Case Study: Designing at Boarding School

My experience with a small international school in the NL started one cold November day in 2010. My husband (a teacher) was invited to have a chat about their opening in the English department and they hoped to recruit the pair of us as houseparents a struggling boarding house. Many discussions later, we agreed to make the 2.5 hour move east deep in the beautiful Dutch forest near the German border. We would be in charge of 35 teenagers, run activities, write policy, brainstorm new protocols for effective strategy for the new year in addition to serving as academic support (tutoring/teaching).


For my husband it was a natural progression from his camp counseling days, teaching experience and desire to run a school. For me, it was a great opportunity to explore more user-centered, human factors experience design which the school was quite open to allow me to lead.

I treated it much like any design challenge: observation/inspiration, concept generation, user-testing, iteration, refinement, evaluation and realisation.

With a focus on relationship building, my team used a strategic and ‘rapid prototyping’ process to implement, evaluate and improve strategies for creating a safe and positive environment for our boarding students. In academic speak we “aimed to raise academic achievement” by encouraging creativity and developing the students’ life skills through well-designed experiences. Husband and I were actively involved with observing and managing daily ebs and flows of campus life which informed and inspired our policies and protocols. When something didn’t work, we could adjust. But knowing that instilling consistency was a HUGE need for these students and the school, we focused on clear & open communication and building relationships. If the kids didn’t like us, they were not going to cooperate. There were a number of extracurricular projects that we ran and design solutions that we implemented that I am very proud of.

Creative Mentoring

Chai Tea supplies

Making Chai Tea

Many of the students are expat children and were looking to return to North America for university. I advised several of the senior students in their art/design projects as they prepared college applications, something I hope to do more of in the future. I also lead a ‘creative hour’ which served as a study block alternative for about 10 girls to explore more creative crafty projects still within an educational context. Each week I prepared a lesson around a topic I felt would resonate with the 14 yr old girls and allow me to facilitate discussions around topics like self-esteem, learning, social design and agriculture. This time was not only therapeutic, but a fabulous outlet for team-building.

Community Garden – Teach & Eat


We planted a garden with the kids and taught them about how to plan, prepare and plant something. Most of these kids had never gotten their hands dirty (physically or metaphorically) and were quite excited to use tools and take part in building something. This also gave us a chance to teach the kids about nutrition, food production and cooking. We were able to serve salad from our garden and harvested herbs and vegetables at the end of the summer.

Weekend Exeat – Designing a form that works

Students are asked to complete a form that tells the houseparent where they plan to spend the weekend: either in boarding or away with friends/parents. The results help the houseparents plan transportation, food and weekend activities. The existing form took the students about 30 seconds to complete and the houseparents about 1min to read which dramatically slowed down the process of inputting 32 forms into a master spreadsheet which is submitted to the head office. I saw an opportunity to redesign the form in order to increase efficiency in the task and create a more enjoyable experience for the students. Since the forms were completed on a weekly basis, we had the opportunity to test iterative designs and improve the design and expand its functionality. More on this project here.

Exeat Form Redesign

Exeat Form Redesign


How do you get a kid to clean his room? Give him candy!

How do we motivate kids to maintain clean and tidy rooms in between the official ‘Room Clean’ days (only once a week!). Using positive behavior management, we needed to motivate and reward kids that were ‘getting it right’.

I designed little stickers that we could wrap around candy bars to leave on the pillows of students who kept their rooms tidy. As kids notice their roommate or friend down the hall received candy during the day, more kids began to keep their rooms tidy on a regular basis.

Reinforcing Positive Behavior Through Graphic Design

We have a few students who need extra reminders to do very basic tasks. I learned that the use of charts featuring graphics of simple tasks and behaviors is extensive throughout child psychology practice. However, the range of well designed graphics and charts is limited, so I designed this chart.

behavior chart

Weekend Activities – Budgeting & Engagement

students find pieces for a puzzle

Scavenger Hunt

By the time we entered the school, the weekend activity budget was nearly blown. We were charged with planning low-budget, high-engagement activities for the students who stayed at the school on the weekends. I love budgeting like I love ice cream, so this was no big deal for me. Plus, my accountant mom had me keeping a checkbook record since age 10 and has passed down all the stingy Dutch genes that have helped us save and spend wisely. One thing you realize very quickly is how large the gap is between the 16 yr. old of 2011 and me when you create an activity, build a rewards systems and set time constraints.


 Succession Planning

As we came to the end of our contract at the school, we decided to not return after the summer break. Thus, we turned our attention to succession planning knowing there would be a new team of houseparents arriving in the fall. There’s very little induction or training for new staff, especially for our job as houseparents. There was an old handbook from 2002 that we found with outdated content written in Dutch, so I translated the book and rewrote it based on our new policies and protocols.


The final artifact we created was proposal document that we submitted to the management. It conveyed a strong vision for the future, be visually engaging and offer quantitative solutions that could be implemented in the 2011-2012 school year.

1 Comment

  1. Bessie
    February 23, 2012

    Love the blog