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Change the Environment, Not the Kid

When I first started teaching, I happened to do it in a year when the program was moving to a new school.  I walked into a cavernous room filled with boxes of materials I had never seen.  To say that I was overwhelmed is an understatement.  I had no idea where to begin.  Sure, I had Pinterest boards dedicated to cutesy classroom decor, but the reality is that setting up your classroom is so much more than cute!  It’s vital!

So where do you begin?  I can tell you the first lesson I learned.

My classroom was huge, and when I first set it up, I had my circle time rug on one side, the reading and writing centers on the back wall, blocks on the other wall, dramatic play in the center, and art up front.  It looked pretty good…until I realized I had created a racetrack.  There was a perfect clear space to run in a big circle around the room.  Don’t think that it took more than ten minutes for my one little friend to figure it out!

I remember thinking, “how do I stop this kid from running around the room?”  Should I play calming music, post “walking feet” signs around the room, have him do some heavy lifting before he comes in the room?  All of these are solid strategies, but after lots of trial and error, and very little success, my mentor walked in and said, “have you tried changing the environment?”

Ding! Ding! Ding!  I see it now!  I cannot control this child’s sensory system or what he ate for breakfast, but I can control the space. So I moved some furniture around, and when he came in the next day, his racetrack was gone. Now this doesn’t mean that all was golden from that point on.  There was still a lot of work to be done to help support this particular friend, but we were making progress.

Organization of the Physical Space:

  • Avoid large open spaces to discourage running.
  • Arrange centers to break up open spaces.
  • Define each center’s space by using low dividers or shelving. (It is absolutely necessary that the dividers be low so that you can see in every center to monitor every child at all times.)
  • Use pictures to clearly explain the purpose of each center.
  • Store materials in the child’s reach.
  • Use pictures to label materials/toys in each center to encourage children to return articles to the correct place during clean up.
  • Position centers that are typically louder and have more movement, like blocks and trucks or dramatic play, toward the back of the room.  It is also recommended that they be as far away from quieter centers (such as the reading corner) as possible.
  • Keep centers orderly and clean (including furniture and toys).


Create a welcoming environment

We all want children and families to feel welcome when they walk into our classroom on open house day, but how do you do that?  I can tell you from experience, it doesn’t matter what resources you have, you can make a space feel welcoming with little to no budget.

  • Let the child know that he/she is a part of the classroom
    • Create personal cubby and storage space for each child, labeled with their name.
    • Provide a space for child-created artwork at child’s eye level.  (I’ve seen clipboards with the child’s name, which are very cute, but if you don’t have the money for that, a laminated sheet of large construction paper with some paper clips, clothes pins, or binder clips attached will do the trick!)
    • Include child-sized furniture
    • Include a board just for family photos of staff and students.  This makes everyone happy!
    • Give children their own character or symbol. We recommend the use of animals.  *More on this in an upcoming blog!

      Don’t you just love this! Click the picture to go to Live Laugh, Learn in Second Grade for more about displaying student work.

Organization of Materials

  • Eliminate clutter of teaching materials, toys, and supplies.
  • Label children’s shelves.
  • Use clear distinct pictures or photos of the object or toy that is to be placed in that particular spot on the shelf.
  • Keep excess teaching materials out of sight and neatly organized.
  • Use large labeled tubs if closet space is limited.
  • Organize everything!  Consistent classroom organization provides stability and a sense of security for your children.  It also enhances learning.


That first year that I started teaching, I was so excited to set up my classroom.  Okay.  Let’s be honest…I am excited every year. There’s nothing quite like the summer to fill a teacher’s mind with ideas for how the next year could be. But that first year, I remember walking into the teacher store for the first time and feeling totally overwhelmed.  I walked out with five different borders, some diversity posters, and bunch of sentence strips.  Over the years I have learned a lot about what works in terms of decor, and what doesn’t work.  I have also had a very large classroom, as you can see in the picture above, and a very small classroom, as you can see in the photo below.  (Yes.  I love aqua!) So here are my tips:

  • Pick one border to use on all of your bulletin boards, and then choose two or three colors to be your main colors for the room. (I had a red bulletin board my first year, and it was not good.)
  • Use one color of bulletin board paper on all of your boards.
  • Keep store-bought visuals to a minimum.  Most of what is on your walls should be child-made.
  • If it isn’t going to last all year, skip it.
  • A couple of small lamps can add a homey touch to any room.
  • Organization is key! (Oops.  I think I already said that.  But really, friends, it is!)

For more help with classroom management, check out our Preschool Classroom Management Guide in our product listing.

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