Designing for the Pediatric Behavioral Health Patient Profile

Over the past year and half or so, we have been working with the Virginia Treatment Center for Children to help them envision an experience and setting that is aligned with 21st century behavioral healthcare models for the almost 200,000 children in the Commonwealth in need of mental health treatment. For this project, we were presented with an interesting challenge – how do we achieve the goal of creating a playful, inviting and (when needed) distracting environment for children of all ages for a unique patient profile – the pediatric behavioral health patient.

By combining our team’s expertise in the field of behavioral health and leveraging recent research, we were able to identify some important interior design principles for these types of settings that guided our work:

Intentional use of color:

While the research on color preferences among children in healthcare settings has been somewhat inconclusive up until this point (Bosch et al., 2012), creating a playful environment for children can help distract and entertain them in the midst of difficult circumstances (Pati & Nanda, 2011). Environments that include positive distractions are often achieved through the use of more intense, vibrant colors. However, best practices for behavioral healthcare settings stress the importance of creating warm, welcoming, and familiar environments to help reduce anxiety and depression as well as create a calming effect (Department of Veteran Affairs, 2014). This is often supported by the use of neutral colors along with those that invoke more natural settings. Therefore, in pediatric behavioral health settings, where anxiety and depression are likely to be more amplified, it is even more important to strike a balance between a subtle color scheme and one that will create a certain amount of energy and distraction. For children with behavioral health issues, colors should lift the spirit but should never be jarring or overly stimulating. Behavioral health studies have shown that brighter colors such as white and light grey are less arousing and less aggression-inducing than darker colors such as black and dark gray. The more intense, vibrant colors typically seen in pediatrics should be used for positive distraction, but applied in combination with lighter accent tones and neutrals for a sense of calm.

At VTCC, in the open area of the inpatient unit we used warm green accent colors that were pooled around the activity zone in the center of the room. Here, tables and built-in seating areas for both kids and staff create space for shared activities. To promote a connection with nature, a graphic wall where kids can look for the butterfly (which is a symbol of the facility) covers one accent wall. A neutral palette of finish materials wraps around the zone of color. In the large open room, the neutral palette indicates a transition to private patient spaces and the area for built-in sleeping benches. The accent color is concentrated in the middle to provide interest and energy, but the surrounding walls are a white neutral to provide a calming balance.

IPU Open Area

A familiar, home-like environment:

Creating a familiar “home-like” environment is more amplified in behavioral health settings as compared to a traditional pediatric setting because environments that feel familiar can help normalize experiences and combat the feeling of being “institutionalized” – a common issue in behavioral health settings. Familiar interior environments can also help calm patients in order to facilitate participation in treatment. Therefore, interior materials should feel soft and comfortable. Accent colors, hardwood floors and furnishings with a more residential look (while retaining a level of quality, durability and safety), particularly in patient rooms, can contribute to de-escalation and be more effective for patient care.

In the patient room at VTCC, we used a wood-look sheet vinyl floor, provided large views to the exterior landscape, used a warm accent color, and had an area for the kids to display their art work in order to create a more home-like environment. In addition, there is a sleeper sofa for parents to stay and cubbies for patients to store personal items or play in.  Natural light, to provide a rhythm to the day, and uniform artificial light, with no significant dark spots, also play a role in creating a safe and normalized environment within the patient room.

Pediatric Behavioral HealthThese are just a couple of examples of the solutions we developed at VTCC. Creating meaningful, healing spaces for the pediatric behavioral health population can sometimes seem contradictory and present unique challenges. However, in working through these challenges at VTCC we have developed solutions that we are hopeful and confident will create an enhanced experience for these patients when the facility opens in 2017.

Learn more about the Virginia Treatment Center for Children >

Bosch, S., Cama, R., Edelstein, E., & Malkin, J. (2012, October). The application of color in healthcare settings. The Center for Health Design. Retrieved from:

Pati, D., & Nanda, U. (2011). Influence of positive distractions on children in two clinic waiting areas. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal4(3), 124-140.

Department of Veteran Affairs. (2014, August). Design guide: Mental Health Facilities. Retrieved from: