Student mental health has become a top priority for schools as they hire more counselors, expand services, and invest more deeply in social-emotional learning.
But school buildings and environments—including classrooms, gathering spaces, and everything in between—are often left out of that conversation.
That’s why Claire Latané, a landscape architecture and environmental design professor at Cal Poly Pomona, has dedicated her career to helping school districts design buildings with a focus on student mental health and well-being.
“The school environment is so often ignored in terms of how it makes students and teachers and the community feel,” Latané said in an interview with Education Week. “For the last 40 years, they’ve really been designed to look like and feel like prisons, often by the same architects that design prisons.”
In 2021, Latané published her book Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind, which provides a comprehensive look at how schools can improve environments to support student well-being. In the book, Latané cites research from psychology and architecture experts, who have found that varied spaces, lots of windows with ample light, outdoor gathering areas, natural materials like wooden walls and floors, and views of nature can all have a positive impact on student and staff well-being.
The insights are more important than ever as more students are struggling with depression, anxiety, and stress following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forty-two percent of high school students reported experiencing persistent feelings of hopelessness and sadness in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those numbers are even higher among LGBTQ teens and teen girls, with 60 percent of girls and 70 percent of LGBTQ students reporting long-lasting sadness and hopelessness, according to the CDC.
Educators, including teachers, principals, and district leaders, can make a major difference by paying attention to classroom environments, Latané said.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you become interested in design based on mental health and well-being?
Mental health has always been a topic of concern for me. I lost my aunt to suicide when I was little and our family, like a lot of families, has dealt with mental health issues for a long time. When my children started entering middle school and high school they struggled with anxiety and a number of different mental health issues.
So that prompted me to turn my design career toward creating spaces that would better support mental health. Schools were the obvious places to start for children and youth, particularly because the design of schools didn’t seem to take advantage of all the decades of research that is out there already on environments that support mental health.
Why is it important to look at school design from a mental health perspective?
While a lot of schools are focusing on wellness, they’re mostly focusing on solving it through counseling. It’s really difficult to get enough counselors. Trying to treat each individual separately, one at a time, seems impossible. The school environment is a place where you can make even small improvements to help every single student and teacher that comes into that school environment.
The school environment is so often ignored in terms of how it makes students and teachers and the community feel. For the last 40 years, they’ve really been designed to look like and feel like prisons, often by the same architects that design prisons. We need to start rethinking them as places to help students and teachers and the community flourish instead of as a place to control.
What does a school built with mental health in mind look like?
It’ll look different depending on the community and environmental context, which is really important to think about.
A school that supports mental health is culturally responsive to the students and community where the school is located. It’s responsive to the natural systems where it’s located. It really takes advantage of natural ventilation and sunlight but also provides big windows so that students, teachers, and staff can see trees and gardens.
The school environment is so often ignored in terms of how it makes students and teachers and the community feel. For the last 40 years, they’ve really been designed to look like and feel like prisons, often by the same architects that design prisons.
Unlike the way most schools are built, schools that support mental health have a variety of spaces.
We have a tendency to think, especially for teachers that aren’t aware of the research, they tend to think that they need to have big open schoolyards where they can see all students at once and where there is no separation. But those wide-open spaces correlate with more student disorderly conduct and more student crime.
It’s the smaller spaces and more variety of spaces that correlate with better pro-social behavior, less bullying, and less crime. Sometimes we need a small space to go away from other people and restore our sense of calm. Variety is really important and that’s probably the thing that’s missing the most.
How can school district leaders, principals, and even teachers with limited budgets try to make school environments more supportive of student mental health?
Often, we don’t have the budget, we don’t have the time, but there are some small things you can do. Starting with really looking at the school and each classroom and figuring out how to make them feel homier. Even adding natural materials and soft fabrics into a classroom helps, or a mural of a natural scene or a garden scene. Some teachers have goldfish and pets in the classroom. Things like that can help. Mobiles that move around in the breeze can help.
Pay attention to the noise levels. HVAC noise, loud beeping, and things like that are really distracting. Making sure spaces are quiet and students aren’t interrupted by loud, jarring, or irritating noise is really important, especially for students and teachers experiencing or recovering from trauma.
There has been a lot of talk about making schools safer in light of mass shootings on school grounds. How can schools design for safety while also prioritizing mental health?
The measures that actually make students feel safer are usually not the measures that schools are taking to try to address safety. If [students] have to walk through a metal detector, if there are school police on campus, or there are gates and high fences around school, these are things that don’t actually correlate in the research with making students feel safer.
Sandy Hook Elementary is a really good case study for how to address school safety in the wake of a terrible tragedy. That school was completely rebuilt after the Sandy Hook shooting. It was redesigned with the community. They built a school that feels really welcoming. It’s full of natural materials. The outside is made of wood. It has three classroom wings that open to outdoor courtyards and face the woods. There are huge windows throughout the school. They looked to all the research to point toward ways of creating a space in an enclosed environment without making students feel like they’re walking into an institutionalized place.
What do you see as the long-term impact of a well designed school on students’ mental health and well-being?
Students spend the majority of their time in school. Those environments have an outsized impact on our lives, but they also shape how we think about ourselves and the world. There are a lot of messages that we give to students with the schools that we design. [Design] can teach students and give them hope that we care about them and the planet that they’re inheriting from us. So it’s really important at a bigger picture to think about schools and school districts because they’re spread across communities, across counties, as places where you can really make an impact on public health, equity, and climate resistance.
A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2023 edition of Education Week as Making the Case for Schools That Don’t Look Like Prisons