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:


I just want to know where I can get one of those E shaped tables….

The “E-shaped table” is actually 6 double desks (for 12 students) arranged in an E shape. I have done this on each side of my classroom before, with extra desks in the back, and it’s a very workable, space-efficient configuration.

Maggie, Those are just six pair tables that have been arranged perpendicularly so that six students have their backs to the windows, and six students are facing the front. It’s very handy for think-pair-share and small group situations, because they can opt to either work together or separately without having to move desks. Additionally, it maximizes the amount of perceived open space in the classroom and helps the classroom to feel more open.

It is not an E-shaped table. It is straight (wavy) tables that ate put together to form an E shape

Where are pictures of e shaped tables?

The table is not e-shaped….It’s different tables put together.

I was about to ask the same thing! lol

Point taken, but it also depends on the kid. Another challenge, mainstreaming students with a need to be overpraised, whether you agree with it or not, has upped the ante for the whole classroom of kids to announce when they’re “done,” giving teachers an ultimatum has to how they’re going to “entertain” them next.

It doesn’t depend on the kid at all. When you go home do you enjoy 3 days of dishes in the sink and on the counter, a weeks of mail and paper covering the rest and laundry spread across the floor? no, we pick it up because it stresses us out. Blank space on a wall allows the eyes to rest. We have heavily overdecorated spaces in our kids schools and then we yell at them when they can’t sit still. It also doesn’t have to be empty, just well designed, and perhaps not every color in the rainbow.

I taught in a 1st Grade classroom for 38 years and I kept a lot of things for informational lessons on a chart stand. (Math, Reading, Science, and Social Studies Info. was turned to what we needed.) I did have a regular calendar, number line, short and long vowel posters up at all times. I also had a running word wall. My art work hung in the hallway for all to see. The kids loved showing off their art to parents,and friends. I believe too much is distracting to students. I also highly believe in reading with the actual books, and the kids sitting comfortable on the carpet around you. I had a Smart board for lessons too, but I would never have it read all my beloved stories. Help kids work in less distracting rooms for those lessons like math, reading, science, and social studies. Yes, you will have noise and distractions for art, music, and games. These are meant to be interactive with a lot of movement and talking. Have fun teaching to the new wave of teachers.

I noticed this 15 years ago when, as a teacher advisor, I took 12 teachers on exchange visit to Prague for a teaching and learning research project.They had much more ‘space’on their display walls, giving the brain time to process the ideas and information.

1) Are the three lessons in each classroom sufficient?
2) Was this experiment repeated for a long period of time (3 months in each classroom)?
3) Are 24 students statistically sufficient?
4) Was this experiment repeated in other classrooms in different schools?

to add some more questions/comments:

1- Will the distraction take place the first couple of sessions because the material/decorations are all new to those children? hence they are discovering
2- the classroom itself being a new setting for children might be the reason behind the distraction; since the experiment started in the highly decorated classroom, it would be safe to suggest that with time, children got more acquainted within the classroom itself, hence distraction decreased later on in the sparse classroom
3- Do the children know each other from before? if yes, did they change seating from what they are used to in their regular classroom?
4- what about the lessons themselves? do we have any statistical data on the average accuracy on the test questions for those specific lessons among children same age?

Overall, an interesting topic, worth more discovery

Those are truly great questions. Too often we (those in education) tend to hear of research and take it as gospel. I believe that there is definitely a need to look at distractions such as those mentioned in the article, but a larger number of students is necessary.

The article did say more research should be done. I also noticed in the comments some people confirmed this from their own experience. I do think it is overstimulation when walls are fully covered.

Did the same teacher teach each class? Were the students picked according to similar learning styles? How can we be sure the class taught in a non-decorated classroom were auditory learners instead of visual learners? Maybe the students in the decorated classroom were kinesthetic learners, not visual learners. Too many variables to give an accurate depiction of non-decorated being a better learning environment than decorated, dont you think?

Some very good points to consider

Interesting, but always the question of causality is key. Hmmmm….. Having taught for a number of decades, how does one account for learning that occurs due to those heavily
‘decorated’ walls? This distracted learning still occurs and is hoped for in the wall’s stimulating displays.

I have visited schools throughout Europe, S. America, and Asia (China, S. Korea, Singapore). When contrasting the architectual care and beauty, the grounds and gardens, and the classrooms in the schools there with those here, it is shocking. In contrast, American classrooms (particularly elementary amd grade school) are shabby and the decorations excessive, tacky, and garish. Even without a scientific study, it is easy to know what truly inspires higher learning —a neat, clean, architectually harmonious space and a talented teacher. Thank you for publishing this needed article.

Should we also remove the windows as well? I agree that rooms should not be over decorated to the point where they appear busy and cluttered. More focus needs to be put into providing relevant stimuli that encourages children to become engaged in the topic at hand. Removing stimulation can lead to sedating our children so they can do busy work or administration essentially.
The balance is difficult and compounded so by the variability encountered with diversity of children in a classroom. Don’t over clutter to the point of distraction but don’t sterilise the learning environment either.

What about the impact on their mental health from being educated in classrooms that resemble prisons? Schools do not just hold responsibility for drilling as much information into children as possible – they also have to ensure they are helping to raise happy, healthy children and spending 6 hours a day in a dull unenriching environment is not going to be beneficial to the child’s overall wellbeing. I would rather my child learnt a little less and was getting a richer holistic experience rather.

I have been teaching for 38 years. It is only this year that I experimented with an unusual classroom setting and it works perfectly in South Africa. All the independent workers sit along the [ shaped. Those need individual attention sit directly in front.

The things on a JP wall are often things young children can reference to, to support their early spelling and reading and numeracy while those that are hung are usually the children’s work giving them affirmation of the efforts they have made in completing work. They are always so proud to show their work on display.

I also find a really stark appearances can look depressing and like no one cares.

The article does not suggest stark. It simply says too much.

Agreed. The photo of the non decorated room was stark and depressing.

Why are kids on average only getting 55% of the test answers correct even in the sparcely decorated rooms?
Do most of these kids get 55% correct or is there a broad range of scores? Can you tell if the same individuals got more correct answers in the sparce room than in the mire highly decorated room or is it a few affecting the mean score?




I grew up in Czechoslovakia in 80’s and we had blank walls in class. maybe a map here and there or picture of historic figure. Musicians I think. and big windows. lol. When I came to USA I couldn’t believe the amount of stuff they can squeeze in here into classroom! Not just charts, shapes, abcs on the wall… but paint supplies… everything out on display. I feel like I am having stroke from seeing it all and I am an adult imagine seeing it as child. This was one of the reasons’ why we looked for private school where there is space for mind to calm. I know it’s hard but classes do not have to be overstuffed like most I have seen!

Totally agree!!!!!

Whilst I do agree that swirly carpets and busy walls can be over-stimulating I disagreed with the concept of ‘distracted’. We should be entering a time where students are engaged in group tasks or independent learning and not sat in a stark, emotionless space to focus on the teacher. Young children will soon stop wanting to come to a stark environment as it will not feel safe and secure. Environments are key but children need to feel ‘at home’ and they need to have familiar objects in their space. I enjoy working in my office because it is gently personalised to suit me. A simple declutter is fine and also the addition of house plants and plain carpets help to balance out an environment.

Interesting study. My thoughts about this: I wonder how a fairly empty room to start and students add charts/artwork/information as they study things would help them feel more in control of their “distractions” than if a teacher is the one controlling what goes on the walls/ceiling?
Over-stimulating kids is a concern for me especially in overcrowded classrooms.

KLM, the idea of students decorating the walls with what they’ve learned would be fascinating to see.
It would encourage ownership of learning too as well as peer collaboration. 🙂

Mal Reynolds, your introductory question is a reality in Las Vegas. Classrooms here have either no windows or a few small windows at ceiling level, far too high for anyone to see out of. I have spent the last 24 years with the only view being four walls and a door.

As a certified trauma-informed educator, I disagree with this article for those who have high ACES scores and may be cognitively affected. A stimulus-rich environment can mitigate the effects of trauma on the brain. Perhaps the solution might be to have ONE side of the room decorated and other side bare; then assign desks based upon individual need and preference.

Totally agree with the author. I ‘ve been an educator for over 25 years and I am constantly learning an studying different approaches to learning and how does the brain learn. I experienced both classrooms heavily decorated and Reggio inspired. Heavily decorated classroom distract children and hurts my brain with overstimulation. The only materials that should be on walls are things that children create or co-created with teachers and peers. Walls should be a space for children to see their work and to reflect. Any overcrowded environment can’t be beneficial. Just imagine yourself( adults) trying to learn in the classroom with the walls full f information and colour, that would be painful.

The opposite of heavily decorated is not stark prison like walls. It’s important for schools to recognize that classroom environments are crucial aspect of supporting learning. Common practice results in bright bold distractions, not calming aesthetics. Teachers and administrators need to study child- centered displays. It’s not only possible to do this but important that we look at current practices with new eyes.

Balance is key.

Twenty-four children in one study, with it appears no attempt to measure ability or background, is hardly the basis for a sweeping conclusion about classrooms. Such unscientific conclusion-drawing is why so many people highly question psychological studies.



I wonder, and clearly you point this out that additional research is needed, but I am wondering if that data holds over time. My thought being a child who is entering a room for the first time and the room is heavily decorated will they over time adjust to their surroundings or will it continue to be a distraction? Are these results of a child just taking in their surroundings? That type of question.

Maybe the problem is the content that we force on our Kinder students way too soon? They need the opportunity to play and have their little brains stimulated. Maybe it’s different with older kids? I’m not for over doing my class. There has to be a balance. From what I read, I don’t feel like this was a valid test.

I would have to agree with this even without the research. I can’t overdecorate my elementary special education classroom because I live in it at least 9 hours a day and I can’t handle the distraction and busyness. The same goes for my home. I look forward to seeing more in this subject.

creating areas with in the classroom that can be adjusted to meet the needs of the students at the time would be beneficial.
We all have days when would prefer to sit in front of the fire with a good book and let the world go by. Our minds need time to just take a break .

I have taught for 18 years at levels 1 to 8 and this is my findings in regards to childrens learning. If you place kids in a classroom randomly with decor its a fact that they will become distracted so kudos on discovering this age old fact. Reality is when children are exposed to stimuli progressively and same stimuli remains it becomes reinforcement and not distraction. If we leave our classes bare and unattractive students wont have as much enthusiasm to learn. So to me this research was or is engulfed with the wrong variables. Charts and other stimulus should be placed in sight as needed and not as decor to say I have a neat class. Cause its then it becomes distracting even to us as adults. A teacher should always have a class thats conducive to learning which should include positive reinforcers and a warm environment. This study is to me a reflection of what happens when anyone goes into a new environment with things they need time to see and understand. The flip side is if they are introduced as time goes by they would only look back on same as reflection and reinforcement. This is my opinion anyway.

Rubbish !!! Couldn’t disagree more . First question : when was the last time the author of this article and said psychologists, taught in an elementary classroom ??

Probably … never I am guessing. I just retired from teaching elementary children, grades K – 3rd, for 33 years. I can unequivocally tell you my learners soared with intellectual & emotional growth year after year in my happy, decorated, cozy , learning environment !!!!!

Let me know when you want to see State testing results & sit down with myself & any of my parents from all the years of me teaching children in their families .
Come to deep in the heart of Texas, sit across the table from me & I my parents, & we will go toe to toe with all of you “non-class room experienced, so called experts “ ALL DAY LONG. Bless your hearts !

A factor worth considering that I didn’t notice in the article: visual stimulus tends to ‘disappear’ over time when we become familiar with our surroundings.

The students in this study were monitored in laboratory classrooms they were unfamiliar with. I’d suggest that the novelty of busy surroundings likely played a sizable role in distracting the students in the decorated classrooms. Students in their own native and familiar classrooms may well experience far less distraction.

I have done research on the effects of the environment
on learning and behavior since 1966. Please find my book, Linking Architecture and Education: Sustainable Design of Learning Environments. (Amazon or UNM Press. We need architects, interior designers and museum exhibitors to work with pre-service teachers to teach them how to display in clusters and the aesthetics of the classroom design need an upgrade.
Glad you are working in this area. I see classrooms as studios in the future. Go to Architectureandchildren.com Dr. Anne Taylor

In a classroom where the kids are basically stationary, they will be looking at the other information pasted in front of them for the whole period instead of what information they are getting from the teacher. To make things worse, they are of different subjects, e.g Looking at the Math formula during an English Language lesson…

I have been in rooms where I could not even detect a couple of square feet of blank wall. It was very distracting for me. On the other hand I know my own decor has been too minimal. Perhaps we should consider how we might decorate our own kids’ rooms at home. Would the every wall be covered with decor of every color or would there be carefully selected items displayed in a moderate fashion?

I recall finding colorful wall charts of times tables in a Math corner and posters depicting spelling & grammar rules in the English corner extremely helpful.

As a young student, I would read those if I finished my work early.

I find the stark walls depicted in the photograph as the recommended visual ideal extremely depressing and prison like.

Our children do not belong in a stark institution like setting. All children learn differently.

The sample group was so tiny and many intervening variables were not controlled.

There are serious scientific flaws with this study.

I think its interesting that the whole article was about how the decoration and business of the room was bad for the kids learning, and one of the first comments was on where to get the e shaped desk that is distracting and doesn’t promote focus.

I know when I am trying to concentrate I cannot even have music playing

The most important thing is to think of the children who will be in the space. I here teachers defending years of over decorating because it is what they have always done. As teachers it is our job to learn and grow and be researchers of our own classrooms. How do our children behave in an aesthetically pleasing space? Do we allow them to show their work and choose what it important to share? Is our space about the teachers ego or the children’s learning? Is what we display relevant to what is happening in the classroom? As a matter of personal taste I detest the over bright primary colors that are typical in preschool and primary grades. I have been on a mission to “quiet the noise ” made by the stuff in the room so we can highlight the work of the children. Take a look at Reggio and Montessori spaces, they are beautiful and we have evidence that children learn well in them.Beautiful spaces with soft colors and natural light are good for all children. Those who need more stimulation will surely find it in all the devices we are now using in the classroom.

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