Too much visual stimulation may be bad for most kids…

I came across a fascinating study today in the journal Psychological Science that has significant implications for church staff and volunteers involved with children’s ministry, regardless of whether they’re seeking to intentionally include kids with disabilities in their ministry environments.


In this study from Carnegie-Mellon University, the authors conducted a controlled experiment in which they taught an identical series of science lessons to kindergarteners in two different classrooms…one classroom was extensively decorated with colorful posters and pictures, the other classroom was considerably more austere (picture courtesy of the New York Times). Here’s what they found…

A large body of evidence supports the importance of focused attention for encoding and task performance. Yet young children with immature regulation of focused attention are often placed in elementary-school classrooms containing many displays that are not relevant to ongoing instruction. We investigated whether such displays can affect children’s ability to maintain focused attention during instruction and to learn the lesson content. We placed kindergarten children in a laboratory classroom for six introductory science lessons, and we experimentally manipulated the visual environment in the classroom. Children were more distracted by the visual environment, spent more time off task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains when the walls were highly decorated than when the decorations were removed.

Jan Hoffman does an excellent job of discussing the study findings in her blog in the New York Times. The bottom line was that kids became distracted by one another in the more visually austere classroom in a developmentally appropriate manner, but in the highly decorated room, kids focused significantly less on their teacher and scored significantly lower when tested on the material presented.

Another study published out of the UK two years ago looked at the impact of building design on classroom learning in school-age children. They found that 51% of the variance in performance between children in different schools could be accounted for by three design parameters in the physical environment, but 73% of this variance resulted from differences at the classroom level linked entirely to six built design parameters…color, choice, connection, complexity, flexibility and light. The bottom line in the UK study was that achievement differences between kids in the schools with the “best” and “worst” learning environments were equal to the anticipated progress from an entire school year!

f77fc902f0ffff8a9dc080bff842bdddHarmony Hensley did a number of blog posts for us on designing ministry environments for kids with disabilities, questioning whether church may represent a “hostile environment” for some kids here and here, and sharing ideas for how churches could create welcoming environments for kids with ADHD here and here. Katie Wetherbee wrote about this topic on her blog, and I’ve written stuff before on the impact of environment on kids with sensory processing issues and kids at risk of aggressive behavior. Clearly, the level of visual stimulation in learning environments is an even  larger for kids with many common disabilities.

The research describing the impact of environment upon learning in children offers one of the best examples of how churches can take concrete steps to become more welcoming to all families (especially those with children who struggle with attentional regulation or sensory processing) and more effective during the limited time they have to influence kids without having to develop a stand-alone ministry “program” or requiring families to self-identify their kids with disabilities.

If you’re interested in digging deeper into the topic, here’s a link to a video Harmony shot on the topic of ministry environments for Inclusion Fusion 2011…


KM Logo UpdatedKey Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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