Grant aims to better understand effects of classroom lighting on students

An empty classroom containing chairs, desks, and a chalkboard.
WSU researchers will compare the effects of two different colors of commonly used LED lighting on the classroom behavior of about 20 students with ASD.

A new grant through the American Society of Interior Designers will enable Washington State University researchers to study how different types of LED lighting in classrooms affect children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Led by Alana Pulay, assistant professor in WSU’s School of Design and Construction, the researchers will study the effects of LED lighting on children’s ability to complete tasks and interact with each other and their teachers. Pulay is working with NAC Architecture on the project.

Because of challenges with processing sensory information, people on the autism spectrum are known to be particularly sensitive to lighting, she said. Architectural codes and guidelines don’t specify the color of LED lighting that a school building should use, she said.

“Rather, classroom lighting is frequently designed based on specific levels of illumination, with little attention paid to color considerations,” she said. “If we as designers can specify a product that is already available and in use that can have an impact on student behavior and, therefore, their academic success, that can have some profound impacts. If we could specify something that would improve student outcomes, that would be highly beneficial.”

If we as designers can specify a product that is already available and in use that can have an impact on student behavior and, therefore, their academic success, that can have some profound impacts.

Alana Pulay, assistant professor
WSU’s School of Design and Construction

Pulay came to academia after working as a professional interior designer, including as a designer of school facilities, and has focused her research on how to make classrooms work better for students. In a small pilot study, she found that a change in lighting had a small, but statistically significant, effect on student behavior in the classroom.

In this year-long study, the researchers will compare the effects of two different colors of commonly used LED lighting on the classroom behavior of about 20 students with ASD. Throughout the study, the students will use their normal classroom. The classroom provides a good study opportunity because it is in the interior of their school building with no available natural lighting, said Pulay.

The LED lighting will be switched out every month, and the researchers will use a data collection tool that is commonly used in the education field to observe and measure aspects of the students’ behavior during the study period. Observations of youth are used as a way to measure student academic achievement instead of scholastic tests for children in this age group.

“We’re focusing on this population because it would be beneficial if we can help to fully integrate them into the classrooms and make the classrooms accessible and inclusive for everyone,” she said. “It would help all student learning outcomes.”

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