Visual “Noise,” Distractibility, and Classroom Design

Busy Preschool classroom wall, calendar


This is the second in a three-part series by Lucy Erickson looking at the impact of classroom design and environmental noise on learning. Lucy originally began this discussion at learningscientists.org. Click to read that blog.  


In my last post, I talked about the negative effects that background noise can have on children, particularly in the context of the learning environment. In this post, I am going to talk about how visual “noise, or clutter and other visual distractions in environment, can also detract from children’s learning and performance.

Research with toddlers and children suggests that the visual environment can have major consequences for attention, cognition, and learning. Infants living in more chaotic households appear to struggle with visual processing of complex objects compared to infants living in more orderly households [1]. Another study placed cameras on children’s head to examine what they were seeing when there parent tried to teach them new words for unfamiliar objects [2]. After, they tested the children on whether they learned the new name for the unfamiliar object. Then, they looked at what differed between the videos of the teaching events where children appeared to have learned the label from videos of the teaching events where children failed to learn. When the child learned the word, the object tended to be closer to them (and thus appear larger) than other objects in the environment. In addition, the toddlers were more likely to learn the name if other objects that could potentially compete for attention were either not present or less central compared to the target object. Finally, a study that tested 3-year-olds’ ability to learn from an e-book found that when “bells and whistles” that were peripheral or unrelated to the main narrative were included, children’s understanding and memory of the story was impaired relative to when a simpler version was used [3]. These results highlight some of the many ways distraction—both in the form of visual and auditory information—can interfere with young children’s attention and learning.

Children spent more time looking around the room, paid less attention to the teacher, and had lower learning scores when the room was highly decorated than when the room had fewer decorations.

Similar effects have been found with older, school-aged children. For example, recent research indicates that even educationally-relevant decorations can distract kindergarteners from paying attention to a teacher during a short science lesson, and harm learning scores compared to a lesson in a sparser visual environment [4].  In another study, 7-12 year-olds watched recordings of teachers giving a lesson in rooms with varying degrees of visual decoration. Children spent more time looking around the room, paid less attention to the teacher, and had lower learning scores when the room was highly decorated than when the room had fewer decorations. Although individual differences in age, attention, and other cognitive skills played a role in how well children performed, time spent attending to the display containing the lesson was a most important predictor of performance when the environment contained greater potential for distraction. Finally, these patterns were even more pronounced in children with autism spectrum disorder. Some of these harmful effects might decrease as children become more familiar with the classroom, but there is reason to believe that young children might be distracted even when chaotic or highly decorated visual environments are familiar. These results, in combination with the previously described study, highlight how important it is to consider visual aspects of the learning environment in addition to background noise. Moreover, however important these factors are when considering typically developing children, they are likely to be of even greater concern when considering children with attention or learning difficulties. This could be an important consideration for Speech-Language Pathologists working one-on-one with young children. Reducing visual clutter may be beneficial in helping children focus on the task at hand.

…Sometimes best practices from a visual attention perspective may be at odds with best practices from a speech comprehension perspective. 

The research findings described here have important implications for classroom environment design. For example, if even educationally-relevant decorations distract children and impair learning, perhaps classrooms should be designed with some amount of restraint in the number of posters and other wall-hangings that are used decorate the space? Yet this could pose other problems. If you recall from the last post on auditory noise, the reverberation of sound within a room can impair children’s ability to understand speech. One potential solution, offered by Manlove and colleagues [6], was that children could sew colorful quilts to hang on the walls and absorb soundwaves. This highlights the fact that sometimes best practices from a visual attention perspective may be at odds with best practices from a speech comprehension perspective. But perhaps even more importantly, anyone who has seen a preschooler cry when dropped off at school would agree that classrooms must also be locations where children can feel comfortable and happy. What kind of classroom would it be if children could not hang their artwork on the walls?

LEAP circle #20

Any ideal solution must consider all of these factors. For example, perhaps one or two adjoining walls might be kept minimally decorated or bare. Those walls could create the backdrop for children to face when observing a teacher giving a lesson. Alternatively, smartboards could be used to project decorations (e.g., photos of children’s drawings) in some moments but be hidden from view at other times when attention to the instructor is critical. This sort of solution may only be possible in classrooms that have already have smartboards or the financial means to purchase them. However, lo-tech solutions may also be possible and in some cases even better. A neutral-colored curtain could be used to temporarily cover decorated walls. Curtains are less expensive than smartboards, and also provides the added benefit of decreasing reverberation. This could help both the acoustic and visual aspects of the environment in ways that are aligned with our knowledge of learning, attention, and cognition. Critically, this kind of solution tackles these kinds of problems without advocating for austere, depressing spaces devoid or artwork or color.

…There may be potential concerns related to removing so-called clutter from a child’s environment if that “clutter” consists of toys and other potentially enriching materials.

These are just a few possible solutions to optimally design learning environments for children. However, it is important to keep in mind all the ways changing one factor might influence other equally important factors. Remember the study described previously about how the presence of other objects in the child’s visual field harms the child’s ability to learn the name of an object labeled by the parent? It would be easy to jump to the solution that parents should keep their homes bare and free of clutter if they want their children to develop large vocabularies. At a surface level, this seems at least somewhat reasonable. On the other hand, we know from other research that enriched environments are important for development (e.g., [7]), and there may be potential concerns related to removing so-called clutter from a child’s environment if that “clutter” consists of toys and other potentially enriching materials. Further, anyone who has a young child knows that there are many demands on a young parent’s time. It would be easy to advocate that parents keep their homes very tidy and put away toys that a child isn’t currently using. But what good is that strategy if it takes away time that might be better spent talking and engaging with a child?

It is clear that there are many factors to consider when designing the daycares and classrooms occupied by infants and children. Even typically developing children have much more limited attentional capacities than adults, which means that they will be best able to learn in environments with minimal potential distractions. For children with attention or learning disabilities, reducing distractions is likely to be even more vital. That said, balance is key, and care must be taken to create learning spaces that are conducive to warm and positive experiences for children who are simultaneously undergoing socio-emotional development. In my next post, I will talk about role of technology in classroom design, both in terms of some of the ways it might be beneficial as well as some potential pitfalls.


References & Further Reading:

  1. Tomalski, P., Marczuk, K., Pisula, E., Malinowska, A., Kawa, R., & Niedźwiecka, A. (2017). Chaotic home environment is associated with reduced infant processing speed under high task demands.Infant Behavior and Development.
  2. Pereira, A. F., Smith, L. B., & Yu, C. (2014). A bottom-up view of toddler word learning.Psychonomic Bulletin & Review21(1), 178–185
  3. Parish‐Morris, J., Mahajan, N., Hirsh‐Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Collins, M. F. (2013). Once upon a time: parent–child dialogue and storybook reading in the electronic era.Mind, Brain, and Education7(3), 200–211
  4. Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children when too much of a good thing may be bad.Psychological Science25(7), 1362–1370
  5. Hanley, M., Khairat, M., Taylor, K., Wilson, R., Cole-Fletcher, R., & Riby, D. (2017). Classroom displays-attraction or distraction? Evidence of impact on attention and learning from children with and without autism.Developmental Psychology.
  6. Manlove, E. E., Frank, T., & Vernon-Feagans, L. (2001, February). Why should we care about noise in classrooms and child care settings?. InChild and youth care forum (Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 55–64). Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers.
  7. Diamond, M. C., Krech, D., & Rosenzweig, M. R. (1964). The effects of an enriched environment on the histology of the rat cerebral cortex.Journal of Comparative Neurology123(1), 111–119

    Lucy EricksonLucy Erickson was a postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland.  She is a research psychologist at the intersection of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and psycholinguistics.  Her research focuses on the factors (e.g., parental language input; infant cognitive abilities) that interact to support successful infant language development.


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