Distraction-free: How Minimalism can Aid in Classroom Management

Distraction-free: How Minimalism can Aid in Classroom Management

Written by Russell Stahlke, a student in the Ed.D. program – guest writer

I once entered an elementary classroom that was so visually stimulating, with its plethora of colored posters covering most of the wall space, that I found myself distracted – and have wondered if students get distracted as well. I have also sensed chaos in classrooms in which students seemed to be distracted when students face one another, perhaps due to the seating arrangement. Let’s consider the role of environment within classroom management. Maintaining an organized, positive classroom environment supports individual learning, but structuring one can be difficult (Skiba, Ormiston, Martinez, & Cummings, 2016). I argue that simplifying the atmosphere of a classroom can be part of positive classroom management.

Russell Stahlke

Minimalism in Teaching

Classroom management tends to be more concerning for new teachers (Melnick & Meister, 2008). Some beginning teachers struggle so much with managing the classroom environment, that they leave teaching before completion of their first year (Redding & Henry, 2018). I contend that by incorporating a positive classroom atmosphere could lead to a calm, safe, and positive learning environment for students. The strategy concentrates on the amount of visual stimulus in the classroom and the arrangement of student desks. I call this strategy minimalism in teaching.

Consider the last time you entered an elementary classroom. Do you remember seeing visuals on the walls, such as posters or lists of directions? Perhaps there were so much material posted that it looked more like clutter than helpful instructional visuals. This culture of clutter may have been influenced by district guidelines directing the posting of certain information, or the accumulation of trendy learning initiatives over the years, which trumpeted the benefits of visuals. In the U.S. education system, this is far too common.

How Visual Displays Impact the Student Experience

An overabundance of visual displays in the classroom may be detrimental to the learning of younger students, because of their developing ability to ignore distractions (Fisher, Godwin, and Seltman 2014). The impact to middle or high school students would be less overwhelming. The authors researched the effect of classroom displays on the ability of students to maintain focus and learn during instruction. The authors used data from the manipulation of the visual displays in a kindergarten classroom, using a decorated room and a sparsely decorated one. Among their findings were that students spent more instructional time off-task in the decorated classroom than in the visually sparse classroom.

Student seating arrangements are another approach to simplify classroom management. Gremmen, van den Berg, Segers, and Cillessen (2016) studied the considerations that teachers have for making seating arrangement decisions. The authors noted that teachers mainly use seating arrangements in small groups or in rows, and remarked that teachers sometimes start the school year with students in rows to maintain discipline and order, and change it to groups later for cooperation between students.

Carbone (2001) described how these popular open classroom group arrangements have been critiqued by scholars as noisy, visually distracting, and psychologically damaging in his work discussing the arrangement of classrooms with regard to students with ADHD. Carbone also proposed arranging the classroom seating in traditional rows. Gremmen et al. (2016) suggested that teachers are sometimes hindered in their strategy to let students cooperate in small-group seating arrangements because of disorder, and that seating arrangements in rows more easily allows for a calm atmosphere.

Note that a simplified classroom environment does not mean a classroom would not be fun or exciting – I have even heard students remark that they prefer the simplified, calm environment. In a sense, I am advocating for a neo-traditional reckoning in education in proposing classroom minimalism. Let’s keep it simple.

Russell Stahlke is a student in the School of Applied Leadership at City University of Seattle. He currently researches educational leadership and ways to improve outcomes for students.


Carbone, E. (2001). Arranging the classroom with an eye (and ear) to students with ADHD. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 34, 72-82. doi:10.1177/004005990103400211

Fisher, A. V., Godwin, K. E., & Seltman, H. (2014). Visual environment, attention allocation, and learning in young children: When too much of a good thing may be bad. Psychological Science, 25, 1362-1370. doi:10.1177/0956797614533801

Gremmen, M. C., van den Berg, Y. H. M., Segers, E., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2016). Considerations for classroom seating arrangements and the role of teacher characteristics and beliefs. Social Psychology of Education, 19, 749-774. doi:10.1007/s11218-016-9353-y

Melnick, S. A., & Meister, D. G. (2008). A comparison of beginning and experienced teacher’s concerns. Educational Research Quarterly, 31, 39-56. Retrieved from http://proxy.cityu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.cityu.edu/docview/215934753?accountid=1230

Redding, C., & Henry, G. T. (2018). Leaving school early: An examination of novice teachers’ within- and end-of-year turnover. American Educational Research Journal, 56, 204-236. doi:10.3102/0002831218790542

Skiba, R., Ormiston, H., Martinez, S., & Cummings, J. (2016). Teaching the social curriculum: Classroom management as behavioral instruction. Theory Into Practice, 55, 120-128. doi:10.1080/00405841.2016.1148990

Published September 10, 2019



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