Heavily decorated classrooms disrupt attention and learning in young children

May 27, 2014
Published in Psychological Science, Carnegie Mellon University researchers looked at whether classroom displays affected children's ability to maintain focused attention during instruction and to learn the lesson content. They found that children in highly decorated classrooms (bottom image) were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed (top image). Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Maps, number lines, shapes, artwork and other materials tend to cover elementary classroom walls. However, new research from Carnegie Mellon University shows that too much of a good thing may end up disrupting attention and learning in young children.

Published in Psychological Science, Carnegie Mellon's Anna V. Fisher, Karrie E. Godwin and Howard Seltman looked at whether classroom displays affected 's ability to maintain focus during instruction and to learn the lesson content. They found that children in highly decorated classrooms were more distracted, spent more time off-task and demonstrated smaller learning gains than when the decorations were removed.

"Young children spend a lot of time—usually the whole day—in the same classroom, and we have shown that a classroom's visual environment can affect how much children learn," said Fisher, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Should teachers take down their visual displays based on the findings of this study?

"We do not suggest by any means that this is the answer to all educational problems. Furthermore, additional research is needed to know what effect the classroom visual environment has on children's attention and learning in real classrooms," Fisher said "Therefore, I would suggest that instead of removing all decorations, teachers should consider whether some of their visual displays may be distracting to . "

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

For the study, 24 kindergarten students were placed in laboratory classrooms for six introductory science lessons on topics they were unfamiliar with. Three lessons were taught in a heavily decorated classroom, and three lessons were given in a sparse classroom.

The results showed that while children learned in both classroom types, they learned more when the room was not heavily decorated. Specifically, children's accuracy on the test questions was higher in the sparse classroom(55 percent correct) than in the decorated classroom(42 percent correct).

"We were also interested in finding out if the were removed, whether the children's attention would shift to another distraction, such as talking to their peers, and if the total amount of time they were distracted would remain the same," said Godwin, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and fellow of the Program in Interdisciplinary Education Research (PIER).

However, when the researchers tallied all of the time children spent off-task in both types of classrooms, the rate of off-task behavior was higher in the decorated classroom (38.6 percent time spent off-task) than in the sparse (28.4 percent time spent off-task).

The researchers hope these findings lead to further studies into developing guidelines to help teachers optimally design classrooms.

Explore further: Kindergarten readiness: Are shy kids at an academic disadvantage?

Related Stories

Team finds daytime naps enhance learning in preschool children

September 23, 2013

Sleep researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst today offer the first research results showing that classroom naps support learning in preschool children by enhancing memory. Children who napped performed significantly ...

Artful tactics lead to success in classroom

February 6, 2014

Anita Mortock, a PhD student from Victoria's Faculty of Education, has spent the last two years observing five, six and seven year old students in the classroom and analysing their behaviour during mat time.

Recommended for you

Repeating aloud to another person boosts recall

October 6, 2015

Repeating aloud boosts verbal memory, especially when you do it while addressing another person, says Professor Victor Boucher of the University of Montreal's Department of Linguistics and Translation. His findings are the ...

Men more likely to be seen as 'creative thinkers'

September 28, 2015

People tend to associate the ability to think creatively with stereotypical masculine qualities, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The findings ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.5 / 5 (4) May 27, 2014
This is an extremely flawed experiment. Over time, people tend to become used to the most intricate environment, though at first they want to understand everything around them, kind of like visiting a big city for the first time. Eventually, it is stimulating, not distracting. Also, if the decorations relate to the students, a past project, a season, etc, the child will feel more personally connected to the friendly atmosphere and more likely to want to be there.
not rated yet May 27, 2014
@RichardBlumenthal. The points you make may have some validity, which is why the researchers don't suggest an immediate tear-down of all decorations. They also acknowledge the need to test in real-world environments.

However, there are also things to consider like new students introduced into a classroom (mid-year transfers), teachers that change decorations over time, etc.
4 / 5 (1) May 27, 2014
Socialist like drabness. The only decorations need to be pictures of Herr Obama and Queen Michelle.

Anything that allows a kids mind to wonder and think must be removed in order to promote unity of thought and actions.
5 / 5 (1) May 27, 2014
The danger with hyper-stimulation, though, is that many kids simply cannot see the woods for the trees...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.