May 30, 2014
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Heavily decorated classrooms increased distraction in children

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Children learning in highly decorated classrooms are more likely to be distracted and spend time off task, as well as have lower learning gains, according to recent study findings published in Psychological Science.

“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,” Anna V. Fisher, PhD, of the department of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, said in a press release.

Anna V. Fisher, PhD

Anna V. Fisher

Fisher and colleagues evaluated 24 kindergarten students to determine the effect of classroom displays on students’ ability to maintain focus during instruction and to learn the lesson content.

All children learned three introductory science lessons in a classroom that was heavily decorated and three introductory science lessons in the same classroom but with decorations removed.

Overall, for 66.5% of the instructional time, participants were on task. However, when children were placed in a highly decorated classroom, they spent more time off-task (38.58% of instructional time) than when the same children were placed in a sparse classroom (28.42%; P<.0001).

In the sparse classroom, children spent less time (3.21%) engaged in environmental distractions compared with the decorated classroom (20.56%; P<.0001). However, in the sparse classroom, children were more likely to engage in self-distraction and peer distraction compared with the decorated classroom. Of all participants, during instructional time, less than 1% of time was spent engaged in other types of distractions.

When children were taught science lessons in the sparse classroom, they exhibited higher pre- to post-test learning gains (33%) than when these children were taught in the decorated classroom (18%; P=.002).

“Classroom type affected the children’s attention allocation (they spent more time off task when the classroom was highly decorated than when it was not decorated), and time off task reduced learning of the lesson content,” the researchers wrote.

Regardless of these findings, researchers do not suggest that teachers rid their classrooms of all visual displays.

“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 young children.”

Disclosure: The study was funded in part by the Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences.