The chronicles of a therapeutic classroom: The pupils arrive...

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
Warm, welcoming and safe: Year 3 pupils settle into their new therapeutic classroom environment, which included a variety of seating, warm lighting and sofas for reading

After months of planning and a hectic half-term makeover, Shahana Knight‘s vision for a therapeutic classroom environment is about to be unveiled and put to the test by excited year 3 children...


After so much work, reveal day was final upon us – and what a day it was! After months of planning and a half-term makeover challenge that pushed us to the limit (see previous diary entries), this was the day the children would see their new classroom.

The first week back after half-term, and the children were all waiting in the hall while the camera crew was setting up in the classroom.

I had a few moments in the classroom on my own. The teachers had put a clip on the whiteboard of a soft fireplace scene with relaxing music. All the lights were dimmed and the lamps were on. This is something we had discussed as part of the therapeutic school approach. It was perfect.

It isn’t just about the way the room looks, it is about how it feels too. This room feels warm, welcoming and safe. It creates a feeling of belonging and it instantly helps children self-regulate and feel calm.

Remember, many of our children come to school with high levels of stress hormones; many of them are dealing with difficult things at home. They might have insecure attachment difficulties, they might have low self-esteem, they might struggle to self-regulate.
It means that children often come to school with barriers to learning already in place because of their internal emotional state or their coping mechanisms. The therapeutic classroom helps to regulate the children.

I have spent years formulating the perfect therapeutic environment in my mind, one that is trauma-informed and attachment-aware (Knight, 2018).

The term “therapeutic classroom” does not mean that this space is only designed for special schools or alternative provision, in fact this space was designed for the everyday mainstream primary school.

So being stood physically in the reality of that space on this Monday morning was an emotional moment. I admit, I had a little cry while nobody was looking!


The moment arrives

We had decided to let the children come into the room in small groups so they could really take it in. Up to this point, they had not really got any idea of what to expect.

I positioned myself at the back of the room so I could see their faces. I was a little apprehensive because I know how transition and change can be really difficult for some children. This room was a complete surprise and that had the potential to be a trigger for some. However, Gill and Laura (the class teachers) had said that the class was generally quite good with transition so fingers crossed.

When the doors opened, the first group came in and I was surprised at how quiet and calm they were. As they walked in they had awe on their faces. They whispered: “I didn’t expect this.” “Wow, this is amazing.” “Oh wow, it’s just like a home!”

They then settled down on the seating in the room and the next group came in. It was a lovely moment, seeing them all take the room in and listening to their conversations.

I wandered around the room talking to the children and asking them which bits they liked the most. Everything in the room was designed with purpose and linked to emotional and mental health in specific ways. Listening to their comments was special because much of what they said linked perfectly to the principles of this therapeutic approach.

We had created a photo wall, which was made up of black and white photographs of every child in the class hung on the wall as you might see at home. The children were drawn to this and many said it was their favourite part. They also loved the calm lighting and the flexible seating.


Settling in

When all of the children were in the room, I sat with them on the carpet and we talked about the rules of the room and their initial thoughts and reactions. They then did some reading and calming colouring while we took photos and interviews on camera.

Watching the children and teachers move around and use the room was of course the biggest test. Could the children get on the chairs? Would they argue about where to sit? Did the room flow well?

Well, what I saw was a room that functioned with far more purpose than the original design. The teachers could stand alongside the bar tables and more easily help children with work. The children used the whole room, rather than being stuck on one plastic chair all day. They cuddled down with books to read on the sofa, worked in groups around the dining table, and got on with independent work on the bar stools.

As they worked, the teaching assistant told me that although she had been apprehensive, she couldn’t believe how it had turned out. She said it was so much easier to support the children – she can stand next to them now and felt more connected.


A game-changer

The design and concept for this classroom is a game-changer. It should be the standard expectation of all classrooms. This space is likely to produce better learners who are more engaged, inspired and able to learn. It creates a sense of belonging and increases feelings of connection. It meets children’s mental health and wellbeing needs.


Andy Houghton, headteacher, writes

A nervous sleep led to an early start. The negative perceptions of how this might turn out all came rushing back to my mind. Gone were the images of calm and relaxed children rehearsing their letter formation upon comfy stools. These had now been replaced with our NQT being buried under beanbags as she struggled to control a class desperate to sit on the highest seat!

The other sleep-disturbing thoughts were about our parents – how would they react? Were the WhatsApp groups going to light up with capitalised messages? “This school values cushions over Covid catch up!”

All of a sudden, the realisation that this could go very wrong plagued my normally calm commute.

These thoughts (as they always do in schools) disappeared as soon as the children arrived. They brought with them that infectious buzz of excitement that only children can. Every one of them sat patiently shaking their knees with anticipation as they waited to be shown into their new environment.

A small group at a time were shown round and the mature manner in which they scoped out their new classroom was a pleasure to observe. All of them seemed taken aback. I think the difference we had made to their room was actually quite unnerving at first, but this soon eased away as they swapped from seat to seat.

They loved it. And within a minute of a post on Twitter so did our parents. With a camera crew, teachers and classroom assistants all on hand, I left the class to it. The first major hurdle of our new classroom had been cleared. Now we just have to teach in it!


Gill Handley, year 3 teacher and assistant head, writes

Reveal day arrived and we had a busy morning making sure everything was perfect, calming music on, lighting dimmed and fireplace flickering. Then suddenly the children were eagerly waiting in the hall.

As I led in the first group their happy faces made all of the hard work worthwhile. I expected for them to get giddy, unable to contain their excitement but they were almost silent, with whispers of amazement – “wow” and “look at that”, pointing out their photo on the wall and trying out different seats. The environment had already created the calmness we wanted. This didn’t change as more and more children entered the room. Even the film crew were amazed at the atmosphere it had created, commenting how well behaved the children were.

While the children were busy writing some feedback we sent a video to the parents who were just as excited and pleased. With comments like “amazing”, “stunning, “next level stuff” – we knew then we’d done something really special.

Most importantly to me, the parents told us how excited the children were to come to school and how much they now love talking about school.


Laura Hart, year 3 teacher writes

What a start to an NQT year! I could not have guessed what would happen to my classroom. When we discussed the plans back in September, it all seemed a little crazy that the current tables would be removed and replaced with breakfast bars and cushions. I was excited and yet nervous at what these changes were going to be like.

These nerves first began to disappear as the room slowly came together on the makeover day during the autumn half-term. Once the room was complete, it looked amazing – it felt as if it had always been like that! My favourite part is the photos of the children on the wall (see opposite), which gives the room a personal touch.

Reveal day came and the nerves kicked in again. When the big moment came, the children were (almost) speechless! One child said it felt like being in his living room at home and another child couldn’t stop smiling. It was amazing to see the children’s reactions and how happy they were with the makeover.

Before the makeover, one child said they were anxious about the change but as soon as they saw it, they loved it! The children were respectful towards the new furniture and couldn’t wait to explore the room. They soon adapted and made themselves comfortable and cosy on a floor cushion with a good book!


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