Learning From Learning Environments

By Carol Lanham and Michael Iida

Three Strategies for Learning Environments in Juvenile Facilities

There is abundant research available regarding best practices for K-12 educational facilities, and numerous organizations and conferences dedicated to studying, advancing, and implementing these best practices and trends. And with good reason – so many aspects of school design influence how students learn.

But what about youth who spend time in secure justice facilities? Here are three strategies for educational environments within juvenile facilities that can improve outcomes and experiences without impacting security

1.    Trauma-Informed Design

An estimated 56% of youth in juvenile facilities have endured at least one form of violent abuse before entering the justice system, while 93% have endured some form of trauma – and many report multiple instances of trauma or exposure to violence.

Studies show that individuals who have experienced trauma may have more difficulty self-regulating and managing their emotions. Trauma-informed design can increase youths’ ability to self-regulate, reduce delinquency, and ultimately lower recidivism. Examples of trauma-informed design include:

Door and window placement

Youth who have experienced trauma may be hypervigilant, and hypervigilant students spend more time monitoring windows and doorways. Seating in classrooms should be arranged to allow clear sight lines of doorways. Ideal window placement is on the sides of the classroom and not at front or back walls.

Seating arrangements and furnishings

Youths who feel trapped and unable to easily exit a room may become agitated. Classrooms should use single-student or two-person desks in rows to allow unencumbered egress and ingress. Research has found that intrusions into personal space can also trigger aggression, so providing movable chairs to allow youth to regulate their own personal space can be effective. If fixed furniture is used in classrooms, consider adding additional space between desks and seating, and alternate means of choice and empowerment for youth such as swiveling seats, adjustable arm rests, or adjustable base heights.

Dedicated Calm Rooms

Providing dedicated rooms where youth can remove themselves from the group or retreat to de-escalate stressful situations can be beneficial for juvenile populations.

Calm rooms should provide a sense of solitude, privacy, and safety, and should be sized for one individual. Calming spaces should have adjustable lighting, earth tone colors, curvilinear patterns,  and a window to enable staff to monitor youth.

Visual stimuli & color

Reducing triggering stimuli is an important part of classroom design, but a lack of any visual stimuli is undesirable. Positive messaging and organizational storage spaces can improve visual interest while reducing potentially triggering clutter.

Colors can improve visual interest and have a positive effect on youth. However, bright colors can act as a sensory trigger and should be avoided. The quantity of color used in classroom design is also important. Too much color, motion, or pattern can be distracting and result in a stressful learning environment. Studies have found the ideal classroom color scheme includes tan or sand walls, with the teaching wall painted a medium hue of the same color range. Soft colors such as green and blue are recommended in other areas throughout the classroom, such as flooring, seating, and art.

2.    Think Carefully About Acoustics

The current acoustic design standard, performance criteria, and guidelines for classrooms in the U.S., created by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), offer guidelines in four areas:

  • sounds coming from inside the classroom
  • sounds coming from building services and utilities (e.g., mechanical heating, cooling, and ventilation)
  • sounds coming from outside
  • sounds coming from adjacent spaces

For a typical classroom in a juvenile facility designed for 20 youth, the recommended reverberation time of 0.6 seconds can be achieved with the use of acoustic ceiling tile. In educational spaces without ceiling tile, consider performing the same acoustic calculations with acoustic panels along the upper walls and ceiling. As long as the adjacent space is another classroom, a therapy room, healthcare room, corridor, office, or conference room, a standard 8” masonry unit wall extending from floor to roof deck can meet the STC recommendations from this standard.

Care should be taken when considering room adjacencies to louder spaces such as restrooms, mechanical rooms, music rooms, etc. If possible, designers should locate these spaces away from the quieter education spaces.

3.    Get Innovative with Lighting Design

Beyond code requirements and Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) standards, additional consideration should be given to lighting design for juvenile classrooms. Youth who have suffered trauma may be more sensitive to bright lighting, but lower lighting intensity may reduce teachers’ ability to monitor the classroom. One promising solution to these issues is color change technology.

Color change technology offers several benefits. Teachers can adjust color temperature and light intensity to set up multiple lighting scenarios, which is especially important in juvenile education settings as one classroom may be used to teach a variety of subjects.

Tunable lighting with dimming from 0%-100% and color tuning from 2700K to 6500K was tested at multiple schools in 2019. Teachers preferred using the “calm” setting (2800K and reduced illuminance) in the mornings to help youth transition into the learning environment, and lighting changes to signal that class is over – similar to the way that lights come on in a theater to signal the end of the performance. This is especially useful when youth have either hearing disabilities or a traumatic past where loud noises (such as a traditional school bell) might trigger an unwanted response.

Youth also benefit from increased color temperature and brightness for specific tasks. For example, in a 2012 study, elementary school children were found to have increased oral reading fluency performance, which is a key component of reading comprehension, when a “focus” lighting setting was used (6000K). Depending on the educational medium (books vs laptops), increased lighting intensity and temperature increases the contrast of words to page, making it easier for youth to read, while decreased color temperature and intensity reduces glare and eye strain while using laptops.

Color change lighting can also affect mood and behavior.  Higher correlated color temperature (CCT) lighting positively impacts alertness, attitude, and energy level and can be used effectively when alertness is a priority, such as during a test or in the late afternoon.

Natural lighting is always beneficial for classroom spaces, but window shades or blinds may not be desirable in juvenile facilities. Window orientation (north is preferable), integral louvers with anti-ligature knobs, exterior shading devices, or more simply an opaque film layer, can be implemented for daylighting control.

The goal of all juvenile justice facilities is to improve the outcomes of the youth who occupy them – and the design of the facility can make a positive contribution to this goal. Using the knowledge we’ve gained through designing modern K-12 facilities, we can positively impact the learning and education environments of youth in juvenile justice settings while also supporting their healing and wellness.

Carol Lanham, AIA, Assoc. DBIA is an architect with over 35 years of experience specializing in civic projects for county, state and federal agencies. As the head of Lionakis’ civic studio in Southern California, she leads project teams in the development of innovative design solutions for correctional facilities, courts, municipal buildings, and other public works. Carol also spent five years working for the U.S. Courts of Appeals as the circuit architect for the Eighth Circuit, representing federal court agencies on capital construction projects. As a result, she brings an owner’s perspective to each project and serves as an advocate for each client’s needs.

Michael Iida, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, CPD is an architect in Lionakis’ civic studio with over six years of experience across a variety of building types. He has a particular interest in exploring the ways architecture can promote the rehabilitation and wellness of justice-involved youth, and has researched the topic extensively to incorporate best practices into his projects. Michael recently earned Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) professional designation certification, demonstrating his expertise and skill in using design to create safer communities.