We’ve all felt the impact of the built environment on our perception of ourselves and our lives. Consider the grand, well-kept public buildings in Washington D.C. that symbolize the United States. As citizens we feel uplifted when we see them, and we understand their clear communication of the high worth our society places on our government and our country.
Lorraine E. Maxwell, Design and Environmental Analysis, says that these sorts of visual and spatial cues affect children, too. Like adults, children are influenced by the buildings they spend time in and around. The building where they spend the most time, aside from their own homes, is their school. “The physical environment conveys a message about what society values,” Maxwell says. “I don’t think we, as a society, internalize that when it comes to schools.”
The Condition of School Buildings and the Effect on Children
Maxwell is especially interested in the impact school building condition can have on student academic performance. She is investigating the relationship between poor building condition, student absenteeism, and low academic performance, which was identified in the late 2000s by other researchers. “They found that when school buildings were in poor condition, students were less likely to be in school,” Maxwell says. “Even young, elementary school–aged children attended less often. If you’re not in school, then your academic outcomes will be poorer, but why is there this relationship between absenteeism and building condition? What is the mechanism driving that relationship?”
To find the answer, Maxwell looked at more than 200 middle schools in New York City that served more than 143,000 children. Every five years the condition of school buildings in the city is independently assessed by architects and engineers for the school districts. In addition, New York City also polls its sixth-through-twelfth-grade students, teachers, and parents yearly about school social climate, asking about such factors as academic expectations, communication, and respect. The findings of both types of assessments are available to the public, and Maxwell used the data for her study. “I wanted to see whether school building condition affected the way students felt about the social climate of their school,” she says.
A poorly maintained school might have such issues as smelly hallways, dirty bathrooms, substandard lighting, inadequate heating or cooling, and poorly ventilated cafeterias that spread cooking smells throughout the building. “I was considering whether these sorts of conditions also sent the message that things like academic expectations, communication, and respect were low for students there,” Maxwell explains. “I thought it could be that students weren’t coming to school because of the poor social climate.”
What the Research Showed
The data supported Maxwell’s hypothesis. While it showed that schools had lower test scores when they had a higher percentage of kids receiving free or subsidized meals and a higher percentage of low-income minority groups—something that was already known—Maxwell also found that, regardless of the income levels of the students, deficient school building condition contributed statistically to low academic outcomes. “One explanation for these findings might be that students felt if society didn’t care about their school building, it didn’t care about them,” she says. “School building condition had a negative effect regardless of composition of student body, but the effects for low income students perhaps represents an extra burden. We can fix the building condition fairly easily and remove that contribution to poor academic outcome. My point is that we already know kids from low-income, minority communities have a lot of strikes against them. Why add another one?”
Maxwell followed up the middle school study with another that focused on a small number of students from urban and suburban communities. Together with graduate student Rochelle C. Cassells, PhD ’17, she conducted multiple indepth interviews with each child, focusing on the child’s interaction with the built environment. “That earlier middle school study looked at large numbers, and numbers are important for policy makers and politicians,” Maxwell explains, “but I wanted to understand more about how kids really see their physical surroundings and how they think it impacts their lives. In this smaller, qualitative study, we talked to the children in-depth about their home, school, and neighborhood environments. We asked them what they like to do and where they like to do it.”
“My point is that we already know kids from low-income, minority communities have a lot of strikes against them. Why add another one?”
The researchers were especially interested in the children’s perception and interpretation of their surroundings. They are still analyzing the data, but preliminary findings indicate that children are highly aware of how society views their environment. When asked to describe her neighborhood in one or two words, for instance, an inner city child said “ghetto.” “The children from public housing understood that society views where they live as a negative place,” Maxwell says.
Messaging and the Built Environment
Maxwell is currently planning a new study together with her colleague So-Yeon Yoon, Human Ecology. Using computer models, they will create a virtual interior of a school building and an average neighborhood streetscape, and then manipulate the conditions positively and negatively to explore how children interpret those types of environments.
“Until this series of projects, I had been doing research on aspects of the environment such as noise and how that affects academic achievement,” says Maxwell. “That’s definitely important to look into, but here I’m looking at something more fundamental, something that’s harder to get at. This is the notion that the physical environment sends children messages. The question is, what messages do we, as a society, want to send?”