Heavily Decorated Classrooms Disrupt Attention and Learning In Young Children

Maps, number lines, shapes, artwork and other materials tend to cover elementary classroom walls. However, too much of a good thing may end up disrupting attention and learning in young children, according to research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Psychology researchers Anna V. Fisher, Karrie E. Godwin and Howard Seltman of Carnegie Mellon University looked at whether classroom displays affected children’s ability to maintain focus during instruction and to learn the lesson content. They found that children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.

“Young children spend a lot of time — usually the whole day — in the same classroom, and we have shown that a classroom’s visual environment can affect how much children learn,” said Fisher, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Should teachers take down their visual displays based on the findings of this study?

CMU researchers found that children in highly decorated classrooms (bottom image) were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed (top image).

CMU researchers found that children in highly decorated classrooms (bottom image) were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed (top image).

“We do not suggest by any means that this is the answer to all educational problems. Furthermore, additional research is needed to know what effect the classroom visual environment has on children’s attention and learning in real classrooms,” Fisher said.

“Therefore, I would suggest that instead of removing all decorations, teachers should consider whether some of their visual displays may be distracting to young children.”

For the study, 24 kindergarten students were placed in laboratory classrooms for six introductory science lessons on topics they were unfamiliar with.

Three lessons were taught in a heavily decorated classroom, and three lessons were given in a sparse classroom.

The results showed that while children learned in both classroom types, they learned more when the room was not heavily decorated.

Specifically, children’s accuracy on the test questions was higher in the sparse classroom (55% correct) than in the decorated classroom (42% correct).

“We were also interested in finding out if the visual displays were removed, whether the children’s attention would shift to another distraction, such as talking to their peers, and if the total amount of time they were distracted would remain the same,” said Godwin, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and fellow of the Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research (PIER).

However, when the researchers tallied all of the time children spent off-task in both types of classrooms, the rate of off-task behavior was higher in the decorated classroom (38.6% time spent off-task) than in the sparse classroom (28.4% time spent off-task).

The researchers hope these findings lead to further studies into developing guidelines to help teachers optimally design classrooms.

This work was supported by Grant R305A110444 from the Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, and by Graduate Training Grant R305B090023, awarded to Carnegie Mellon University by the Department of Education.

To learn more, watch this interview with researchers Anna V. Fisher and Karrie E. Godwin from Carnegie Mellon University:

Comments

I have taught for many years at across a number of age ranges and also designed a number of award winning tactile resources for primary and special needs children.
I found in classrooms with posters etc on walls that if they were not changed at least half termly that they were not noticed much by children and became “wallpaper”!
If changed half termly to relevant topics – including children’s work, they were noticed and they helped learning as children “owned them” – even other classes work was of interest.
Space needs to be placed in with displays so it is not a continuous mass and not easily deciphered.
I did leave the space behind my teaching area free of items for fuller attention and learning without distractions when trying new concepts/ideas.
I also had large windows to outside in each classroom I taught in – giving good light but not too distracting for children.
So posters/ information/children’s work on some walls, an area without “clutter” to help concentration?
The learning space needs to be flexible for topics/ subject areas/ size of class – so I did have large floor space and not have “washing line” type displays across the room.
Hope this is of some use as I’m now retired after 35 years teaching full and part time and a business for 25 years – overlapping at times!!
If I can be of further use please contact me on email provided.

Comments if prek teachers prompted me to encourage them to rethink on this hype if classroom deco..

This is great! As a Montessori teacher trainer, I am so glad that this is backed up by research. We have always designed simple, minimalist environments. Relying on plants and beautiful photos of nature, soft colors, and nothing over stimulating in Montessori classrooms.

I’m curious, if you are a teacher trainer can you follow up with your program to ascertain its supporting research for a Montessori program utilizing a “minimalist environment”? It would be nice to see additional supporting research.

Agree completely! Our Montessori school is designed with the “prepared environment” which allows the Montessori works to be the focus and not the walls. Maria Montessori would be happy to hear that research is backing up her discovery….even if they don’t use her name.

A Great Skilled Teacher Knows How To Work Her Classroom. By Word Her Classroom I Mean, Knows How To Get And Keep The Students Attention, Knows How To Teach On Their Level Of Learning And Know To Increase Their Learning In Her Class. Controls, Distractions, Have A Time Where The Students Explore The Classroom With Their Eyes, Finding Something….A Great Teacher Knows How To Challenge The Students In Everyway. Why Put Them In A Prison Looking Class? The Display In The Classroom Should Be Learning Material That Will Increase Knowledge….

I probably had the ‘busiest’ classrooms around. I found that even when 1/2 of my students had autism, the organization within the busy environment carried the day. I changed many things within the classroom usually three times a year. Most of the major things all the students were participants in the change, whether it was moving their desks, hanging up their art etc…. the participation in their environment made a huge difference. I had a lot of years of experience with k-2 students in my classroom. And my students mostly loved coming to school.

You are making very strong recommendations based on a very small research project. This would not stand up to scientific analysis!

With the increased use of computers, I pads etc. it is important for the children’s eyes to be able to switch from total near distance to using far distance same as adults and having items on the walls or windows which are open to the world beyond to look at every few minutes . Visuals on the walls should be changed every few weeks and discussed to give the children a wide range of sights, nature ,etc that match the material being covered whether in science, world events . I used a lot of posters of famous places in the world and the parents noticed when it might be in a magazine or on tv they kids would always recognize them, Taught Kind. for 42 years

Taught for 36 years most ages 4-7 year old children. Found that too busy walls and more very distracting. When I had kid placement, children’s eye level with open space provided between posters or student work, things were much less distracting! Postings tended to be grouped by category and most all postings were topic or seasonal themed worked best, also noted that using calmer coloring especially background paper on bulletin boards worked best, with some pops of bright color. (Making it more natural like home decor or being in nature). Less is more!

There has to be a balance of things. Classrooms can neither be blank nor overloaded with too many loud colours.
Kids work and age related posters can be put up in the classrooms rather then just overloading it with too much colour that might distract students.
Also the position of display work should be kept in mind before putting it up so that it is not a obstacle in a child’s view.

Thank you so much for this addition of knowledge. I will definitely not decorate my class heavily but moderately to enable my students learn and avoid distractions. I teach ages 5 and 6 year one pupils. Hoping to hear more from you.

As an elementary Montessori teacher I agree with and would like to add to Skye Dodson’s comments that Montessori classrooms are ‘minimalist’ environments.

Montessori classrooms also have many shelves of beautiful, enticing, hands-on teaching materials, which in a way could be likened to decoration. But despite the fact there are actually many materials in the room, there is a key principle of limitation that operates: there is only one of each type of each material for the whole class.

I think another key difference between these materials and ‘decoration’ is that they are readily accessible to children to use for their learning. Children actively take them off the shelf to manipulate, repeat and sometimes teach to others. Once the child has been presented with a lesson on how to use the material they are free to use it independently, at any time to support their learning.

Children do not become oblivious to the their presence nor distracted, but rather they become increasingly aware of their presence (through the observation of their peers who choose and practice with them), which in turn drives their interest and motivation to learn about them too.

Have you done tests in classrooms where there are very little (almost none) posters/decorations. I teach in a township school in South Africa and I find that my kids come in before class and they actually have fun reading particularly the new posters. I allow them to “play school” as it is an indication to me whether they understood the work I taught with apparatus.

As a Montessorian and inspired by the work of Reggio Emilian educators, I believe these findings. Who are the decorations really for? What messages do they give? How do they enhance the production of knowledge, as they are merely for visual consumption? Everything put on the walls should reflect the children’s themselves and their work & their learning processes.

I think this research was written by lazy teachers with a minimalistic approach. I taught kindergarten for 36 years thematically. My bulletin boards reinforced the unit of study. This also reinforced English for my second language learners.There was never an issue with distraction because I used the walls as a teaching aide.

Exactly my thought, what i have come to know over many years is that talking walks are learning/teaching aids.

It will always distract the children

I would love to see a third classroom where the walls are covered with work done by students and chosen by them as wall-worthy.

Totally agree!

Of course displays in schools are distracting, that is and has always been the case. Regardless of what is displayed, it is always noticed and ‘speaks’ politically, socially and personally. This is historically true of all visual displays in schools. They were and always will be put up to have some influence over those who inhabit the space. They are never innocent- 100 years ago, specific images were specifically chosen for schoolrooms- images of pastoral images to provide a calming morality for children. It was calked the School Room Decoration movement. Whether it is a gauzy blue drape or border, images speak.

HIGHLY disagree. Classrooms should be inviting and conducive to learning.

How is overstimulation conducive to learning? The point of the study was to use data to investigate what IS conducive to learning. Adults’ esthetic preferences might not be it. And also, have you ever seen a wide open beach with a beautiful blue sky above it and thought it uninviting? Just because a visual scene is calm doesn’t make it uninviting.

Its been 12 years, i have been obseveing the effect of visual displays inside classroom and i came to a conclusion that if the displays are arranged systematically, kept in order, may be with some thematic approach , at proper height or level it stimulates a childs creativity, immagination and kids tend to explore beyond books and it increases their immagination and memmory. Whereas in contrast if the classroom is fully decorated but the visual displays are not arranged properly, if they are randomly pasted, it does distract young learners. So i believe its all about proper placement. There is nothing like too much or too less. Its a craft a highly skilled craft that can be learned. Like our good old harry who used to say this…..

I taught in 2 different elementary schools K-5 and noticed the big empty room (no desks) and only a blackboard painted big wall with notes about the day’s message was the more creative teaching environment. The kids enjoyed adding to the board what they liked, noticed, or wondered at the end of lessons so they became an interactive part of the lessons and actual decor!

The other school mandated that we heavily decorated the rooms and continually updated/changed the rather silly, superfluous bulletin boards outside the rooms. Bulletin boards IMO are a laborious task that the teachers were competitive about and only the administration really noticed and even evaluated as part of your observations. The kids did not seem to ever even look up at them, certainly didn’t seem to notice, and became a labor of time-consuming effort and exhausting tasks for teachers to almost outdo each other. The teachers’ effort outweighed any real benefits to the students, And became a burden to educators there who frequently complained to each other about in small circles.

It is clear we all have our own opinions. I however, disagree and this is understandably my opinion. Stimulating and interesting classrooms promote learning as children are encouraged to use them, for example sounds. Numberlines, keywords etc. Children begin to take ownership and become independent and far more confident learners. I have also experienced children helping and guiding peers to information in their environment ad they are familiar with it. Research with different children will provide different results. SEND is an example such autism where over stimulation can be a problem. But then what about the majority who benefit from stimulating and interesting environments. Moreover, it also helps with behaviour as children want to be in an environment which welcoming rather than boring.

Hundred years ago factory owners decided it would help productivity if they boarded/bricked up all windows. Amazon has a strict no talking to coworkers policy to boost productivity. Sometimes what’s best for productivity isn’t best for morale.

I have always crammed as many interesting items as possible in my 1-5th grade GT Pullout Classroom. This has been by necessity, as I have had to teach up to three curriculums at a time to up to five different groups. I hardly ever change the order, but everything is as orderly and related by theme or idea as possible. Students love my classroom and come back to visit even after they move to higher grades. Teachers always remark about how cool it is as well. Frankly, I don’t care what a small research project says about kids who are learning in a laboratory setting that they were only just introduced to. That has no bearing on my last 20 years of teaching experience. My room is inviting and inspires creativity. My students are engaged and happy and that is what matters. Then they return to their regular classrooms they tell stories about what is in my room and they write about what we learn in my clas, in other teachers’ assignments. I will continue to provide prompts of curiosity for my young scholars. Proud over-decorator here!

Wow! I’d love to see some photos… Have you got instagram?

I believe that classroom decoration helps students revise what is taught in class,I also believe that classroom decoration should be changed frequently to support what is taught.
As a child, I use to love seeing my assignments on the wall,it made me feel good and it would also motivate me to do better.
I guess each teacher knows what works best in his/her classroom.

Although I agree that decorations can be distracting, the study references placed children in an unfamiliar classroom with novel decorations. That is different from being in a classroom with familiar decorations reinforcing content or displaying past achievements.

Teachers can begin with blank walls and work with kids to reflect on each day’s learning, adding meaningful learning items to the wall, aka audit trail (V, Vasquez) or learning walls. In this way items in the classroom hold meaning for the learners. Think outside of the clutter/spare dichotomy.

Agreed! For decades, private music teachers have known this. A task which requires so much focus, effort and concentration, like learning a musical instrument, needs little distractions. I noticed that the wall my violin students faced during the lesson, should be almost bare. When I hung pictures, posters or anything even, on that wall, they were continuously distracted by it during the lesson. My violin teachers growing up had beautiful, clean, minimally decorated studios. One picture on the wall, a statue bust, a plant or two. That’s it. I had no trouble making the music and learning, my focus. The schools I have been volunteering in for the past year, make me feel overwhelmed. Almost every inch is covered, and with brightly colored materials. It is mentally exhausting for me as an adult. I wonder about the kids.

I think it’s about balance. Decorating is good especially when the decorations instruct. For instance maps, timelines (I teach SS). However too much is distracting… even as a teacher it gives me a headache. I tend to be averse to even using the word decorations because the implication is it’s just there to make things pretty. Instead I think they should be visual aids or visual instructions. In middle school i also find motivational statements useful for subliminal behavior management. I also think kids respond poorly to mess and clutter. If, like mine, your class is made messy by students, busy “decor” only exacerbates the problem. But if things are kept neat in general, the space can often stand more “stuff”.

My daughter had so much trouble paying attention and staying on task in k and 1st grade. Grades and test scores were great but I thought she might be bored and checking out. I homeschooled her in 2nd and no one was more surprised than myself to see how focused she was. I had stuff on the walls but she faced our China cabinet during school time. We put her back in school for 3rd grade and she specifically asked for a clean classroom without a lot of stuff on the walls. She said she just couldn’t help but read everything and it was just too distracting. That’s what we asked for when it came time for placement, as well as to keep her back to the “noise” on the walls. Some kids it may not affect but my 7 year old was able to express this to me after a year of being away from the classroom.

I deplore undecorated rooms. Children like and NEED color and happy surroundings.

This is an interesting study, and one that, as the researchers note, could use further studies especially in real classrooms to further investigate the effects. I appreciate the conversation these researchers have begun here; as a current high school teacher, I believe this serves as a good reminder to educators to be mindful and critical of their classroom environment that they are creating. This article reminds me that I should investigate my current environment and ask, is this display/item/scenery serving a purpose and function to the benefit of my students and their learning? If yes, it is worth keeping on display; if no, could it be replaced by something else or removed to maximize classroom potential? This also relieves some pressure educators may put on themselves to have an impeccably decorated space.

I might add that the amount of time our kids have for lunch and recess has decreased yet they push our kids to the extreme at times. They need to find a balance in letting our kids be kids and teaching them. I think this would greatly make a positive influence in our children’s education.

One critical flaw in this study — If you put students (of any age) in a new environment, especially one with many stimuli, they will naturally tend to observe their new surroundings, and thus become distracted. Did this study give students time to adjust to their new environment before beginning the lessons? I wonder if the decrease in learning can be attributed to initial curiosity rather than continual overstimulation.

I think this is a valid point and people should think carefully about the ‘wallpaper’ but also some people are pushed into putting things up through lesson plans, learning walks and non negotiables set by senior lesders e.g. number square, number line, sounds, key vocabulary, wagoll work, working walls, spellings etc.. some staff may not feel strong enough to say no! It’s too much!

I strongly agree that too much decorated room can distruct the focus of a learner. Instead of listening to his/her teacher what a student will do is to look what’s inside the room. Most especially if it’s too much colorful.

Well of course if you put children in a new an unfamiliar environment the decorations on the wall will be distracting. but in a real classroom the kids habituate to that material. Furthermore, when the walls contain items that the kids made themselves in enhances their sense of control and empowerment, as well as increases their self-esteem. I see far more benefits to having the walls contain educational materials than blank space.

As a teacher that has worked in traditional classrooms with lots of decor and informational posters , then moving to teaching in a prepared Montessori environments with just aesthetically pleasing art, plants , lightly colored walls and furniture , and plenty of bare wall space that it is definitely more conducive to learning to have a simple, beautiful environment. Consider how you would decorate a learning environment for adults , then pay the same respect to the child. The children are more calm and at peace in a tranquil environment just as adults are. Now walking into a traditional primary or preprimary classroom gives me anxiety! I feel trapped ! Thank you for spreading the word so others can try out this old to us as Montessorians , new to them as traditional school leaders approach. Until you have seen both types of classrooms function , you can’t know the difference but it is spectacular and measurable ! Observe in a Montessori school today !

Most of the people posting that a highly decorated room is NEEDED seem to need it for themselves, or to be able to show they’re ‘not lazy’. There’s often a lot of competition between staff to see who can have the most outlandish stuff going on in their room, and who can impress the admin staff most. I’ve noted that many kids are overwhelmed by these overdecorated rooms. Funny that ‘mindfulness’ is being touted so much, but it’s hard to focus when youre in what looks like a hoarders stash sometimes. I’ve been teaching for 35 years.

What nonsense. I realize I’m not a psychologist, but frankly even measuring ‘distraction’ is likely to be inaccurate. The number of factors that could contribute to a child’s attention span is got to be numerous.

And even if SOME children were distracted by decoration, perhaps that is the result of boring, poorly executed lessons or listless unenthusiastic old mummies.

Furthermore, what is ‘heavily’? A banner, a verb-conjugation chart and some book reports? How about a tree with autumn leaves? If I ever see one of those twerps from Carnegie Mellon I’m going to shave off their eyebrows.

p – 6 Teacher for 41 years Most of these comments miss the point of the materials displayed in classrooms. My classroom walls reflected the teaching currently happening, so providing reinforcement of the learning at the time. They provided a reference point and reminder of what had been taught. This ensured that the material changed regularly, including students work; but, some were kept ie number charts, most used words etc. Children love to have their creations displayed, but these need to be changed weekly, as new things are made. A bright , colourful classroom is also a great stimulus and promotes a happy classroom, not only for the students, but for teachers too. It needs to be kept tidy and pertinent to the class focus and changed as this also changes. I have also worked (for some of my retirement days) as a relief teacher, and have been in many desolate, uninteresting classrooms , where the children were as desolate as their environment. No associations to reinforce their learning, and definitely no joy in their learning.

Disclaimer–I’m a retired high school English teacher , not of an elementary persuasion. One day not long ago, I was in the school office and coerced into taking a kindergarten class because of the teacher’s emergency leaving. Since the 6 students all knew me, hesitantly agreed.
I walked in while the kids were at gym class and was immediately assaulted with the cacophony of images and colors and dangling things. I wondered how the children were NOT distracted.

I am a kindergarten teacher. I partially agree. It all depends on the child. I have a picture of space with planets and satellites. One of my students is distracted by it. He asks me questions on it when I am taking some other subjects.

The image in this article makes by anxiety level rise and is overwhelming to my ADHD brain. YES. I’m a 3rd grade teacher that thinks less is MORE. 🙂

A sample size of 24 kindergarten kids in a new environment having a slight deviation and no t test is not going to influence how I run my grade 9 classes.

The article was quite interesting but as someone stated in the comments it is flawed. The sample size is small and the environment was more of a controlled setting rather than the actual setting of the students’ classroom. The other issue I find a problem with the study is that how were the students selected and were there any educational concerns with the students.
I work in the early childhood area. What I have learned is that we should offer a print rich environment for those children to continue to develop their letter and word recognition skills.
I do agree that some teachers can go overboard with putting up posters and decorating boards in the classroom but these boards do not get changed through out the year. I like the comment about using the student’s work and allowing them to help direct what should be up to give them ownership of the classroom. I read an article about having the children make the letters and numbers instead of buying the commercial posters. This is a way to develop cross curricular activities and have the students involved.
As far as keeping the students focused on the lessons, I have noticed that my students have trouble sitting crossed legged even for 10 minutes. They need to be up and moving. Unfortunately, with the reduction of our outside break time it is harder from some of them to stay focused.
If there is follow up to the study or a new study is published, I would love to see them look at the comments here so that relevant information is used.

Thank God for this research, it was about time classrooms to stop looking like a living circus.

Primary teachers do not “decorate” classrooms. They are creating a learning environment, not throwing a birthday party. Everything in the classroom has a purpose. For example, a number chart might be placed near the math center as a reference tool. The writing center might be near an alphabet chart or word wall. I see my students constantly using to word wall during our journal time or looking at the alphabet chart to make sure they are writing their letters correctly. Sometimes there is a themed unit and the classroom is filled with resources related to the unit. There is so much planning that goes into creating an ideal learning environment. Yes, I have seen classroom that have too much and can be overwhelming. However, I believe this study is not a good example of a useful resources in a classroom. This study only compares two extremes. I believe a third classroom environment should have been used. Perhaps a classroom with science resources that the children could use during their science lesson.

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