4 Ways to Prioritize Student Mental and Physical Health Through School Design

Environments that support a sense of community, collaboration, and personal well-being can help reduce student stress and prevent teacher burnout.
Published: July 4, 2024

Spending over 15,000 hours in school before graduation, students are deeply influenced by their educational environments, second only to the influence of their homes.

The Harvard School of Public Health emphasizes the critical role that school building design plays in supporting the physical and mental well-being of both students and teachers. An environment that fosters wellness not only enhances learning but also nurtures positive interactions among students, teachers, and peers.

By focusing on the well-being of students and staff, educational design can create spaces that promote holistic health, build stronger school communities, and optimize learning outcomes.

In recent years, the impact of a school’s physical environment on student wellness and academic success has gained unprecedented attention. The design of educational spaces is no longer seen as a backdrop to learning but as a fundamental factor that supports the physiological, emotional, and intellectual growth of every student.

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The emphasis on wellness in school design significantly benefits teachers as well. Teachers, like their students, are affected by their physical surroundings. Environments that support a sense of community, collaboration, and personal well-being can help reduce stress and prevent burnout.

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By creating spaces that support both student and teacher wellness, schools foster a culture of mutual respect, collaboration, and shared responsibility for the learning environment. This holistic approach not only improves educational outcomes but also contributes to the retention of passionate and motivated educators, necessary for the success of any learning institute.
The following explores how schools can embrace design principles that prioritize wellness, supported by current research and best practices, to create environments that nurture and support the whole student.

1. Holistic Wellness in Educational Spaces

Holistic wellness in the framework of school design includes the creation of environments that cater to the physical comfort, mental health, and cognitive development of students. Research indicates that students thrive in settings that are not only safe and functional but also aesthetically pleasing and psychologically supportive. According to a study by Barrett et al. (2015) in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, well-designed classrooms can significantly boost students’ academic performance, with factors such as natural light, air quality, and color schemes playing pivotal roles.

Other recent studies and initiatives also underscore the importance of school design and wellness programs in improving both student and teacher well-being and academic performance. The Global Wellness Institute‘s 2023 trends in wellness architecture and design emphasize the significance of incorporating elements that foster physical movement, biophilic design, and spaces that boost a sense of belonging. These trends point towards designing educational spaces that not only cater to academic needs but also prioritize mental and physical health.

The U.S. Department of Education also announced significant funding through the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act to support mental health and student wellness, recognizing the critical role that a supportive environment plays in student development. This includes grants to various educational institutions aimed at improving mental health services and creating safer, more nurturing school environments.

These developments reflect a growing awareness within the educational community of the need to create holistic learning environments that support the well-being of both students and educators and highlight the importance of integrating wellness-focused principles into school design and operational practices.

2. Physiological Wellness

Physiological wellness focuses on the physical health and comfort of students, directly affecting their ability to concentrate and learn effectively.

Key design elements include:

  • Natural Lighting and Ventilation: Ample natural light and good air quality are essential for maintaining students’ physical health and enhancing their mood and energy levels. Design strategies such as large windows, skylights, and advanced HVAC systems can improve ventilation and daylight exposure.
  • Ergonomic Furniture: Adjustable chairs and desks accommodate diverse body sizes and help prevent physical strain. Ergonomic design promotes good posture, which is crucial for students who spend significant time sitting.
  • Outdoor Spaces: Incorporating green spaces and outdoor learning environments encourages physical activity and connection with nature, which have been shown to reduce stress and improve physical health.

3. Emotional Wellness

Emotional wellness in school design acknowledges the impact of the physical environment on students’ mental health and emotional well-being.

  • Inclusive and Comforting Environments: Spaces that are welcoming and inclusive can notably affect students’ sense of belonging and security. Designing common areas that encourage social interaction and quiet zones for relaxation or individual work can cater to diverse needs and preferences.
  • Color Psychology: The strategic use of colors can evoke different emotional responses. Soft, warm colors can create a calming atmosphere, while bright colors might stimulate energy and creativity.
  • Biophilic Design: Integrating natural elements into the school environment, such as plants, water features, and natural materials, can reduce stress, improve mood, and boost cognitive function.

4. Intellectual Wellness

Intellectual wellness is about creating environments that stimulate learning and cognitive development.

  • Flexible Learning Spaces: Classrooms that can be easily reconfigured for different teaching methods and learning activities promote active, engaged learning. Flexible furniture and movable partitions allow for group work, discussions, and traditional teaching formats.
  • Technology Integration: Thoughtful integration of technology into classrooms supports diverse learning styles and prepares students for the digital world, but it’s crucial to balance technological resources with traditional learning methods to provide for varied preferences and needs.
  • Acoustic Design: Managing noise levels through sound-absorbing materials and thoughtful spatial layouts can significantly improve concentration and reduce distractions, thereby supporting cognitive processes and learning.

Best Practices and Implementation

Implementing wellness-focused design in schools requires a shared approach involving educators, architects, and the broader school community. Engaging stakeholders in the design process guarantees that the outcomes reflect the unique needs and values of the school population. Continuous evaluation and flexibility to adapt spaces based on feedback and evolving educational practices are key to sustaining environments that support the whole student.

Investing in professional development for teachers on the effective use of flexible spaces and how to integrate wellness principles into the curriculum can maximize the benefits of the physical environment on student learning and well-being. By doing so, teachers become equipped with the tools and insights needed to transform these dynamic spaces into vibrant hubs of creativity and innovation, where students can thrive academically and emotionally.

Ultimately, such investments in teacher development pave the way for a more engaging, supportive, and enriching educational experience that uses the full potential of the learning environment to benefit students’ learning and well-being.


The design of educational environments plays a critical role in supporting the holistic wellness of students and educators alike, encompassing their physiological, emotional, and intellectual needs. By prioritizing wellness in school design, schools can create nurturing spaces that not only enhance academic performance but also foster a sense of belonging, well-being, and readiness to face the challenges of the future. As research and best practices continue to evolve, school leadership must remain committed to designing schools that truly support the whole student.

Ymkje Wideman-van der Laan is an author and certified autism resource specialist with a background in teaching. This article originally appeared in CS’ sister publication, EDspaces.

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series