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Optimizing lighting in schools for students with specific learning disabilities and ADHD

The Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines outline requirements for provisions such as companion seats, curb ramps and wheelchair spaces to support people with physical handicaps. But there is relatively scant literature concerning how people with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism and neurodevelopmental conditions interact with the built environment.

Brent E. Betit, Ed.D, head of school and director of The Rankin Institute at The Fletcher School in Charlotte, North Carolina, is an educator with more than 30 years of experience in educational programs designed for students with specific learning disabilities and/or ADHD. Before coming to The Fletcher School in 2016, Dr. Betit helped found Vermont’s Landmark College, the world’s first college for students with learning disabilities. In the 1980s, he led a team that redesigned the college’s campus to serve its students’ unique challenges.

Eaton’s Lighting Division talked with Dr. Betit about optimizing classroom lighting in schools for students with specific learning disabilities and ADHD, and the strategies that have worked for the many students he has served in his career.

Why are people with learning disabilities and related challenges more sensitive to the spaces we create?

Their brains are wired differently, so they absorb and process stimuli differently than those with neurotypical brains. Defining a neurotypical brain is trickier than it sounds, though. The bottom line is that each person is unique; some just learn more easily in a regular environment, while others need more multisensory or multimodal considerations.

More work is needed to strengthen our understanding of how people learn through not only certain teaching strategies, but also teaching environments.

Do these students perform better in purpose-built environments?

While I’m not aware of empirical data or dedicated research showing that students with learning disabilities perform better in purpose-built environments, I’ve observed it in practice. Remember, the field itself is relatively youthful. As a whole, we’ve been more focused on pedagogical strategies than the physical environments where these strategies are implemented. The problems facing these students are right in front of us on a daily basis. As educators, we’re programmed to turn toward educational techniques first; few people think about the role the environment can play. But that doesn’t make the environment any less important.

We expect a lot out of kids when they’re learning. For example, written language is still fairly new from an evolutionary perspective. It’s difficult to learn. And when we overload kids’ brains with bad stimuli, we make it that much harder for them to succeed, regardless of any unique challenges they’re facing.

Are classroom lighting design considerations specific to this population also better for everyone?

When we ask learners to function in a classroom that’s too dim, too cluttered, too warm or too cool, they’re unlikely to perform at their peak potential, whether or not they have a learning disability.

The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University has done a great deal of work in this area. Their take on the subject is that we should create environments and resources anyone can access, regardless of ability. In other words, don’t just nail a ramp on the side of your building in order to meet the ADA’s accessibility guidelines. Organic solutions, such as a traditional entrance everyone can use, will always be better.

This concept applies to learning environments, too.

What types of classroom lighting are best for people with learning disabilities? Why?

Focus on providing natural light or artificial light that is a close approximation to sunlight, because our eyes are engineered to operate more effectively in those conditions. Full-spectrum light sources emulate sunlight and can reduce glare, fatigue and eyestrain. Indirect fixtures also soften and disperse light, making it less severe.

Clerestory windows provide natural light without the distractions of the outdoors, making them perfect for students with learning disabilities and/or ADHD.

In most cases artificial lighting is also needed; indirect solutions soften and disperse light, making it less severe.

During my time at Landmark College, we adopted efficient batwing fixtures, which include dispersers that eliminate direct light and reduce glare. We also incorporated lighting controls, which allowed faculty to adjust lighting intensity for the environment and the needs of their students.

What are some specific lighting design issues that can cause problems?

It’s so important for us to be thoughtful about any stimuli we add to an environment, and lighting is no exception. Bad light is like a bad song you can’t get out of your head.

Flickering lights can spell disaster for the students we serve. Fluorescent bulbs always flicker to some degree, because their light is produced by excited gas. But as fluorescent lights age, the flickering becomes more visible, until it becomes an issue. Certain people are more sensitive to flickering lights; in fact, flickering light sources can trigger an epileptic seizure in people with epilepsy. For some people on the autism spectrum, the flicker and hum of fluorescent bulbs can cause physical pain. In others, they may cause headaches or distractions.

Artificial light sources impact brain and eye function, so those that closely approximate natural light are less likely to cause problems.

At the end of the day, the best lighting and mechanical systems are the ones we don’t notice. Bad lighting is always going to be more obvious than good lighting.

Can natural light be harmful for students with learning disabilities and related challenges? Why?

Absolutely. Particularly when it comes to people with learning disabilities or ADHD, lighting intensity is crucial, because they can be so easily over-stimulated. Our bodies are sensory sponges, and they absorb a lot throughout the day, from physical signals to learning modalities. Everything is better in moderation. This is why clerestory windows and shades are such a great fit for schools that serve this population.

You led the team that designed the first purpose-built educational environment for learning disabilities and related challenges. How does the physical environment at Landmark College support students and faculty?

For the most part, the structural aspects of a building cannot be altered, and we inherited an existing facility. Over time, as funds were available, we took our building down to the structural level and started fresh. Even then, we’d sometimes have a column or another element that impeded what we wanted to achieve. Still, we achieved much better results than if we’d tried to shoehorn our program into an existing building without making any changes.

As time passed, we became less willing to compromise, because we wanted what was best for our students and faculty. We were lucky to work with a design-build firm that was completely invested in the project’s success. Two of their architects shadowed our students to gain a better understanding of how the environment could support them. This, in turn, helped us get better at designing purpose-built spaces.

Today, Landmark’s campus is acoustically private, which is important for students who are easily distractible. The ceilings and weather stripping absorb sound, and dampeners are installed in the ductwork. Lighting, finishes and mechanical considerations were also designed based on what we learned from watching our students.

What are some design considerations in place on the campus of The Fletcher School?

The Fletcher School has a nice, well-maintained, clean facility. Most importantly, it was clearly designed to serve its population. In its intimate classrooms, teaching and learning are a dialogue. Classrooms are also carpeted to reduce noise and soften the environment. Color selection is thoughtful. Visual clutter in hallways is intentionally kept to a minimum. And the facility has ample natural lighting.

As an educator, I want to implement everything I know about creating environments for kids and teachers so spaces work with them, not against them. At The Fletcher School, nothing is broken, but I believe anything in this world can be improved. Eventually, I’d like to prioritize new lighting, with an eye toward more indirect and less direct light. I don’t have personal experience with LED lighting but would be interested in learning more about associated benefits of LED lights in classrooms. I’m a firm believer that we have to buy lights regardless, so we might as well spend 20 percent more and buy the best lights. Lighting should work with, not against you.

Lighting controls are another important feature that should be part of all future considerations. They allow educators to customize learning environments, but they also provide economy and efficiency. The utility bill for a school campus is sizable, even if the campus is small.

How often are architects, builders, engineers and others thinking about these things when they build schools? As a whole, are we getting better about creating spaces for people with learning challenges?

Moving forward, it’s important that we have more deliberate conversations about education and the built environment. I’d like to have guidelines similar to those that inform facility design for people with physical disabilities.

The good news is that every specialized practice evolves over time, and architects are getting better at designing learning environments. Remember, we haven’t been talking about learning disabilities, autism and related conditions for too many years in the grand scheme of things. But if we always designed for kids who are distractible and struggle to learn, the results would be better for everyone.