Changes to Physical Space Lead to Transformation in Student Behavior

Clouds, swings and staff training are part of a greater effort to meet student needs at Downtown Denver Expeditionary School


A “Cloud Room” may not be the first thing that comes to mind when imagining the interior of an elementary school, but nestled among traditional classrooms and hallways at Downtown Denver Expeditionary School (DDES) is a room dedicated solely to help students regulate, ventilate frustration or seek a feeling of safety and well-being. 

There are, in fact, clouds in the room. Constructed from curved white wood and emitting a soft glow, each cloud and the surrounding large cushions provide a space for students to stake their own space and determine which tools in the room will help regulate their brain. A cocoon swing is available to help an agitated student de-escalate. A weighted bag can provide a physical tool to lift and exert pent-up energy. Games, art supplies, and a bin of kinetic sand from the tool cabinet offer students something tangible to focus on. “The cloud room has clouds you can hide in and regulate emotion so you can calm down after activities or recess,” said a fifth-grade student. “The lights soothe me because they are not too bright and they match the colors of the room.”


Community Investment and Partnerships 

Made possible by the 2016 bond-funded Innovative Classrooms program and completed in 2019, the Cloud Room is one of several sensory spaces at DDES that are part of a greater effort to respond to student needs. After the closure of nearby elementary schools, the demographics of DDES began to shift, with an increasing number of students who had experienced trauma. School leaders saw an opportunity to support the needs of their incoming students, and to support all students with sensory processing challenges at the school. The school was able to intentionally design the unique space within DPS’s Emily Griffith Campus thanks to school-determined investment funds from the 2016 bond. Delanie Holton-Fessler, the cccccfounder of local business The Craftsman and Apprentice, provided additional design and construction support. “I like the cloud room because the tools inside are really calming, especially the swing,” said another DDES fifth-grader. “I’m very grateful for a place to calm down or resolve problems.”

“We wanted to expand our work with trauma-informed practices, but realized we weren’t thinking about which spaces were exasperating and which spaces could be beneficial or therapeutic,” said Dr. Letia Frandina, DDES Executive Director. The school partnered with Jessica Pfieffer of Intricate Roots, a local company focused on techniques in the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. She offered guidance in transforming certain spaces and also provides ongoing training for teachers and staff to strengthen their existing social-emotional lesson plans and incorporate tools that will help students regulate.

Intentional Planning Yields Positive Results

Down the stairs from the Cloud Room, two boys played in the “Tree House,” another area created with sensory needs in mind. Each student opted to leave the overly stimulating environment of the adjacent gymnasium, and under the supervision of a teacher, they happily played in the Tree House instead. One boy focused on pulling and testing the knotted climbing rope, and another wiggled into a small nook that provides a cocoon-like space, where he waved through a window. They look like any other children at play, but Dr. Frandina explains how each element of the Tree House, just like in the Cloud Room, was built to help students with specific sensory needs, particularly when they need a reprieve from overwhelming settings like the gym or indoor playground. 


Near the Tree House, a light sensory wall resembles a large Lite-Brite toy. A panel of circles illuminates with a soft, mesmerizing array of multicolored lights when students touch them. This wall offers another space for brain regulation, and is strategically positioned near the main doors, acting as a distractor for students who may have an impulse to run away under stress.

Midway through the 2019-20 school year, behavior data at DDES is already showing dramatic change. There has been an 80% decrease in the number of reactive incidents this year compared to last year. Teachers report that they are less concerned about behavior, and physical destruction of property and supplies has decreased. With changes to physical spaces, ongoing staff training, and the addition of a full-time psychologist, DDES is leading the way in providing a safe, welcoming environment for all students.

Light Wall