Seven Key Student Needs and the Design Tools to Support Them

When we design learning environments, we must start with the needs of the users — the students and staff who will occupy the spaces. Through design, we have a great opportunity to dig deeper and employ tools and strategies that positively influence the mental and social health of the people within the building. Are the spaces we design inclusive? Does the environment support a student’s ability not only to learn, but also to thrive?

Consider what we’ve learned from research in the areas of workplace and healthcare design. Improved lighting helps boost our outlook, while designated quiet spaces can help us focus. Views to the outdoors and nature help the healing and recovery process, while uncluttered spaces and soothing colors can help reduce stress. There’s so much existing information and knowledge that we also can apply to school design to help students learn at their highest abilities.

By leveraging holistic design strategies that address a range of needs, a school building can help set students free to learn, grow, and be themselves.

1) Autonomy and Choice

The Need:

Whereas other parts of a student’s life may feel out of their control, the ability to make decisions about how to interact with others at school — and within the environment itself — can offer a sense of freedom and power to the individual.

If you provide students with choice in terms of space types, for example, it can foster emotional intelligence and support their ability to tend to their own emotional and learning needs.

The Tools:

Social collaborative spaces: Spaces that allow students to work among themselves in a way that feels autonomous — even if a teacher is in the next room or can keep an eye on students through a convenient window bank between rooms — can help students build camaraderie with each other and enhance shared, team activities.


Individual quiet spaces: Providing areas where students can work on their own gives them the opportunity to tackle assignments at their own pace and without distractions. Inviting, comfortable, quiet spaces also give students respite from too much social activity. Spaces that support concentration and focus, in particular for students who are more easily overwhelmed by noise and movement, can be very effective design features.


Space adjacencies: With all the different space types that could be incorporated, a design team needs to carefully plan for the location of each, understanding how people will move through the building and interact with the different spaces. Smart space adjacencies will not only ensure the ability to monitor activity, but also help meet acoustic needs and ensure the integrity of the intended use cases for the spaces. Learn how our team does this through a tool called vibe mapping.

2) Nature’s Benefits

The Need:

Isolation from nature can have myriad mental and physical impacts. Research has shown, for example, that limited exposure to nature in childhood is associated with worse mental health in adulthood. On the other hand, time in nature boosts mental health and sharpens cognition — connecting to the outdoors can improve learning rates by about 30%. We can also look to how daylighting and outdoor views in hospitals have been shown to increase recovery rates and reduce stress.

The Tools:

Biophilic design: This strategy focuses on incorporating aspects of the natural world in the built environment. Daylighting, views, and materials that mimic nature and natural elements can be included in school design, while open-air classrooms or outdoor thoroughfares (when and where the climate allows) also can be incorporated.


3) Materials, Color, and Art

The Need:

Learning environments can be chaotic, sometimes over-stimulating students and causing distress. Children with autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can experience sensory processing issues, so it’s crucial to create an environment that doesn’t divert a student’s attention from the instruction or activity at hand.

The Tools:

Soothing surroundings: A classroom’s color scheme, physical arrangement, and other elements should promote focus and calm. Reducing visual chaos can help keep children’s attention. Research has shown, for example, that overly decorated classrooms are more distracting. Through thoughtful interior and graphic design, we can focus on incorporating materials that are healthy and easy to clean as well as that convey a sense of order, familiarity, and comfort.


Cohesive art: In healthcare, cohesive art has been proven to support physical, mental, and emotional recovery. In a school setting, visual art has been shown to reduce anxiety and agitation. Art and color also can aid in wayfinding for visual learners, promote social awareness, and support diversity and inclusion.

4) Acoustics

The Need:

Poor acoustics not only make it hard to hear, but also can contribute to physiological, psychological, cognitive, and behavioral deficiencies in students. Noise from mechanical systems, outdoor distractions, and other systems and activities within the building can be distracting and negatively impact learning and focus.

The Tools:

Acoustical assemblies: The acoustics in classrooms, program spaces, and other learning areas should be carefully detailed and executed. Updating mechanical systems, improving windows, and adding acoustical panels can make an enormous difference in blocking and absorbing extraneous noise. The U.S. Green Building Council even includes acoustical performance standards in its LEED rating system for new school construction and major renovations, underscoring how important these features are.

5) Daylight

The Need:

With the onset of the pandemic and the impacts of global environmental issues, we spend more time indoors than before. But this often means we aren’t getting an appropriate amount of daylight. Research has shown a 25% improvement in standardized test scores with exposure to natural light, and we also know that exposure to daylight improves mood and productivity.

The Tools:

Daylight harvesting: Large windows in classrooms and common areas can help bring sunlight into the school building while automatic sensors can ensure lights are off when there’s adequate light from outside, saving electricity. Electronic shade controls, located conveniently for teachers, also can make it easy to adjust the light level in the room.


Clever “light-giving” products: Where windows are not possible due to existing constraints, we can look at products such as LIGHTGLASS to simulate the experience of a daylit window and support a natural circadian rhythm and solar tubes that bring natural daylight into interior spaces.

6) Air Quality & Thermal Comfort

The Need:

Poor air quality can cause fatigue, irritation, airborne illness dispersion, respiratory issues, and limited cognitive function. On the other hand, improved air quality can lead to higher rates of information consumption, strategic learning, and improved crisis responses. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air quality is of particular concern given that most people spend 90% of their time indoors.

The Tools:

Improved ventilation and air purifiers: Designing classrooms, hallways, and other areas so that airflow can move freely is essential for keeping airborne illnesses out of schools.


Upgraded HVAC systems: Improving older HVAC systems can ensure the systems aren’t introducing harmful components into the air. These improvements also keep classrooms at comfortable temperatures so students can focus.

More about indoor air quality solutions: Take a deep dive with Cushing Terrell team members as they discuss ways to ensure the improvements we make now are more than just a quick fix and encompass best design practices from across disciplines.

7) Sense Sensitivity

The Need:

People all interact with the built environment in different ways and to be truly inclusive in our designs, it’s important to study and understand how individuals respond to stimuli to help alleviate potential distractions and irritants. This knowledge helps support thoughtful, intentional school design that can result in calmer environments, more supportive spaces, improved attainment, and a lot less stress for students and staff.

The Tools:

Research from other markets: We can learn a lot about how the built environment might affect students and school staff by looking at studies on the workplace and healthcare environments. Such information can offer valuable insights about focus and mental health in particular.

Engaging the community, students, and staff during the design process: No one knows what they want and need better than the users themselves!


Meet our education design team and learn more about their work to design user-centered spaces.

Amy Lindgren

Amy’s design expertise and passion is focused on education and healthcare design. Through her in-depth knowledge of both markets, she brings a particular eye to the user experience and how we can create environments that support learning, healing, and well-being. She has served as the lead architect on a broad range of healthcare and education projects, both new builds and remodels, for clients across the Mountain Region. She has led teams through construction administration on large, complex projects, including medical campus remodels, varying in size and complexity, as well as new and remodeled education facilities, ranging from K-12 to higher education. She joined Cushing Terrell in 2009.