How buildings teach kindness: inspiring social-emotional learning through design
A call for educational institutions and architects to design school settings that create a clean slate and help all students achieve their success threshold
Discrimination is an ugly word. In some way or another, we’ve all been a victim to it, and we’ve all seen it happening to someone else. When it comes to educational settings, we see bias toward everything from learning and physical abilities to socio-economic differences.
The key to combating discrimination, whether in the office or the classroom, is equity, which implies freedom from bias or favoritism. Ideally, when students enter a school, they should enter with a clean slate.
Equality or Equity
The school architect faces the challenge of designing environments that empower students to succeed in and out of the classroom, regardless of what obstacles they face.
Fairness and inclusion mean providing resources for all students to meet the baseline for success. The chart above illustrates the difference between equality and equity for two students: Student A is the typical student and Student B has a learning disability. Both are expected to meet a “baseline for success,” but if you give them the same (equal) resources, only A meets the baseline. However, with the concept of equity, schools can redistribute resources so that each student gets what they need to meet their individual threshold for success.
Educational providers should challenge their architects to go beyond state-mandated requirements.
Design plays a critical role in achieving this concept. Federal law requires architects to meet minimum expectations for providing equitable settings with the hope that people with and without disabilities will be able to use the building in the same way. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), established in 1990, regulates guidelines for everything from elevators and ramps to extra-wide bathroom stalls and Braille on room signs.
Today, designs are going beyond responding to those with physical disabilities. For instance, states and municipalities are starting to require a shift from single-occupancy restrooms to gender-neutral single-occupancy restrooms. As of January 1, 2020, the state of Illinois requires all single-occupancy bathrooms to be gender neutral.
Educational providers should challenge their architects to go beyond state-mandated requirements. Some architects integrate the concept of “universal design,” which the Centre of Excellence in Universal Design defines as “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability.”
The Parity Seat
The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University introduced the 7 Principles of Universal Design. The first of these, Equitable Use, is exemplified by the “parity seat” concept developed by Legat Architects.
The parity seat is a new take on the bay window—it allows a student in a wheelchair to sit at eye level with a student in a bay window bench. Thus, it provides a level playing field, so to speak, for interactions between students.
One District’s Journey to Teaching Kindness
Medinah Intermediate School celebrates each Valentine’s Day with “an afternoon of kindness” by contributing to its community. Students participate in benevolent activities such as making blankets for children or animals in need and packing lunch bags for people staying at PADS shelters.
This is just one example of Medinah School District 11’s mission to teach its students to “Choose KIND.” It has been doing so ever since the state of Illinois’ DuPage Regional Office of Education started talking about social-emotional learning about ten years ago. The Medinah district, 30 miles west of downtown Chicago, offered to be a demonstration site.
“If you’re on one of our campuses, you know that kindness is important at Medinah,” said Superintendent Dr. John Butts. “You’ll see it in the way that kids behave. You’ll see it in the hallways and in our publications—we’re always talking about kindness.”
The district formalized social-emotional learning as part of its curriculum. It can be seen in everything from puppet shows that explore conflict resolution to posters that show how students can show compassion. The mission extends to the larger community. For instance, Butts recommends the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World to staff and parents. Occasionally, a psychologist from the community has come in to talk about kindness and mindfulness.
In the past couple of years, the district has also renovated its facilities to reinforce its focus on kindness. At Medinah Primary School, the district added a new secure entry vestibule. It not only enhances safety by forcing visitors to check in with the main office before they are buzzed in at the school, but it also strengthens the Medinah mission—within the vestibule, a wall graphic in district colors features the “Medinah Chooses KIND” slogan and the district mission. It also shows an early-1900s photo of children holding hands in a circle outside the district’s original schoolhouse and has a display case in which students can showcase their projects.
All three Medinah schools have rejuvenated their library/media technology centers to make them more child friendly and support social-emotional learning activities. Among the changes are more vivid colors and flexible furniture.
“One aspect of kindness is giving students more choices,” said Butts. “An area where that plays out in the facilities is furniture: now students get to sit wherever they want.”
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