Physical Environment

School Hallway

Physical environment refers to the level of upkeep, ambient noise, lighting, indoor air quality and/or thermal comfort of the school’s physical building and its location within the community.

The physical environment of the school speaks to the contribution that safe, clean, and comfortable surroundings make to a positive school climate in which students can learn.

Physical environment is related to both student achievement and student behavior.

A well-maintained and safe physical environment fosters students’ ability to learn, to show improved achievement scores, and to exhibit appropriate behavior.  

Decent, safe, and secure facilities are essential to successful educational programs.

Creating a positive environment is necessary in order for teachers to teach effectively and for students to be receptive to learning. Facilities in good condition, including low noise levels, cleanliness, access to clean air and water, and absence of overcrowding are not only conducive to learning, but essential for student and staff overall health and well-being.

Physical environment is related to teachers’ levels of absenteeism, effort, effectiveness in the classroom, morale, and job satisfaction.

Dilapidated school buildings contribute to teacher despair and frustration, while building renovations can lead teachers to feel a renewed sense of hope and commitment. Overcrowding and heavy teacher workloads create stressful working conditions for teachers and lead to higher teacher absenteeism. Crowded classroom conditions limit the amount of time teachers can spend on innovative teaching methods and result in a constant struggle to simply maintain order. Thus the likelihood increases that teachers will suffer from burnout earlier than might otherwise be the case.

Physical environment of schools is often mirrored by the physical environment of the surrounding neighborhoods in which they are located.

While the condition of school buildings and grounds is important, the neighborhoods surrounding our nation’s schools are not isolated from exerting influence. The condition of a school’s neighborhood exerts a substantial influence on the school as well as the students it serves. Thus, schools often inherit the difficulties present in their surrounding neighborhoods. The condition of a school often reflects the surrounding neighborhood’s condition. For example, schools with trash on the floors are more likely to be located in neighborhoods where litter and trash are prevalent; schools in which graffiti is evident are more likely to be in neighborhoods with graffiti; and schools with broken windows are more likely to be located in neighborhoods in poor condition.


Earthman, G., Cash, C,, & Van Berkum, D. (1995). "A Statewide Study of Student Achievement and Behavior and School Building Condition." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Council of Educational Facility Planners, International. Dallas, TX.

Corcoran, Thomas B., Lisa J. Walker, and J. Lynne White (1988). Working in Urban Schools. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.

Gottfredson, G.D., and Gottfredson, D.C. (1985). Victimization in Schools. New York: Plenum.

Laub, J.H., and Lauritsen, J.L. (1998). School Violence, Neighborhood and Family Conditions. In Elliott, D.S., Hamburg, B.A., and Williams, K.R. (Eds.), Violence in American Schools. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Planty, M., and DeVoe, J.F. (2005). An Examination of the Conditions of School Facilities Attended by 10th-Grade Students in 2002 (NCES 2006–302). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.



Featured Resources

Cover page of the Mitigating Hazards in School Facilities resource

Guides school facilities staff and administration through the process of assessing the safety and security of school buildings (and surroundings), creating a hazard mitigation plan, and then implementing that plan. This tool also contains links to additional information about safe school facilities.

Graphic of a home.

Guides schools and districts with reducing exposure to indoor environmental contaminants in schools through voluntary adoption of sound and effective IAQ management practices. The Action Kit provides best practices, industry guidelines, sample policies and IAQ management plans for improving indoor air problems at little or no cost using straightforward activities and in-house staff.

United States Environmental Protection Agency
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Provides on-line resources to help facility managers, school administrators, architects, design engineers, school nurses, parents, teachers and staff address environmental health issues in schools. Includes the following: About Schools, Health Buildings, Air and Water Quality, Managing Chemicals, Guidance and Tools, Transportation, and Featured Publications.

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