. I’ve never been one to have a heavily decorated classroom. I like my classroom to feel like a home (calm colors, lamps, etc.). I do put up student work, anchor charts, and so on that benefit the students.

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