Creating a therapeutic school: Classroom environments

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
Shahana Knight, qualified play therapist and director at TPC Therapy

In a new regular series for Headteacher Update, expert Shahana Knight will advise schools on supporting the emotional and mental health of children and staff, offering easy-to-implement and cost-effective activities. Here she focuses on the classroom environment and a useful whole-school idea

September is here and schools everywhere are probably at their most creative in this first term. The focus will be on classroom set up, welcoming new children, creating a new class team and getting learning plans in place for the year to come.

Since the government set out its plans for children’s mental health in its Green Paper Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision (December 2017 & July 2018), it is also an important time to focus on the plans you have to support the mental health and emotional wellbeing of your pupils as many will be returning after a difficult summer break.

So I want to focus on how we can introduce wellbeing to your new classes and pupils.

In the classroom

In today’s society, what with social media, technology and the internet, as well as a rise in childhood trauma in the family home, it is vital we begin to teach the class about their own wellbeing and how to be aware of their feelings, behaviours and to be able to self-soothe and regulate. In primary school many children have not had the early input from parents to help develop this awareness of self.

Try this: as you welcome your new class this month include a small circle time about wellbeing. Have a discussion using questions like:

  • What makes us happy?
  • What makes us sad?
  • What makes us angry?

Explain that in your class, you think it is important that every child feels happy at school and that when someone is feeling sad or angry it is the whole class’s responsibility to help each other feel better. Explain that this is part of your classroom rules. This will help promote empathy and emotional intelligence in your pupils – a vital life-skill. Ask them:

  • How can we tell when someone is feeling unhappy/angry/happy?
  • How can you tell when you’re feeling unhappy/angry/sad?
  • What can we do to help someone when they are feeling unhappy?
  • What can you do when you’re feeling unhappy/ angry?

Then agree with the class on some simple ways that they can identify and change their own feelings and behaviours, and identify each other’s feelings and behaviours. You can create a display board in the classroom to help the children remember this. Be creative and fun with it and let the children help.

Keep the classroom environment calm throughout the year

Remember that many children coming in to your classroom this year will have experienced childhood trauma such as loss, abuse, domestic violence and family break-downs. These children are likely to have a heightened level of stress hormones running around their body which means their behaviour is likely to be more erratic and hyperactive. Children who live in a state of stress will often struggle with concentration and attention in the classroom.

Try this: be mindful about the way your classroom feels and looks. The atmosphere you create can have a huge impact on the way in which the children engage and learn. Try to keep the colours neutral or go with a colour scheme of two or three pastel colours.

This will give the room a sense of order and calm. Remove the bright clashing colours from backboards, borders and displays. This will increase the feeling of disorder and chaos and children who are hypersensitive to that feeling will struggle.

Try calming whites, beige, mint green, baby blue and greys. Every time you do a display, print off a resource (such as numbers or the alphabet), or do a piece of work with the children, be purposeful about the colours of you use and what you allow up in your space.

A whole-school initiative

Many school leaders who have read the government’s Green Paper are worried about how they can implement these changes and support the children with very limited budgets. This is understandable when looking at funding therapy interventions, but there is a lot you can do within the school ethos to begin to make a real difference and which costs nothing.

Try this: school assemblies are a great way for headteachers to gather the staff and pupils and to drive change, influence practice and inspire them to do and be their very best. During one of your early welcome assemblies this year introduce a headteacher’s award where children can be nominated to receive the “Kind and Caring Award” or the “Emotional Wellbeing Award”.

Ask teachers and pupils to look out for those children who are making a special effort to support others with their feelings. Maybe they have helped a friend calm down or offered to help someone when they were feeling low. Maybe they identified their own feelings were angry and found a way to calm themselves down without hurting others.

Those children who win the award each week could wear a badge for the week and receive this in front of everyone in the assembly along with a certificate which could be displayed on a “emotional wellbeing wall” in school (create a display).

By placing your attention on these sorts of attitudes and behaviours children will begin to be more aware of their feelings and actions and be more aware of others. This develops self-awareness, peer relationship skills and empathy which all develop their emotional intelligence skill-set and impact their wellbeing. This sense of achievement will encourage them to continue to develop and be aware of these skills which will form pillars for them in later life.

  • Shahana Knight is a qualified play therapist and director at TPC Therapy, a specialist therapeutic intervention service supporting children and schools with behaviour, emotional wellbeing and mental health. The advice offered here is linked to Shahana’s Therapeutic Teaching Programme. Shahana is a clinical play therapist, sits on a fostering panel and delivers CPD training, workshops and classroom sessions to professionals and parents in multiple fields including schools, fostering and adoption. Visit

Further information

  • Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision: A Green Paper (including consultation response and next steps) Department of Health and Social Care and Department for Education (December 2017, updated July 2018):
  • A calming, therapeutic classroom environment, Shahana Knight, Headteacher Update, January 2018:

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