designing lighting April 2022

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Lighting to Transform SPED Classroom Environments By ALLISON THAYER

SETTING THE SCENE You are sitting in your chair attached to your desk, your elbow is sliding along the desktop as the weight of your chin pushes down on your hand, and your eyes begin to close. You are snapped back to attention when the teacher asks you for the answer to an unheard question. Ever been there? What is it about middle school classrooms that makes it so easy to nap? First, anyone who has lived with an adolescent knows that hormonal changes can lead to sassy attitudes. But did you know those changes also affect their sleep? Adolescents develop a natural tendency for later sleep onset and later wake times [1], which is why they get a bad rap for being night owls. On top of that, typical classroom lighting is static and generally too dim to create an alerting effect or provide the kind of daytime light stimulus that promotes earlier bedtimes and better sleep [2]. The combination of these factors can lead to a vicious cycle of late nights and sleepy, unfocused school days.

AN ADDED CHALLENGE This effect can be even more exaggerated for students in special education (SPED) classrooms, as at least some of them can be placed on the autism spectrum. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) comprises a range of challenges that can make day-to-day tasks most people take for granted more difficult. Students living with ASD experience difficulties with learning comprehension, social communication, and behavioral control, to name just a few. Those living with ASD can also have a heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli such as loud noises, bright light, and even indiscernible flicker from lights. Overstimulation can cause sudden outbursts, frustration, maladaptive behavior, aggression, and lack of focus, which can be distressing and disruptive during structured class times. Classroom lighting often poses problems for these students, which they often perceive as being “too bright.” To create visually appropriate classroom environments, teachers have employed simple strategies like placing blue cloth over existing luminaires to adjust the light’s level and color to create a calming effect [3]. Providing the ability to adjust lighting beyond ad hoc measures and a simple on/off switch is a great start for transforming the classroom into an environment better suited for learning. Innovations in lighting and control technologies provide a wealth of options for transforming otherwise static indoor spaces by dynamically layering light with different colors and variable illuminance levels throughout the day. But with a seemingly infinite palette of options, how do we choose what is best for educational applications, specifically in SPED classrooms?

INVESTIGATING A SOLUTION To address this question, researchers from the Mount Sinai Light


designing lighting

and Health Research Center (LHRC) worked with Mosaic Architects to design and install new lighting and control systems in two middle school SPED classrooms in a suburban school district. Because the classrooms were designed to serve different functions, the lighting schemes were designed to fit each application. We conducted a pilot study to determine subjective effects of the new “active” lighting compared to baseline lighting settings, similar to those found in typical classrooms.


Create an environment for the students/teachers that promotes focus on learning while minimizing overstimulation from light

Provide a layer of blue light to evoke a calm environment while simultaneously enhancing daytime circadian stimulus—and thereby promote better sleep at night—without the need for bright light

Provide layers of light with preset scenes/schedules and easyto-use controls for the teachers


Students in this classroom have developmental and cognitive disabilities that include Down syndrome, multiple disabilities, and hearing and visual challenges. The classroom is used all day, alternating between instruction and break times.


(Baseline and active conditions, activated for 2 weeks each)



Baseline (week 1-2): Static scene, simulating typical classroom lighting Active (week 3-4): Toggle between a Classwork scene active during structured learning time and the Calm scene, active during break times. There is a subtle 5-minute transition between scenes.