Student Voice: VLK Spaces and Social Emotional Well-Being

Designing purposeful learning environments that fulfill the academic, as well as the social-emotional needs of learners, has become of increasing interest to educational stakeholders. Studies have shown that intentional design for a learning space can promote a sense of belonging, foster the development of self, provide outlets for individual learning preferences, and promote collaboration (Oliveras-Ortiz, Bouillion, & Asbury, 2020). According to Asiyai (2011), an appropriate learning environment is key to effective learning and development. She maintains that “such an environment is supportive and productive for functional training of head, heart, and hand” (p. 716). In addition to educators’ efforts to ensure that all students have access to a rigorous curriculum and highly qualified teachers, the condition of the physical environment within which teaching, and learning occurs is also a priority.

VLK Architects believes that all students deserve to feel a sense of well-being in their learning environment and be allowed individual autonomy in reaching their social-emotional learning goals. CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) defines social and emotional learning as:

The processes through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. (CASEL. “Fundamentals of SEL.” CASEL, 11 Mar. 2022,

Social and emotional learning involves five core competencies that, with intentional design collaboration, can be promoted throughout the physical learning environment. These five core competencies are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and making responsible decisions. VLK Architects collaborates with clients to not only understand their vision to move the learning environment beyond supporting daily needs; but also, how to enhance the impact of purposeful design on students’ overall social and emotional well-being. Students' impressions about their school can have a positive or negative impact on learning, achievement, and overall social-emotional well-being.


One elementary student validated this idea during the VLK | CURATION® Student Voice discussion at Midlothian ISD indicating, "The old school barely had any windows. It was dark and gloomy, and it did not make you want to go to school. The new school makes me feel happy, relaxed, and calm to have all this natural light. Now, I am actually excited about going to school."

VLK Architects understands creating effective learning spaces that promote well-being cannot occur without input from teachers and students – the main end users. An integral part of the VLK | CURATION® process allows students to provide their perspective of their current learning environments. During this process of gathering student voice, we gain student insight, their likes and dislikes, and their perception on how the spaces in which they learn may or may not foster the CASEL five core competencies. Recently, the overarching themes students revealed include opportunities to build relationships through collaborative workspaces, self-awareness of the physical conditions of space, environments that promote a sense of calm, self-selection of preferred space to accommodate individual learning preferences, and environments that foster exploration and curiosity. For a school to provide a dynamic and supportive physical learning environment, there needs to be a detectable shift from the traditional way schools have been designed and developed.

A recent trend in educational design has been the intentional placement of flexible and scaled spaces for students to have choice and decision in their preference in learning. Exchange spaces allow for large groups to gather and learn together, hear a speaker, or extend the learning environment to use large materials or separate groups. Our Impact spaces are mid-sized collaboration areas providing flexibility for about ten students to work together. These spaces provide for group independent time, or areas where pull-out programs may be accomplished. This extension of the learning environment provides for endless opportunities based on curricular needs.

At Energy Institute High School in Houston, one student shared, “The way we collaborate is different at the new school. There is more opportunity to work with one another since we have larger tables, space, and options to all sit together, comfortably. It really helps you.”

Flexible learning spaces and purposefully designed environments provide more opportunities for students to practice working as teams and building relationships that lead to a sense of overall well-being. Student self-selection of preferred space accommodates individual learning preferences and allows for self-awareness between the task at hand and what type of environment will result in personal achievement. When asked, students can explain their thoughts and decision making on the personal selection of learning spaces due to the emotions that are provoked in each.

During VLK | CURATION®, a Sanger ISD student connected his sense of well-being and learning preference to the environment, a large open space makes you feel freer and more relaxed because there is a sense of anxiety and claustrophobia when you’re in a small room that is cramped.”


“The library, instead of being enclosed, it’s part of the school. It is open and I like that we can see other classrooms. There are also small spaces where we can choose to sit and read alone, it helps me focus. It makes me want to go to the library.” – Perry Middle School Student, Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD.

Having a balance of large collaboration areas such as Exchange spaces, as well as smaller areas, such as our Think spaces, within the overall environment is important when considering student self-management and choice in spatial preference. Think spaces are small learning environments that allow for autonomy and small group work. These areas are heavily supported with technology for students to have a quiet space for individual study, small group presentation planning, brainstorming, or other small group needs based on district curricular expectations.

During the VLK design process, deep discussion with our clients is of the utmost importance as we continue to connect well-being and the impact of student emotions in their learning environments, knowing how to provide a balance of appropriately sized spaces for instruction variety. When students feel a sense of calm and happiness in environments that promote curiosity and exploration, authentic engagement and a “love of learning to learn” occurs.

Natural lighting and outdoor learning spaces provide positive psychological and physical benefits to both teachers and students. Throughout the VLK | CURATION® Student Voice conversations, “windows and outside” are themes that are consistently noted as students’ preference in the learning environment due to feelings of happiness, calm, focus, and joy. An Energy Institute High School student validated the recurring themes when stating, "In our new science lab, we have a balcony that is connected and opens to the outside. We can choose to do our work on the balcony so we can be in the outdoor environment but still connected to our science classroom. It helps me focus because I like the sun and fresh air.”


VLK designed outdoor learning areas provide space that extends the learning environment to support Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) that are best taught in the sunlight, or with conditions that are difficult or impossible to create indoors. Writable surfaces, water sources, and shade can be provided to best meet instructional intentionality. It is easy to agree with a student from Perry Middle School when she stated, “Sunshine is a big factor in keeping morale up. It just makes you feel good.”

VLK Architects listens to clients in order to connect research, voice, and design to benefit students' well-being within learning environments. Our spaces are designed to allow for student self-awareness, promote a sense of belonging, and instill a sense of pride and happiness for the overall community of users. Student well-being has never been more important than it is now, and our intentional design supports all aspects of learning.



ASIYAI, ROMINA. “Students’ Perception of the Condition of Their Classroom Physical Learning Environment and Its Impact on Their Learning and Motivation.” College Student Journal, vol. 48, no. 4, Winter 2014, pp. 716–726.

CASEL. “Fundamentals of SEL.” CASEL, 11 Mar. 2022,

Oliveras-Ortiz, Y., Bouillion, D. E., & Asbury, L. (2020). Research Paper Commissioned by VLK Architects. Teachers’ instructional decisions and student agency in new purposefully designed learning spaces. Houston, TX: VLK Architects.