Ergonomics in the Classroom: Improving Educational Workplaces for Children with Special Needs
There has been a growing emphasis on giving children with special needs the environmental tools that they need to thrive.
Go to any museum or large gathering space in the country and there is a good chance you will stumble across a sensory room, where the conditions are optimized for people with particular sensitivities. Some theme parks even have special, sensory-specific days, where the conditions are optimized for people who wouldn’t normally be comfortable there.
Providing the right environment for kids in public is nice. Doing it in the classroom is even better. In this article, we take a look at how ergonomic equipment can improve educational workplaces for children with special needs.
First, What is Ergonomics?
If your primary experience with ergonomic equipment has come in the form of specialized computer mice, you may be surprised to learn that it plays an important role in special education.
Also known as “human factors engineering,” ergonomics is the study of designing and arranging environments and products to suit the needs of the people who will be using them.
Comfort is certainly part of the equation— if your office has undergone an ergonomic transformation, you’ve probably benefitted directly from a better desk, chair, etc. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Even the way furniture is arranged in a room can be considered ergonomic if it is designed to promote well-being and productivity. In work settings, ergonomics usually helps to reduce the risk of injury. In this context, it is more about reducing anxiety or overstimulation.
Below, we take a look at who can benefit from an ergonomic classroom layout.
People with ADHD
Students with ADHD benefit from ergonomics because it helps establish a learning environment that makes it easier for them to focus. Ergonomic seating and equipment can provide comfort and support, reducing the restlessness often associated with ADHD.
Some equipment can even be used to reduce external stimulation, leading to fewer distractions.
People on the Autistic Spectrum
People on the autistic spectrum can become overwhelmed by certain sensory conditions. This experience not only makes it very difficult for them to learn, but it also has the potential to cause them considerable emotional distress.
Recalibrating classroom conditions has the potential to not only improve their learning but also just make them feel better at school.
Sensory Processing Disorder
SPD is the general condition of having a hard time processing external stimulation. It can develop alongside other conditions— like autism or ADHD, but it can also be observed in people who are otherwise developmentally typical.
What Ergonomics in the Classroom Looks Like
Ergonomics in the classroom is about more than just fancy desk chairs. While the exact conditions should be tailored to the specific needs of the students, there are some general stipulations that are common in ergonomic educational spaces.
- Sensory lighting: Lighting that is designed to be milder for people with sensory processing disorders.
- Noise-cancelling headphones: A tool that is often used to reduce external stimulation and help people with sensory processing problems feel comfortable.
- Sensory-driven seating: This can vary significantly based on the needs of your kids. Some children may benefit from enclosures that limit visibility. Other kids may require special cushions, or even just the ability to have some flexibility in their seating options.
Of course, these are just examples. True ergonomic optimization is all about meeting the students where they are at.
An Instant Transformation?
If you have experimented with ergonomics in your classroom to little effect, you aren’t alone. Many people find that their students struggle to acclimate to the new tools and layout that a total commitment to ergonomics requires.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
It does mean you will need to lean into the learning curve. That can be a hard pill for special ed teachers in particular to swallow. Between creating individualized plans for every single one of your students, and simply wrestling with the fact that many of them are several grade levels behind their peer group, there isn’t much time left for fun little experiments. Particularly not those with a “learning curve.”
But while adopting ergonomics can slow progress initially, it ultimately has the potential to increase productivity in the long run.
Once your kids get over that initial hump and learn how to use the new layout effectively, they may learn significantly better than they had been before.
Ergonomics is for Everyone
It’s also good to remember that ergonomics is not only for kids in special education. While the general student body may not require the exact same conditions as children receiving special instruction, they can benefit from a more optimized learning environment.
Not only will this improve their physical comfort, but it may also empower them to learn more effectively. If your school is interested in embracing ergonomics in some or all of its classrooms, there are several steps you can take to make it happen.
Step 1: Evaluate Your Needs
Start with your highest priorities. If you want to begin by optimizing your SPED spaces, determine how many students need equipment and layout reconfiguring. Evaluate their unique needs, and compose a list of obstacles that they face in their current learning environment. This will help narrow the focus of your ergonomic efforts.
Step 2: Search for Funding Opportunities
Of course, one thing most schools don’t have an enormous surplus of is cash. If you’ve read this article with the thought, “How are we going to pay for this?” simmering in the back of your mind, we sympathize.
But while it is hard to find funding for new projects at school, it isn’t impossible. Start by looking for grants that might cover the costs. You may also consider contacting the Parent/Teacher Association. They typically have reserve funds set aside for opportunities to help improve the school.
Step 3: Do it the Right Way
Embracing ergonomics is about more than just buying the right stuff. You also need to execute effectively. If that seems a little bit beyond your expertise (and the fact that you are reading this article at all suggests it might be) consider hiring out professional help.
Ergonomic pros will be able to make a personalized plan for your school that should maximize the efficacy of your new layout and design.
No teacher wants to hear that they have to take on something big and new and time-consuming. Most of them are overwhelmed enough as it is with their usual workload. To that end, adopting ergonomics in the classroom may come with challenges.
But since when did educators shrink away from a hard time?
The bottom line? Thoughtful classroom design can have a big impact on your children’s learning potential. Give it some more thought. Start taking the steps to find out if ergonomics in the classroom is right for your situation.