How to Make Effective Use of Calm Rooms and Spaces

Published On: 19 April 2023

This blog post is based on a webinar by Mica Coleman Jones, a Principal Team Teach trainer.

Calm room, quiet space, reflection area, emotional wellbeing zone – whatever you choose to call them in your setting, the purpose of these environments is the same: to provide access to a designated quiet, calm space where individuals can recover and feel safe when they are distressed, overwhelmed or dysregulated.

Recently, concerns have been raised across a range of sectors about the use and design of calm rooms and spaces; there have even been calls to ban them. However, this has more to do with how they are being used, rather than the concept itself. With that in mind, it is vital that we are clear about what a calm space is not: it should not be used in a punitive way or considered some type of ‘naughty corner’; nor should it be a place to seclude or hold individuals against their will. When misused or misinterpreted like this, it is easy to see how calm spaces can trigger negative connotations and facilitate poor practice.

As practitioners and professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure that calm spaces and rooms are designed and used with the needs of the individual in mind at all times.

What is the purpose of a calm room?

Whether you work in a school, health or social care setting, you will undoubtedly encounter individuals who, at times, can become dysregulated or distressed and who need somewhere peaceful to reset and recalibrate. Calm rooms and spaces provide the opportunity for individual to remove themselves from their immediate environment, giving them the emotional and physical space to recover.

While not all settings have a separate room (it may be a corner of another room, such as a classroom), the idea is that there is a safe, supportive place available, where an individual can go to either self or co-regulate, depending on their needs. As professionals, we can often spot the early signs of distress and can interrupt the conflict spiral by offering the opportunity to move to a calm space; at other times, it may be we have to react quickly when we can see that someone is already in a heightened state and in need of a safe alternative until they are ready to re-engage.

Whether the use of the calm room is planned or unplanned, the priority is keeping the individual safe and offering the support they need in that moment.

Considerations for the design of a calm room

Every setting is different and if space is at a premium, it might be the case that there is no capacity for a dedicated calm room. And even in situations where a quiet room is set up in part of a building, there is no guarantee that it will be free when you need to support an individual. Often, these are dual function spaces and are in high demand. Whilst a designated room is ideal, you can only work within the limits of your building and the needs of other staff members and individuals you support.

However, if you are planning on establishing or redesigning a calm room within your organisation, there are some key factors to consider. The goal is to create an inviting, comfortable space that is both functional yet uncluttered. Think minimalist without being clinical – often a tricky balance to strike!

The individuals who will use the space may have sensory needs that you need to take into account while designing. For example, what is the lighting like? Does it lend itself to the creation of a calm, peaceful environment? How about the seating? Are there chairs, rugs, cushions or beanbags available (depending on your context)? What colour are the walls? Can you hear external noise? Thick walls are preferable, especially for those who are hypersensitive to sound.

It is also worth considering whether you have the right tools in the room to encourage self-regulation. The best way to decide this is by knowing the individuals in your setting and the kinds of tools that are most effective for them, for example fidget toys, bubbles, colouring books, blankets, puzzles or playdough. What works in one setting might not work in another. To avoid clutter or damage to property, it might be that you need to bring in and remove equipment as necessary.

If you are not sure whether you are on the right lines, seek feedback from the individuals in your care. Ask them what they think. After all, the space has got to work for them, so it is always useful to invite comments and suggestions. Alternatively, try the space out for yourself. Do you feel calm and regulated? What improvements could you make? It is incredibly useful to put yourself in an individual’s shoes and see things from their perspective.

Facilitating effective use of calm rooms and spaces

To ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to calm spaces and quiet rooms, clear and appropriate communication is essential; this goes for both staff and the individuals you support. You need to ensure that everyone across the organisation, including leaders, staff, individuals, carers and family members, is clear about the purpose, design and use of the calm space.

How you go about introducing this safe, supportive space is paramount. Rather that setting out expectations or compiling a plan when an individual is in a heightened state, it is more effective to introduce the space when they are regulated and calm. That way, there is a better chance of them absorbing and retaining the information. Offering a measured, clear explanation of the space allows staff and individuals to think more proactively, rather than reactively, and consider ways in which the space could be used to support regulation.

Once the calm room has been introduced, it can be useful to create a plan together with the individuals you support. Involving all stakeholders (including families and carers, where appropriate) in this process creates ‘buy-in’ and increases an individual’s sense of agency and control over their own experiences.

To avoid any confusion, it can also be helpful to model the preferred practice you would like to see as a professional. This might mean demonstrating how to interact with the environment (This beanbag is so comfortable. It’s really helping me to calm down. Would you like to try it?) or, if appropriate, sharing your own experiences of self-regulation in the context of a calm, quiet space.

Moving on from the calm space

Once an individual is no longer in distress, it is key to leave the space and reintegrate into their usual environment. How long this takes very much depends on your setting and the needs of the person involved.

You may find that some people are reluctant to move out of the calm space because they find that environment more appealing than the alternative. It might even be that other parts of your setting do not offer the same feeling of safety and support to the individual and could be contributing to their distress.

If that is the case, it might be worth considering the rest of the environment and how to capitalise on the design of the calm room in other areas, for example, adapting lighting or furniture, or providing other tools for self-regulation.

Valuable part of your support toolkit

Calm rooms and spaces are not a silver bullet; they are not a singular solution to behaviour support. However, by being clear about the ‘what, why and how’ and facilitating effective practice, they can become a valuable part of your support toolkit and provide the individuals you support with the space they need in times of distress.

You might also find our webinar about quiet spaces, with Mica Coleman Jones, an experienced neurodivergent SEND Leader and Principal Team Teach trainer helpful.