Student Voice: When Our Schools Are Broken-Down, Our Mental Health Suffers

Creating 'happy schools' with open spaces, greenery and natural light can make them places where students feel joyful, safe and supported.

A photo of Oni Boulware with state Senator Pat Spearman and members of the Nevada Youth Legislature
Oni Boulware (far left) with state Sen. Pat Spearman (fourth from left) and members of the Nevada Youth Legislature during March 2023 visit to the state Legislature. (Nevada Youth Legislature staff)

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Schools are spending millions of dollars on social-emotional learning programs, social workers and hotlines to support the mental health of students. Another possible solution that school district leaders and teachers should consider is building happy schools — meaning the inclusion of architectural features and structures that encourage feelings of joy and emotional security. 

Research has confirmed that the design of buildings can influence levels of stress, mental health, physical well-being and, in the case of schools, student achievement.

But it’s not just researchers and architects who care about the way schools look and feel. Students do as well. 

Recently, I served in the Nevada Youth Legislature, which is composed of 21 student representatives appointed by the Nevada state Senate. As part of my duties, I organized a town hall with high school students. Many of us in the room, including myself, attend schools with significant student populations that qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch — an indicator of poverty.

Before the meeting began, I had anticipated that students would talk about their teachers, or the district’s new grading policy, or the rising cost of college. But I was wrong. The students spent most of the time talking and complaining about their school facilities. Among the top concerns were the presence of metal detectors, toilets and bathroom stalls that were permanently out of service, broken bathroom facilities that forced students to use porta-potties and the lack of a central gathering place or student center. 

It was evident from this town hall that students did not feel safe or supported — and that their grievances were focused largely on their schools’ physical features.

Given that students may spend up to half of their waking hours (or as much as 35 to 40 hours a week) at school — even more if they play sports or are involved in clubs — schools should be designed in ways that positively affect mental health, which can be achieved by including more windows and natural light, more common areas, quiet zones and/or meditation rooms, natural and tactile materials such as fibers, stones and wood, more greenery, painted landscapes on walls, warm colors, natural wood and outdoor areas such as courtyards. 

In his book Happy City, Charles Montgomery wrote, “It is impossible to separate the life and design of a city from the attempt to understand happiness, to experience it and to build it for society.” I believe the idea of a “happy city” can be applied to schools and that it is “impossible to separate the life and design” of a school from its students’ experiences of happiness and mental wellness. 

Others think so too. The International WELL Building Institute created a WELL Building Standard, which measures the impact of architecture and design on health and wellness. The John Lewis Elementary School in Washington, D.C., was renovated using those guidelines, including a large, welcoming entryway, glass structures that maximize natural light, open spaces and comfortable common areas. Principal Nikeysha Jackson told Ed Week in a video that the new design makes the school feel “like a place joy happens.” 

Administrators and teachers seem to think more about the school’s physical design when students are young. At my elementary school, my teacher created a corner in her classroom where students could hang out — reading, socializing or engaging in creative play. Our school, located in the urban center where most students were eligible for free lunch, had an outdoor garden and a multipurpose room where kids could meet. But by the time I got to middle school, most of those serotonin-producing design features had disappeared: We had no school garden or common area, just a courtyard made of concrete. Now, my overcrowded urban high school lacks greenery, a school garden or a common gathering space. 

Districts do not have to construct new schools to make wellness part of their buildings. Sandy Spring Friends School, a high school, was also renovated using components of the WELL Building Standard, including acoustic treatments to reduce reverberations, climate and light controls in each room, floor-to-ceiling windows to maximize the natural light, atria, natural colors and movable furniture that allows for collaboration. As the school’s director, Dr. Rodney Glasgow, stated in another video, “[W]e’ve got to think about social emotional wellness as one of the rubrics we use to design campuses.”

“You don’t have to build a new building to make wellness part of the building you’re in. It just gives us permission to really put wellness at the center of everything we do,” he told Ed Week

To support student mental wellness, schools should consider sponsoring student-led school beautification projects such as murals, meditation areas and gardens. Schools could remove concrete areas and/or beautify those spaces with planters, greenery and water features. They should also create student centers and/or multiple common areas, and install more windows and design features to bring in the natural light, so they are inviting and soothing.

By paying greater attention to the design of the buildings in which students spend their long days, schools could have a tremendous positive influence on mental health.

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