When it comes to classroom decorating, there is definitely a wide range of ideas regarding how much is enough in elementary schools… and how much is too much.
I feel that classroom decorations should be clean and not too fussy. They shouldn't take over a room just for the sake of decoration, and they should be cute and nicely-coordinated, but not overdone. This approach will welcome the children in a positive manner.
Let’s discuss a few details.
The real purpose of your classroom
The lower the grade level, the more ornate the decorations tend to be. There are good reasons for this, including nurturing the needs of little learners. But an effective teacher should never forget that younger kids are more prone to distraction, and this fact mitigates against overdoing the “stuff” adorning walls and tabletops.
From kindergarten through twelfth grade, the number one point of anything we do in our classrooms – including decorations – is to enhance learning. Decorations should never be a distraction.
A word about “cute”
I do like a welcoming learning environment, but I'm not, at heart, drawn to “cute for the sake of cute.” It's not my style.
Here's the thing: Any style can work. Some will disagree, but I don't think that kids learn better in a cute environment than they do in a merely attractive, well-put-together one.
What makes kids successful? You.
As long as the room isn't totally working against student learning, the teacher can make any classroom environment effective. Long after the first impression of the classroom decorations wears off, your students’ faces will still light up when they see their favorite teacher in the morning.
Now, I've got to say it: Too cute and cluttered is as bad (if not worse) than too barren. You have to find a balance that suits your style, while staying in the “effective learning zone.”
So, there is certainly no harm in sprucing up your classroom look, even down to the smallest details, while you are putting everything in its proper place. We spend a lot of time in our classrooms, and we need to feel at home.
But put on your “student viewpoint” glasses before you go cray-zee with cute, and be certain that all of your kids – including your ADD and ADHD learners – will find a maximized learning environment when you are done.
To theme or not to theme… that is the question
I have heard many new teachers ask whether they need a classroom theme. They see other teachers in their building with owl themes, or popcorn themes, or whatever, and they wonder if their kids are going to miss out if they don’t come up with something cute and coordinated.
Let’s take a quiz
Consider three classrooms:
- The first one has a picnic theme throughout. Checked-cloth bulletin board backgrounds, folded napkin centerpieces at table groups, lines of little ants crawling around the borders of book tub labels, and on and on. It looks like a professional photographer might be staging a photo shoot for a glossy spread in some sort of classroom couture magazine before the kids arrive.
- The second classroom is neat and tidy. Supplies are labeled, but not in a particular theme. There’s room to move around, places to store things that need to be stored, well-organized centers, and it overall looks like… well, like an elementary school classroom.
- The third room is in the middle of a third-world country: unpainted cinder block walls, dirt floor, nothing hanging on the walls. No desks, just benches. No paper even, only small pieces of chalkboard for each student. That’s it.
Question: In which room will children learn best?
Answer: It all depends on the teacher. Period.
You make the classroom what it is in every way that is important. If you are an effective and engaging classroom leader, you can teach effectively anywhere. If you are not engaging and effective, all the fancy material and centerpieces in the world will not disguise that reality.
So, new teachers, don’t sweat the theme if you don’t want to. Doing a theme won’t hurt anything, unless you are spending time (and money!) that should be spent on lesson planning and the things that really matter.
And don’t feel pressured to “keep up with the neighbors” in your building. In the end, it’s your students’ success that will distinguish you.
But, with all of that said, good decorations can be a real community builder because children want to feel good about how their classroom looks. There are certain minimum standards, in my opinion, when implementing classroom decorating ideas.
Classroom decoration basics
Any classroom should have these items:
- Room job labels
- Book tub labels
- Supply labels
- Locker labels (if present)
I say these are a minimum because it's too easy to do at least this much. And it should go without saying that classroom themes that include these items should be coordinated to create the best possible environment. Any new teacher who has put up the items above will really have done all that is necessary to get ready for the first day of school.
Taking it up a notch, the next step is to make your various wall displays coordinate. This includes bulletin boards, the list of your classroom rules, and even your room jobs. It makes me crazy to walk into a classroom and see four bulletin boards with four different (mismatched) patterns.
In my opinion, that's like yelling at kids; clashing colors don't do our students with attention deficit disorders any favors.
The next level of coordination is to color-code containers such as book tubs. As with the items listed above, this is not difficult or overly expensive; it only takes some forethought and a trip to the dollar store to buy matching sets.
Keep it simple
Those are the basic classroom decorating ideas in a nutshell. The fun, of course, is in the details, but I want to reassure new teachers – or any teachers entering a new (and barren) classroom – that following these basics really are sufficient for getting started.
Best to use the majority of your energy and time getting your lesson plans ready!
Video tips: overcoming classroom space challenges
Special needs and distractions
When it comes to my students with special needs, I don't even say “accommodate” them – I say LOVE them, and show your love in the way you teach them and attend to their unique needs. We can help out all kids who sometimes have difficulty learning in our classrooms by the way we decorate. Let’s dig in a little deeper.
Distractions derail learning
Have you ever been in the same room with a mosquito that won't leave you alone? It's not like the mosquito actually keeps you from accomplishing something, but it acts as a constant irritant that makes you less effective at anything you're trying to accomplish (like sleep!).
Consider this analogy a bit more deeply. On the scale of irritation, who is more affected by a mosquito constantly buzzing around their head? A person with really sharp hearing, or a deaf person? The same stimulus will affect different people differently.
My husband is not deaf (at least not most of the time!), but his hearing is definitely closer to the “deaf” end of the spectrum than mine. Consequently, he can sleep through all kinds of noises that wake me up instantly.
Now replace “mosquito” with “clutter” and consider who is more affected:
- A laid back child without a diagnosis
- A child with some level of ADD/ADHD
The incessant “buzzing” of overly-busy walls and excessive decorations will be a learning distraction to the first child… but a confusing disruption to the second. Students with a diagnosed learning disability don't have the cognitive filter that helps them choose the items upon which they need to focus. We have to help them with those choices in order to enable their success.
Any time a student has trouble focusing (which is particularly true for those students with a diagnosis), then anything we can do to help sharpen the classroom learning focus will contribute to their success. It's not a magic cure, but it is part of the overall solution to increasing learning and retention – and test scores.
Now let's bring this down to an individual level, because even in a well-designed learning environment, some of our kids can still have difficulty focusing. One year, a small boy in my class with an IEP in reading and a low level of ADD kept confusing how to write nonfiction summaries with how to write fiction summaries.
I had the appropriate information very clearly written on nearly identical posters, but here's where I made my mistake: the posters were right next to each other.
Every time he looked up, he lost track of which poster he was supposed to be reading and invariably chose the wrong one. It was this insightful young man who asked if we could move one of the posters to a completely different spot so he would physically have to look somewhere else, which would keep him from forgetting which task he was supposed to be doing. It worked.
Our ADD/ADHD kids are just at the far end of the focusing spectrum, but all kids (in fact, all humans) have difficulty focusing in the face of too much stimuli.
Swat those mosquitoes!
Want to fancy up your room a bit without cluttering it? Then decorate your door! I think of my classroom as a home, and the outside of my door should be a pleasing invitation, just like the front door of my real house. In the eyes of children, that gives my room a certain amount of “curb appeal” before they even set foot inside.
Doorways carry an emotional appeal for all people; they represent passages in life… moving from one thing to another. Use that concept to enhance your classroom community’s learning environment in a fun and unique way. Common themes include:
- Current unit of study
- Books being read
- Parent conferences
- Motivation for testing
- First day of school (you’ll need to put something up on your door for this)
Not feeling the energy to decorate at all, not even your door? Get your students involved!
One winter, my students wanted to cut out snowflakes for our classroom door decorations. I kept saying, “What standard is that related to?” They persisted because the rest of the building had the tissue paper and glitter out.
I gave in and allowed them to earn the right to cut out one snowflake for each difficult multiplication problem they solved. (The problem had to be taped onto the snowflake.) The snowflakes went on the door to minimize classroom distraction… and I squeezed a little learning into a craft project.
Video tips: the importance of door decorations
My final tip: no glitter!
By the way, glitter is a nonstarter in my room, no matter how much my students may want to indulge in it! If you would like to have every item in your room covered with some sparkle, then go right ahead and allow some glitter in one of your classroom projects. One session will be all it takes to enjoy the “sparkle effect” for the next five years.