Create an Out-of-This-World Classroom With Universal Design

By Karen A. Lounsbury
Dr. Lounsbury is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Early Childhood Education at the University of South Carolina Upstate. She teaches math and science method courses and works with preservice teachers. Dr. Lounsbury taught in public schools for more than 20 years before moving to USC Upstate.

Kathy spent hours arranging her pre-K classroom. On the first day of school, Elijah walked into the room and ran straight between the cubbies and the sensory table until he reached the door to the outside at the back of the room. Kathy walked to Elijah and led him back to the front of the room, showed him where his cubby was located, and helped him hang up his backpack. This happened with multiple students each day that week. By Friday, Kathy was physically and emotionally exhausted.

As his second-grade students worked in groups on their math lesson, Mark repeatedly had to ask students to move so he could retrieve math manipulatives from the closets. His attempt to declutter his classroom by storing all of his teaching materials in the closets resulted in interrupting students as they worked.

Hadar wheeled his wheelchair from his worktable to meet his group at the reading table. He had to go to the front of the room and around the side because the tables arranged in the middle of the room were set too close together for his wheelchair to easily navigate. By the time he arrived, his teacher had already started the lesson.

These actual classroom stories illustrate some of the difficulties that can arise if classroom design is not well thought out.

Teachers spend hours cultivating a classroom environment where they hope to engage and teach students. The classroom environment can enhance classroom management—or disrupt it. “The physical space influences, but does not determine, the behavior of its occupants by facilitating or enabling certain types of activities while inhibiting or preventing others” (Baepler, Walker, Brooks, Saichaie, & Petersen, 2016). Your classroom arrangement should reflect how you expect your students to learn. Flexible classroom spacing provides your students the opportunity to learn in an environment that matches their needs and motivates them to be actively engaged. Illustrated in the following vignettes are actual issues concerning classroom arrangements.

You can find numerous classroom arrangement designs online, but your classroom will have different furniture and a different physical design. However you decide to design your classroom, you need to address the following considerations.

Your Classroom’s Physical Arrangement
Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for giving all students an equal opportunity to succeed. UDL is based on research in the learning sciences and offers guidelines for providing multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. To learn more about UDL, visit

To ensure that you achieve UDL in the physical arrangement of your room, consider the following:

  • Tables or desks. If you use desks, how will they be arranged?
  • Area for large groups. How will this area be defined? Will you meet on a carpet?
  • Area for small groups. How will this area be defined?
  • Dividers for work areas. Will dividers be movable? Can dividers serve another purpose, such as a bookcase or chart rack?
  • Shelving for supplies and books. How will these be labeled and organized?
  • Couch or alternative seating. Will a quiet area be available for students to work together or alone?

Your Classroom Supplies

Where will personal supplies such as pencils, crayons, scissors, and glue be kept?
  • In desks?
  • In sacks on the backs of chairs?
  • On shelves under chairs?

Where will community supplies be kept?
  • On shelves?
  • In baskets?
  • All in one location?
  • Dispersed throughout the room?

How will table supplies be organized?
  • In a bucket?
  • In pencil boxes?
  • In cups?

Workflow and Special Needs Considerations
In addition to arranging your classroom furniture and supplies, you need to consider how students will move about the classroom and whether you have students who need special accommodations.
  • Will students have assigned work areas or desks?
  • Will students be moving about the classroom to different groupings?
  • How will students move about? Look for long runways as well as obstructions.
  • How will students gather materials needed when working, if they are not at the table or desk? Perhaps a materials manager can be assigned at each group.
  • Do you have a student with a hearing impairment? Will picture cues or written material be provided? Are there other accommodations you will need to make?
  • Do you have a student with a visual impairment? Will the student need to be placed near the front of the room, or near light? Are there other accommodations you will need to make?
  • How inviting is your classroom? Is it welcoming for all your students?
  • Where will student work be displayed?

There are a multitude of arrangements that will work for your classroom. It is important that you consider how you want to use your classroom before the students arrive. After the initial arrangement is set up, adjustments can be made to refine your classroom environment.

Baepler, P., Walker, J. D., Brooks, D. C., Saichaie, K., & Petersen, C. I. (2016). A guide to teaching in the active learning classroom: History, research, and practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.