Jul 17, 2018

Designing Educational Spaces That Support Executive Function

By Dr. Nancy Sulla

Imagine you enter your home, fling open the door, and the door knob punches a hole in your wall. You decide to fix it yourself. All you have to do is “Google” it. You locate a how-to sheet with step-by-step directions for spackling a wall; you find a video of someone demonstrating the process. Easy, right? Not so fast. Suppose you did not possess the skills of focus, following multiple steps, shifting focus from one event to another, catching and correcting errors, attending to an activity, and persisting in a task? Even the best how-to sheet or video would not yield success. Those are just some of the skills of executive function, managed by a part of your brain just behind your forehead.

It turns out that living in situations of chronic stress, such as poverty, domestic violence, abuse, protracted divorce, and even having parents that put constant pressure on you to succeed, can slow the development of this part of the brain. In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough (2013) draws the correlation between poverty and poor academic achievement due to lack of executive function. Is it possible, then, that the rush to purchase better instructional materials and provide professional development to teachers to offer better lessons might not provide the answer to student achievement as much as would building executive function? Consider that most content you need to master today is easily found on the Internet. What is not found there is the ability to think critically, reason, see unintended consequences -- the skills of executive function. The good news is that the part of the brain that handles executive function has the ability to develop further; we can improve students’ executive function.

The history of classroom design has been to focus on teaching, with students being able to face the front of the room for lessons; but what if, instead, we design classrooms that focus learning, with an emphasis on ensuring growth in executive function that will lead to student achievement? In Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classrooms (Sulla, 2011), students engage in solving real-world problems. Drawing from myriad related learning activities identified and designed by the teacher, students schedule how they will use their class time to learn the content needed to solve the problem. While there are times when the teacher addresses the whole class, these are short 10-15 minute presentations to introduce concepts and raise students’ awareness of what they need to learn. So rather than designing the room to accommodate those few moments over the course of a day or week, the classroom is designed to allow for various opportunities to engage with and grapple with content.

Executive function skills are not strengthened through lessons as much as they are through classroom structures and continued use. In my book, Building Executive Function: The Missing Link to Student Achievement (2018), I take a different approach to executive function skills. Rather than starting with the skills themselves, I recommend focusing on the greater life skills that executive function skills support, namely conscious control, engagement, collaboration, empowerment, efficacy, and leadership. Following are ideas for building educational spaces that support these skills.

Consider the following physical spaces in a classroom to promote greater executive function while advancing academic achievement:

Discourse Center
An area of soft seating with couches and chairs provides a comfortable place for students to discuss their work and texts they are reading. If you can, physically design the space to be tucked into an indented area and have a “nook” feel to it.  Here students build conscious control and engagement, practicing the executive function skills of focus, attending to a person or activity, concentrating, maintaining social appropriateness, and more. Offer students discussion protocols, or “norms of engagement,” so that they see what is expected of them in this area. These may include summarizing what others have said, making a connection to or transition from the last person who spoke, ensuring that all students participate in the conversation, etc.

Observation Deck
Creativity is an executive function skill: it is not a personality trait that only some possess; it can be developed in all. Highly creative people observe (Kaufman & Gregoire, 2015).  Design an area where students can observe. It should have a window to the outside; however, it could also have a counter on which to place various objects, plants, and animals for observation. Here, students build conscious control and engagement. As students build the ability to observe and record observations, they can advance to anticipating and making predictions.

Conference Area
A conference table offers students a place to discuss their readings and research when they need to have perhaps texts, paper, and/or computers with them. Design seating for a group of no more than four at the elementary grades and up to eight at the secondary level. Students sign up to use the conference area for their small-group discussions. Offer students discussion protocols to follow. Here, given the appropriate tasks, students build conscious control, engagement, empowerment, efficacy, and leadership.

Collaborative Area
Collaboration requires the executive function skills of seeing multiple sides of a situation, being open to others’ points of views, maintaining social appropriateness, and overcoming temptation. Students also build skills related to problem-solving, advancing efficacy. The keys to designing collaborative spaces are having 1) a table size that allows students to talk and engage with collaborative materials easily; 2) an unbroken surface area, as opposed to desks pushed together; 3) a round table so that no one is at the head of the table. I recommend 42” table diameters or, in the case of a clover table, 48” (the indentation offers a 42” diameter while the protruded area offers a 48” diameter.) Collaboration is not a process of divide-and-conquer; it requires students to “come to the table” with individual mastery and synthesize to develop a better end product. Provide students with consensus-building tools to guide their interaction. 

Individual Work Area
At times, students need to work independently to build content mastery. Design a section of the room with individual desks apart from the noisier collaborative areas. As students consider their goals and schedule how they will use time, they build important executive function skills related to empowerment, such as monitoring performance, managing time, and reflecting on goals. As they tackle real-world problems, both individually and collaboratively, they build the executive function skills for efficacy -- being able to identify a goal and create a plan to achieve it.

Quiet Work Zone
For students who struggle with focus, concentration, attending to a person or activity, persisting in a task, and overcoming temptation, a quiet work zone will support their growth. Consider study carrels designed to minimize distractions.

Small-Group, Mini-Lesson Area
Students build academic skills through learning activities, teacher facilitation, and small-group lessons offered by the teacher on targeted skills or concepts. It is important to put a table (rectangular or kidney shaped) in an area of the room with a white board and, if possible, projection capability. Students sign up to attend small-group, mini-lessons, building greater executive function skills toward empowerment. Teachers can also require certain students to attend specific lessons.

Daydream Center
Creative people daydream! (Kaufman & Gregoire, 2015) How wonderful to build a space in a room where students can spend a ten-minute period just daydreaming. Fill it with stimulating images and colors.

Game Area
Games, particularly games of strategy, are powerful tools for building the executive function skills for engagement and efficacy, including making mental images, identifying cause-and-effect relationships, and considering future consequences in light of current action. Set up some tables and fill the shelves with board games. Computer games are welcome as well!

Maker Space / STEM Area
Many teachers these days are designing areas to fill with materials that allow students to make objects and/or use a design process to solve a STEM problem. Fill shelves with see-through bins of materials and let students creativity flow! A good design process will move students between divergent and convergent thinking, exercising myriad executive function skills.

Next time you consider designing educational spaces, whether a classroom or entire school, consider how the physical space can promote greater executive function toward increased student achievement.


Kaufman, S.B., Gregoire, C. (2015). Wired to create: Unraveling the mysteries of the creative
mind. New York: Penguin.

Sulla, N. (2011). Students taking charge: Inside the learner-active, technology-infused
classroom. New York: Routledge.

Sulla, N. (2018). Building executive function: The missing link to student achievement. New York: Routledge.

Tough, P. (2013) How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Mariner Books.

 About the Author

Dr. Nancy Sulla is the President, IDE Corp. — Innovative Designs in Education and an author and the creator of the Learner-Active, Technology-Infused Classroom. You can follow Nancy’s blog and find out more about her at www.nancysulla.com and her company at www.idecorp.com.

Jul 16, 2018

All the Things you Cannot See

by Shona O’Dea, Well AP, LEED AP BD+C, DLR Group Building Performance Analyst

Within the physical school environment, there is an entire world of things we cannot see that influences the human experience of a space and a student’s ability to perform. Pulling back the curtain on those elements equips everyone to better understand – and embrace – a more holistic approach to district planning.

A recent report from the World Green Building Council concludes that indoor environmental quality (IEQ) can have a profound impact on students’ cognitive function and performance, but optimizing the environmental quality of schools involves much more than air sensors. A holistic master planning process enables clients to think beyond a bare-bones conditions assessment approach by expanding into a comprehensive plan for optimal building performance, and one school district in Illinois agrees.

Barrington School District 220 in Barrington, Illinois, partnered with DLR Group to lead a district-wide facilities master plan to assess and improve learning environments for its students and staff. DLR Group’s team began the process by documenting 12 schools and an administrative building within the district to qualify and quantify holistic building performance. We translated our findings into a report card that measured energy performance, thermal comfort, indoor air quality, visual comfort, and acoustical satisfaction, a deliverable that is guiding future decisions related to facilities and capital investments throughout the district.

Baseline for Measurement

DLR Group used a two-pronged approach to gather qualitative and quantitative information related to IEQ at each building. To gather qualitative data, DLR Group issued a district-wide IEQ satisfaction survey to all employees (including teachers, administration, support, and maintenance), and collected 566 responses. These responses were categorized into four key comfort factors: acoustic, air, thermal, and visual to give the team a holistic understanding of the district’s capital assets.

For our quantitative efforts, the team placed IEQ equipment in representative classrooms from each building, allowing us to observe “point-in-time” spot measurements via monitors tracking temperature, relative humidity, CO2, PM2.5, and TVOC over a data collection period of 72 hours per room. Additional qualitative observations were recorded in workbooks, including:
  • Do walls reach all the way up to the roof deck?
  • What is the fraction of windows on the external walls?
  • Are there any window dressings?
  • Is the flooring material hard surface or soft surface?

DLR Group also engaged teachers and students by utilizing on-site data logging equipment throughout the process to create a personalized learning opportunity for Barrington students. We partnered with students at each facility to move data loggers between focus classrooms, following a defined schedule. Spot measurements also recorded light levels, VOCs, and background decibel levels in each focus classroom.

Once the survey, workbooks, spot measurements, and logging were complete, DLR Group compiled all data into a master grading tool or report card, along with the basic site measurements and resource consumption results. The grading tool algorithms, written for industry standard requirements, generated IEQ grades for acoustical satisfaction, indoor air quality, thermal comfort, and visual comfort.

Key Findings of the Four Core Components


The IEQ survey results identified a number of factors impacting acoustics, including fans, air conditioning equipment, and furniture. During our classroom observations at the high school, we noted teachers were limiting movement to avoid disruption in adjacent spaces. Students also indicated that teachers were not conducting classes as they desired due to concern that moving furniture would disrupt nearby classes. Further testing revealed that furniture was extremely heavy, and moving it caused the noise criteria inside that classroom and adjacent classrooms to almost triple. From these results, the district was able to demonstrate a need for new furniture that facilitates flexible teaching and learning spaces in the high school.

Air Quality

Carbon dioxide concentration often acts as a proxy for ventilation adequacy. The concentration of carbon dioxide in outside air is approximately 400 PPM, and industry standard internal thresholds recommend a maximum of 1200 PPM. Beyond these levels, the brain begins to go into sleep mode, which can have a profound impact on cognitive function.

The necessary mechanical systems were in place to ventilate classrooms adequately, and the air quality in this district received better-than-average results. Most occupants did not record strong satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their air quality, however stuffiness was the most popular complaint, especially in summer months. All buildings tested for volatile organic compounds were at negligible levels throughout. One building received an initially high reading but, on further analysis, we determined the readings were conducted during an art fair where the art supplies produced VOCs from off-gassing.

Our assessment uncovered three buildings at approximately 3000 PPM, which exceeds ASHRAE 62.1 Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality Standards and specifies 800 PPM plus ambient. The district immediately instituted a no-cost solution by revising damper positions to ensure a CO2 level of no more than 1200 PPM at all buildings.


According to the report by the World Green Building Council, 27 percent of U.S. schools have inadequate lighting. Light levels at Barrington facilities were determined satisfactory, however some spaces generated higher light levels than required due to replacement of fluorescents with efficient LED bulbs.
Of the 80 percent of respondents who have access to daylight, 80 percent are satisfied with their visual environment. Areas with too much light are scheduled for de-lamping, which will involve removing some of the LED bulbs from light fixtures to return light levels to the illumination necessary for the task conducted in the space. This solution also will result in energy savings for Barrington.


ASHRAE Standard 55 Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy recommends operative temperatures range between 60- 80°F depending on factors such as occupants’ activity and clothing levels. Barrington levels fell within industry standards, with an average setting at 68°F, however surveys results showed on average, 65 percent of occupants were dissatisfied with their thermal environments, with more complaints in winter months due to drafts and uneven temperatures.

The high school recorded a large range of variation in temperatures, initially attributed to a number of additions to this building, and ranging ages of HVAC systems. On further analysis, the HVAC systems were able to meet an optimal set point, however that occurred at the end of the school day as students were heading home for the evening. The district simply adjusted HVAC systems to warm up earlier in the morning to improve comfort level at the high school.

In other schools with a high number of thermal comfort complaints, temperature readings hit the recommended set points. However, numerous elements also affect thermal comfort, including humidity, air speed, and mean radiant temperature of surfaces. Thermal imaging identified areas of missing or damaged insulation causing temperature asymmetry; cold spots where moisture may have penetrated a wall; thermal bridging issues at doorframes; or insufficient seals causing air drafts. Long-term solutions for temperature asymmetry are being incorporated into the District’s future capital planning.

Towards Transparency

This comprehensive process helped Barrington officials make data-driven decisions on how to best use its maintenance budgets, and plan for future capital investments. Ultimately, while data, analysis, and recommendations play an important role in any holistic master plan, the greater value may be found in the deeper conversations that occur between agency and individual users. This level of transparency and communication contributes to a positive relationship between a school district and the local community it serves, and ultimately improves the educational experience for all learners of all ages.

About the Author:

Shona’s focus on efficiency and indoor environmental quality is an important component of DLR Group’s Performance Design team, supporting the firm's pursuit of sustainable design and operation. Born and raised in Ireland, Shona earned an honors degree in Building Services Engineering from the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland's leading sustainable building engineering program, and moved to the Midwest as part of the Atlantis dual master’s program in Sustainability, Technology and Innovation at Purdue University. She currently serves as Young Engineers in ASHRAE Region VI Coordinator, President of the Chicago Chapter of IBPSA.

Architects Prioritize Design as a School Security Solution

Northwood Elementary School on Mercer Island, Washington, winner of a 2017 Education Facility Design Award. Designed by Mahlum, photo by Benjamin Benschneider

by Katherine Flynn

How well can anyone plan for the chaos and violence of a school shooting? 

In American public schools, it’s now considered a best practice to have a written protocol in place for how to proceed if a shooter opens fire on school grounds or inside school walls; nearly 90 percent of schools have them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, 70 percent of schools run active-shooter drills with their students.  

But for architects who design schools, the planning starts much earlier, before the first brick is laid. Strategic thinking about how to keep students safe is now baked into the design process of every school and learning institution— with the added mandate of preventing a school from looking or feeling too similar to a prison. 

According to a Northeastern University study, school shootings are not statistically more common now than in the past. Four times the number of children were killed by guns in schools in the early 1990s than today. Nevertheless, in the wake of the shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, in which 17 people were fatally shot and 17 more injured, as well as a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas in May, the conversation around preventing equally high-profile violent incidents in the future has reached a crescendo. Architects are preparing themselves to see this reflected in the participatory design process moving forward. 

“For communities that don’t yet have that emotional distress in relation to a shooting scenario, it probably doesn’t come up as often,” says Jenine Kotob, Assoc. AIA, who designs schools at Quinn Evans Architects in Washington, D.C., and is an active member of AIA’s Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE). “So it [has] kind of been up to [the architects] to work with the client at the highest level to talk about it and figure it out. But I definitely think, moving forward, that’s going to be completely different.” 

Striking a balance

When schools put stronger security measures in place with the intended outcome of keeping students safe, they can have unintentional adverse effects. 

“In a daily experience, it really impacts the students and how they feel about themselves, and it kind of perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline issue,” Kotob says. That pipeline in turn perpetuates prejudices as well as harmful paranoia and anxiety.  

And that’s why architects make it their job to pursue solutions that are all but invisible. “In a daily experience, it really impacts the students and how they feel about themselves, and it kind of perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline issue,” Kotob says. That pipeline in turn perpetuates prejudices as well as harmful paranoia and anxiety.  

And that’s why architects make it their job to pursue solutions that are all but invisible. 

In working on a redesign of the Marie H. Reed Center, an elementary school and community hub in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Kotob says that Quinn Evans took a layered approach: planning for the worst-case scenario of a violent mass shooting incident but also accounting for the more commonplace security concerns that students and teachers were likely to encounter, such as bullying and sexual harassment. Kotob and her colleagues didn’t want to provide too many dark, out-of-the-way spaces, but they did want to include hiding spaces and escape routes in case of an emergency. 

Karina Ruiz, AIA, the 2019 CAE chair, has over two decades of experience in public school design in the Portland, Oregon, area, says that an essential part of the design process is thinking strategically about where to place doors, windows, and wheelchair ramps in proximity to one another. “As we’re dealing with active-shooter planning and prevention of mass tragedies, part of that has to do with just time for first responders to arrive,” she says. “You’re building these layers at the front entry where you’re slowing people down and putting obstacles in their paths.” 

Unencumbered visibility for administrators who work near the front entrance is another key tool in buying time. Kotob and her team employed bullet-resistant glazing in the main lobby space, near the school’s front entrance, and equipped the glass throughout the rest of the building with breakage sensors. At the classroom level, glazing around entryways is kept to a minimum. 

“That was strategic, so we would allow for the entire class to tuck away in a blind spot in the room,” Kotob says. “So if an active shooter is walking down the hall, they peek through a window and they see,  ‘Oh, there’s nobody inside so let me keep going into the next room.’” 

Following the shooting at Santa Fe High School, where 10 people were killed, Texas’ lieutenant governor was ridiculed for suggesting that the attack might have been avoided if students had only one available entrance and exit. While it’s a strategy that many school designers already utilize, Kotob says, it’s incorrect to cast it as an infallible solution. 

“We can’t make those kinds of generalized statements. There is no, ‘Well, we can just wipe away the issue if this one thing was resolved,’” Kotob says. “While we do try to design for the most secure solution—which, in this case, at Marie Reed, is one door that the public can enter through, especially families and students—we still don’t know if teachers on the inside are going to be propping doors open to let kids in and out.” Using one entrance and exit also creates a bottleneck effect, making students particularly vulnerable targets during crowded arrival and dismissal times. 

In the process of working on security strategies for schools, architects also recognize the importance of prioritizing space for school support and mental health services. 

“Simple things like moving a counseling wing and putting those where students are located—near commons, near libraries—and then making them transparent,” says Ruiz. “Design can be an engager in prophecies that allow us to build softer schools—places where kids don’t feel disenfranchised and lost in the first place.” 

Architects stress that design isn’t going to singlehandedly solve the problem of students encountering danger at school—or perpetrating it. Pamela Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, says it’s important for K–12 schools to put an emphasis on addressing social-emotional learning, and for staff to be trained in looking out for warning signs of declining mental health in students.  

“I think you have to take a multifaceted approach,” Moran says. “How do kids develop that personal social-emotional competency? We want to make sure we have kids with as many skills as possible to cope with the things that might turn into anger towards themselves or others.”

Kotob also emphasizes that design can only be one piece of a larger whole. “There is a pie, and the pie is comprised of legislation, policy, education, awareness, and technology—and then architecture is one small piece of it,” she says.

Students first

Successful school design ultimately hinges on centering the needs of those whom the school is intended to serve. 

“Working with students specifically so that they can be co-designers with us, rather than recipients of a design that is imposed on them, is really important,” Ruiz says. 

For parents of public school students, sending their children to school comes with a sense of acceptance that there’s only so much that they — or anyone — can do when it comes to keeping their students safe. 

“If someone really wants to cause harm, they’re going to find a way no matter what you do, unfortunately,” says Albemarle County Public Schools Director of Learning Technologies Jamie Foreman, who has four children ranging from preschool through fifth grade in the school system. “That’s how I think about it as a parent.” 

As architects continue to innovate new ways to design for effective security measures, Ruiz emphasizes that conversations around designing safer schools should always recognize the vital role that public schools play in their communities. 

“We, as designers, are uniquely situated — through our training and through our work experience — to bring a myriad of people together from different backgrounds, with different perspectives, to solve complicated problems in beautiful and elegant ways,” she says.

Katherine Flynn is a writer/editor at AIA focusing on industry trends and emerging ideas.