More than just a room

September 22, 2022

Note: This issue was written by Dr. Emma Dyer and edited by myself. It was originally published on my newsletter, Design With.

I’m Emma, I research and write about school design in the UK. I also advocate for care-experienced children in schools and coach adults who work in schools in attachment and trauma awareness.

In this issue, I’ll discuss my interest in how rooms for therapies (usually some form of counselling) are designed in schools.

Therapeutic spaces in schools are rooms (or, unfortunately, sometimes corridors) where adults offer a protected space for students to explore difficult feelings. This might be through counselling with a trained member of staff, or, simply letting a student have time away from the classroom when they become overwhelmed.

While working in schools, I noticed how unsuitable school buildings are for therapies. I often think of the contrast between a counselling session that we might pay for as an adult and one that a child might experience in school. The spaces where children and adults work together in schools are rarely private and frequently interrupted.

A friend who works as a counsellor in a school recently told me about a session with a child whose father had just gone into prison. Having gained his trust, she listened to him describe how he felt about the sudden separation from his father. Moments later, despite the ‘please do not disturb’ sign on the door, in walked a colleague looking for something in the cupboards. Eventually they left and the session continued, but the interruption reverberated in the room.

How can staff who work in therapy spaces create a room that is fit for purpose? How can they learn to advocate for themselves and their space?

This often comes down to whether the work that they do is valued and understood by other staff members. Designing with these adults goes beyond putting ‘do not disturb’ signs on a door. It’s about helping them find a voice within their school community, so that everyone understands and respects their role, and ensures their work is properly invested in.

As an ex-teacher, I am very aware of the hierarchical structure of most schools in the UK. At the top is the executive head teacher of a federation of schools or head of a single school. Then comes the senior leadership team, year heads and subject heads (in secondary education) and teachers. Teaching assistants, who often take on pastoral support roles and counselling, along with other support staff are below them in seniority.

This is not only reflected in pay structures, but also, just as clearly, in the agency that staff at different levels of ‘responsibility’ are given over the spaces where they work.

So, for me, a key element of the design process with adults in these spaces is helping them build confidence to ask for what they need in a space to do a good job.

I find that talking through the possibilities of the design is far more effective than designing it for them. And they may decide to ask for something as simple as a room with a window or good ventilation, or, a comfortable chair and soft lighting.

But it’s also equally crucial to identify other members of staff who value their work and can help communicate this to others, so the space itself is treated respectfully. These aspects of design can help transform a therapy room into a safer place for children and adults, in the school.

The most important thing I’ve learned from this work is how school design can encompass so much more than the designed features of a room.

The status of staff, the support of colleagues and an understanding of their work is also crucial. And this gives them, in turn, the ability to design with the students that they work with so that staff feel empowered and comfortable in their workspace.


I really enjoyed working with Emma as she wrote about her experiences designing within UK schools.

Emma currently writes for Precious spaces. She also curates an architecture and education website with Dr. Adam Wood.

This was originally published on my newsletter, Design With. It was archived in 2023.