What Lessons Do Decrepit School Buildings Teach Children?

Schools are in the news. Teachers in Detroit recently organized a “sickout” to protest conditions in their schools. Among a number of issues in the district, The New York Times reported that many of the schools in the district have “… crumbling plaster, water damage and leaks, roaches, rats, and mold …” What happens to a child who attends aschool building in poor condition? What happens when a child attends a school that has dirty toilets, offensive odors, broken furniture or unattractive hallways, views of parking lots or vacant lots? Maybe the child’s attendance is affected because the child is sick more often. Maybe the child loses interest in school. Maybe the child finds it difficult to pay attention in class because the chair is uncomfortable (or even broken), or she is too hot or too cold. Perhaps the child recognizes that his school is treated differently than a nearby school that seems to be in excellent condition. How does he interpret this? How is the quality of the school building related to the child’s behavior and mental well-being?

Many things can affect a child’s ability to learn and do well in school. The appropriateness of the curriculum is key towhat and how students learn. Teachers, of course, are a big part of the equation — but remember the teachers also inhabit the same building as the students. The child’s family and home life play an important role in the child’s overall development and ultimate success in school. The child also brings a set of skills and interest to the classroom.

In a school setting, cognitive and intellectual development of children and adolescents is assessed with standardized tests. The resulting academic outcomes are used to measure the quality of a school. While harder to measure with standardized tests, socioemotional development is occurring at the same time. Children and adolescents must learn social interaction skills, self-regulatory skills and behavioral skills. The child’s daily experiences in the schoolbuilding and with the physical environment of the school contribute to cognitive, intellectual and socioemotional development.

Studies on school building quality and condition have linked poor acoustical environments, crowded classrooms and schools, poor building maintenance and views from windows with lower academic achievement levels, increased stress and increased behavioral problems. Views of nature can have a restorative effect on individuals experiencing mental fatigue or other stressful situations. Matsuoka notes that Michigan high schools with views of trees and shrubs from classroom and cafeteria windows had fewer incidences of student misbehavior, as well as higher standardized test scores and higher graduation rates than schools without such views. Kumar, O’Malley and Johnston found increased truancy among high school students attending poorly maintained school buildings. In addition, schooldesign was related to increased risky behaviors, such as in-school use of marijuana and alcohol. In a 2008 study, Durán-Narucki found that elementary school student attendance was negatively affected by poor building quality. Students were less likely to attend poorly maintained schools (holding constant family background and teacher quality). It naturally follows that if students don’t go to school, learning is compromised and test scores will go down. Physical attributes of school buildings is important for both socioemotional development and as well as academic achievement.

Michelle Fine and her colleagues in 2004 documented that high school students of color in low-income communities in California were keenly aware of the poorer quality of their school building and other resources compared to the schools in wealthy white communities. The students’ understanding of the situation was that poor communities are not valued as much as other communities. Crowding, high levels of chronic noise and poorly maintained buildingsare risk factors for raising stress levels. Evans notes that children from low-income families and communities are more at risk than their middle income peers for multiple risk factors. This exposure through our childhood is relatedto psychological distress, learned helplessness and poor academic achievement.

Studies done by myself and colleagues Gary Evans, Nicole Simon and Suzanne Schechtman in 2007 and 2012looked at how student academic achievement might be affected by students’ perception of the quality of the school’s physical environment. We found that elementary, middle school and high school students’ perception of school building quality mirrored that of building professionals, and that both assessments of building quality predicted academic achievement.

The quality of the school building can have a direct relation to student learning (poor furniture, poor acoustics and poor indoor air quality), but there may also be indirect consequences. My recent work indicates that school social climate — including academic expectations, communication and respect — is an explanatory link between schoolbuilding condition and academic achievement. Poor school building condition in middle schools was found to be linked to negative student perception of social climate, lower rates of student attendance and subsequently to poor academic outcomes. A child participating in a focus group in a school where we were conducting a study stated that maybe if the school looked better, more students would want to attend.

Some educational philosophies have specific spatial requirements. Montessori is one example, and the Reggio Emilia approach is another. This is because the curriculum and the space are closely related. Italian author and teacher Lella Gandini, in describing the importance of the physical environment for Reggio Emilia classrooms in 1998, states that the physical environment is the “third” teacher (there are two teachers in each classroom). The children learn from the physical environment and the physical environment is a full partner in the curriculum.

Extending the concept of the physical environment as a teacher, imagine a child’s learning environment as a three-legged stool. The child comes to sit on the stool, bringing the desire and capacity to learn. One leg is home and family; another leg is the classroom teacher and the curriculum; the third leg is the physical environment. If one leg is broken, the child falls and intellectual, cognitive and socioemotional development are all compromised.