Learn More

40 Hour Workweek

Classroom Management, Teaching Tips & Tricks   |   Jun 5, 2014

5 signs your classroom is overdecorated & how to fix it

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

5 signs your classroom is overdecorated & how to fix it

By Angela Watson

You’ve probably read some version of the study that went absolutely viral on social media: Heavily Decorated Classrooms Disrupt Attention and Learning In Young Children. But have you seen the classroom used for the study?

highly-decorated-classrooms-study

The bottom image shows the researchers’ idea of “highly decorated,” which looks like a pretty typical elementary classroom to me. The picture above shows the same classroom with the decorations removed–that’s the room in which students made learning gains later on.

Honestly, I don’t think those gains would last for long if the learning environment was that bare permanently. Who wants to spend six hours a day surrounded by 4 blank white walls? I don’t think anyone is holding that up as the ideal. I imagine most of us–the researchers included–would agree there needs to be a balance between sterile and over-stimulating.

That said, I definitely believe there are some pitfalls to heavy decoration, and they’re not limited to kids being distracted or hyperactive. Too much decorating can create the opposite effect of what was intended, and make children feel less “at home” because they’re fearful of ruining the elaborate and expensive set up created by the teacher. Heavily decorated classrooms can also keep kids from feeling a sense of ownership in the classroom and prevent them from using the learning aids that are buried among all the other materials.

The biggest issue here is that no one thinks their classroom is overdecorated. Each teacher creates classroom decor that fits his or her personality, and a heavily decorated room feels right to many of us. So how do you know when it’s too much? Here’s my take on it.

Sign #1: There’s no blank wall space.

Why It Can Be Problem: The room can feel overstimulating and students become unable to focus on any one particular item because everything runs together in one massive display.

Solution: Instead of having all your displays touching edge to edge, leave some white space in between for the eye to rest. Decide how much room you want your wall displays to take up, and rather than continually expanding on them, make it a habit to take down something old whenever you add something new.

Sign #2 : Most displays are teacher-created.

Why It Can Be Problem: Classrooms should be a reflection of EVERYONE who’s in them.

Solution: At the beginning of the school year, I like to leave at least 50% of my wall space completely blank. I hang bulletin board borders so things don’t look bare or uninviting and ask the kids, “What do you think could go inside that space?” I want the kids to recognize that the classroom walls are ours, not just mine, and encourage them to have some ownership of its appearance and input as to what’s useful as a display. As we use new posters and resources, I invite students to give input as to where we display them so I can make sure they’re prominent.

Sign #3: A large percentage of displays are purely decorative.

Why It Can Be Problem: Nonfunctional  items  take up precious classroom real estate and leave no space for things that enhance or support student learning

Solution: I love to have beautiful art prints, colorful lamps, and plants displayed in the classroom: it makes the room feel like home to me. But I know there’s limited wall space and the potential for kids to get distracted, so if I have new learning aid I need to display, I’ll remove one of the decorative items for a period of time. Bringing it back later makes it feel even more special.

Sign #4: Students aren’t referencing most of the materials.

Why It Can Be Problem: There’s no point in making or purchasing learning aids if the kids completely ignore them.

Solution: If none of your students look at the number line or check the calendar, it’s possible those materials might be buried among non-useful stuff. Figure out which materials enhance kids’ learning and take the rest down. Ask your students outright: Does anyone use this? Is it helpful to have this here? Where else could it go? Is there something else you’d like to see in this space?  Have that discussion at the end of each month or unit of study to ensure you’ve chosen to display the most helpful items and underscore for students that they’re supposed to use the reference tools displayed.

Sign #5: You don’t teach with the materials on your walls.

Why It Can Be Problem: Displays behind you compete for students’ attention while you teach, but don’t actually support  the lesson.

Solution: If an item isn’t being used by anyone in the classroom, ask yourself: what purpose does it serve? The majority of items displayed near your whiteboard should be a useful enhancement for your lessons: make your word wall is interactive, use your hundred chart for math games, or review the reading strategies poster during your mini-lesson. Bonus: when you actively model and practice how to use your classroom displays, students are more likely to use them independently.

If you have a suspicion that your classroom might be overdecorated, trust your instincts and scale back a little bit. Pay attention to the reaction from people who visit your room for the first time…if they frequently gasp or double take while walking in, that’s not necessarily a compliment. You can also ask a colleague you trust: “What’s your first impression when you walk in here? Do you think this is too much? If you were a child in this classroom, would you find this distracting?”

Of course, each group of kids is different. Some children seem to thrive in colorful, stimulating classrooms, while others need a more calm and distraction-free learning environment. I believe classroom decor should change a bit each year to reflect the current group of kids’ interests and needs. Why not let your classroom theme and decorations evolve based on your kids’ personalities?

I encourage you to be purposeful as you set up  your classroom. While placing each item, mentally check to make sure it’s meaningful, relevant, current, and child-friendly. If the room begins to feel cluttered, take down a few things and reevaluate. The wonderful thing about decorating a classroom is that it’s always a work in progress. You can experiment with different materials until you find the right balance for you and your students.

What makes a classroom feel overdecorated to you? How do you determine what goes on your classroom walls (and what doesn’t)? 

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
Browse Articles by Angela

Discussion


  1. I saw this post at the perfect time! I just moved into a new classroom for next year and I was thinking about how to decorate four blank walls. Now I think I’ll put up the teaching aids I know I’ll use every day—a world map and a number line, for starters—-but leave the rest of the wall space blank for now. I’ll be mindful of your suggestion to let the students decide what should be displayed in the classroom.

  2. Great article! My rule of thumb: If the students don’t reference it, it doesn’t go on the wall. I keep binders of things we have made for sharing, and I have a wall of fame in one area for various student work.

  3. Teachers and principals have always said my classroom didn’t have enough stuff on the walls but my students say that they find my room calming and they really like it! I place one visually balanced arrangement on each wall (that makes sense – a wall of windows doesn’t get an arrangement) and the material is changed weekly to keep it relevant.

  4. Thank you for posting both the research article and 5 key points to ponder! As we all walk back into our rooms, this posting offers us something to guide us….and to reflect upon. I think it was a fashion designer who said, “Put on your accessories and then, just before you leave, take away 1 or 2.”

    I know that I am going into my classroom with NEW eyes – and will keep the 5 key points in my mind when setting up. Sometimes I think we feel pressured to make our rooms “visually entrancing” to the PARENTS and not the children. “Oh, I like Mrs. So-and-so’s room soo much – it is soo appealing with so much to look at…” Yikes – that could describe me!

    Again, thanks for posting!

  5. I totally agree! I have a son on the autism spectrum who really struggled with elementary classrooms because of his sensory disintegration issues. Most K-3 classrooms I’ve seen overwhelm ME when I walk in. I agree with Lisa and try to stick to a 2-3 color scheme and have a least one wall that is pretty bare to give kids a visual break if they need one. Also, I use large pieces of foam insulation with clips hot glued on them to hang my reading/writing/math workshop anchor charts on them so they’re easy to store and display. There are hooks to hang them high on the wall but are very light and can easily be taken down. I have 4 of these to charts are always at my fingertips but not all displayed at once.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!