A peek into many kindergarten classrooms across the country will reveal teachers trying to make classrooms feel warm and inviting by plastering the walls with colorful decorations and fun patterns. But could this effort to make school a welcoming place for its youngest students actually be hurting their ability to learn? In a New York Times article Jan Hoffman delves into new research showing how easily distracted kindergarteners are by their surroundings.

“A new study looked at whether such classrooms encourage, or actually distract from, learning. The study, one of the first to examine how the look of these walls affects young students, found that when kindergartners were taught in a highly decorated classroom, they were more distracted, their gazes more likely to wander off task, and their test scores lower than when they were taught in a room that was comparatively spartan. The researchers, from Carnegie Mellon University, did not conclude that kindergartners, who spend most of the day in one room, should be taught in an austere environment. But they urged educators to establish standards.”

  • Laurie Cornell

    Students shouldn’t look up from their work to see store-bought posters and cute patterned bulletin boards. They should see anchor charts, created during whole group lessons, by teachers AND students. These serve as reference during content work and as real world examples of the importance of the written word. Relevant “decorations” like this are not distractions. They are an important part of a balanced approach to literacy.

    • Kristie Elliott

      I totally agree…very well said!! I love engaging the students into the bulletin board or wall displays which helps fuels their intrinsic motivation.

    • jilliejillerjill

      You are so right! After the students and teacher have created something together in conjunction with a lesson/activity, it becomes a place (both on the wall and in their brain) to reflect and recheck. I don’t know anyone who does store bought cutsie stuff anymore. It’s too expensive anyway!

  • Kay

    There’s a limit to how much visual stimulation children need. Yes, they need to see their own work products and artwork along with a limited amount of charts, etc. Classroom decorations should enhance the classroom and the overall learning experience, not over stimulate and distract students.

  • Cheryl

    I’m sorry…you lost me at test scores. Test scores in Kindergarten?! Are you kidding me? This article focuses on distractions on the wall when the really worry should be why the heck are we looking at test scores in 5-6 year old children. They are CHILDREN. They need visual stimulation. They need to be able to actively investigate the classroom and explore. They need to look around and be distracted. The real problem here is expecting them to sit quietly and pass tests. It is bad enough that we test in grades 3-5, the last thing we should be worried about is scores in Kinder. How absurd.

    Children learn through exploration, investigation, and curiosity. When we squelch that natural instinct to learn to impose testing and mandatory learning, we strip children of the desire to learn anything at all. It then becomes harder throughout the years to re-light the fire of learning in them. The last thing we should be worried about in this article is the classroom decoration. We should be worried about why it is acceptable to even mention test scores in relation to children that young.

  • Carol Sheaff

    Many classrooms these days don’t have simple decorations…the walls have curriculum related references to help the students learn and remember. These resources can be made by students or teachers. Unfortunately, school districts are pushing for test scores and direct teachers to test, test, test! There is no time for fun anymore in the school day! Very unfortunate, since the ‘fun’ was many times the BEST teacher! In our district, the fire chief has limited wall coverage to a very small percent, so ‘pretty and cute’ wall décor does not exist. Our kindergarteners were tested 4 times this year. Sad.

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  • David Tham

    The problem with this study is that it assumes there is a direct correlation between teachers’ control of the visual environment, and
    students’ attention/concentration on tasks unrelated to the visual environment. In short, the researchers assume that only the teachers
    are directly in control.

    I quote Anna Fisher (named as lead researcher in Jan Hoffmans’ blog article): “Many things affect academic outcomes that are not
    under our control…. But the classroom’s visual environment is under the direct control of the teachers. They’re trying their best in the
    absence of empirically validated guidelines. ”

    That quote about “trying their best in the absence of… guidlines” actually represents an illusory sense of control among the teachers AND the researchers — and the fundamental mistake that the researchers make in the design of the study. The subjects and participants — i.e. teachers and students — are not mutually exclusive, and neither entity is a subset of the other because there cannot be teachers without students and vice versa.

    The result of the study was actually inconclusive, which is why the article added that: “The researchers, from Carnegie Mellon University, did not conclude that kindergartners, who spend most of the day in one room, should be taught in an austere environment. But they urged educators to establish standards.”

    By publicising such a small study (involving only 24 students in just two classroom settings!), these media-savvy researchers are instead showing that today’s media journalists (and to some extent, teachers as well) may be too distracted by the social media to pay proper attention to what is actually being reporting as the news.

  • quinnster1

    The real distraction in children’s lives are the “live” ones—-TV, computers, MP3 players, phones, ipads, hand-held and stationary game systems, etc.! A moderately-decorated classroom which includes anchor charts, student work, alphabet and number strips, class rules, calendar, word walls, etc. eventually becomes absorbed by the learners. They will then refer back to them as needed on a daily basis.

  • Mary Helen Dunnam

    Did my master’s thesis on similar subject many, many years ago which
    showed, that children from even mildly disadvantaged homes shut down
    when presented with unknown or unusual pictures.

    • Mary Helen Dunnam

      The unknown, different, or unusual should be presented to a child one at a time and not en masse. A wall full of pictures, alphabet, numbers, etc. is counterproductive.

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