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Classroom Management Via Flexible Seating

Jordan Catapano

The traditional classroom environment features standard desks arranged in neat rows and columns. Students have their assigned seat, and each day they are expected to find their regular desk and remain seated there throughout class time.

But there are other ways of facilitating classroom management that break the classic desks-in-rows environment. Some teachers opt to rearrange desks into circles or pods, and other teachers allow students to sit where they please. And yet still others are adopting a new model of classroom arrangement known as flexible seating.

We can often forget that we face a practical problem in classrooms: Where should all these bodies go when they arrive in this limited space? Classroom environments are often bounded by physical constraints -- walls, furniture, and lots of people. How should they be arranged each day?

“Flexible seating” offers an array of classroom management solutions to this practical problem. In its broadest sense, it refers to how “Flexible” a classroom’s options are for where students go. Maybe students sit where they please. Maybe they don’t need to sit at all. Or maybe options other than traditional school desks are available.

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The Classroom Management Advantages of Flexible Seating

When we think about a typical classroom on a typical day, what do we picture? It’s likely that we imagine students sitting. Students sit a lot. Author and educator Brad Johnson observes, “Is it any wonder that children are bored, off-task, disruptive, or otherwise disengaged when all they do is sit at desks and listen to lectures or work on assignments with little physical activity involved?”

Steve Boyle, one of the co-founders of the National Association of Physical Literacy, which aims to bring movement into schools, additionally says, “Kids aren’t meant to sit still all day and take in information.”

While students can certainly learn while sitting in a traditional desk or chair, sitting for too long has negative health and mental effects that we must remain aware of. Johnson goes on to state that simple changes in body position help develop balance and alter body chemistry.

While teachers can focus on incorporating more physical activity in classrooms, one far simpler approach that offers similar advantages is to arrange for flexible seating in your classroom. This gives students the opportunity to change their posture, move around, fidget, and stand, all within the context of learning. Instead of remaining in their traditional desks and rows for potentially hours at a time, they have a chance to use their bodies in a way that comfortably supports the use of their minds.

Eric Jensen, author and educational consultant, writes in “Moving with the Brain in Mind,” “Teachers need to engage students in a greater variety of postures, including walking, lying down, moving, leaning against a wall or desk, perching, or even squatting.”

In addition to making changes in posture to activate students’ minds, there are other benefits of flexible seating. As Brooke Markle, a middle school instructor who brought flexible seating into her classroom, remarks, “The classroom environment should mirror what students will encounter in their future careers, and collaboration, problem solving, and meaning-making are at the forefront of most job descriptions. Standard desks situated in rows do not foster open communication and collaboration.” 

Many teachers who have implemented flexible seating have noted an increase in conversational, informal collaboration between students. The conventional desks-in-rows-facing-the-teacher setup can feel an awful lot like cubicles. Flexible seating breaks down those walls and allows students to work comfortably with one another. Not only can this seating contribute to better collaboration, but it also opens the door for teachers to engage in new teaching strategies that would be inhibited otherwise.

Finally, students learn to take more ownership of their classroom experience. Students actually get to decide for themselves where to go and which posture suits them. Instead of having a teacher dictate you-must-sit-exactly-here-the-whole-time, students have the opportunity to cater to their own preference in a contributive and responsible manner.

How to Facilitate This

Some educators are concerned about classroom management in a flexible seating classroom. While they agree that students sit for long periods of time and changes in posture may improve learning, they want to know how they can best manage a flexible setting to avoid conflict, confusion, and distraction. 

  • Make it the Norm. When something is part of the regular routine, it is less likely to be a disruption. There is nothing exciting or disruptive about normal. Whatever your seating options and expectations are, make them your norm from the beginning so there is no need to consider them a novelty.
  • Explain the Expectations. How do you expect students to choose their learning space? What if two students want the same spot? What if a student wants to stand, change locations, or invent something new? Take time from the beginning to make sure that students understand the purpose of flexible seating and the way it is meant to work in your class.
  • Let Students Take Responsibility. Flexible seating requires an extra dose of responsibility in terms of how students work together, choose their spaces, and clean up after themselves. Allowing students to take ownership of their space doesn’t just mean they get to cater to their preferences; it also means giving students responsibility to care for their surroundings.
  • Ask for Feedback. And as you’re giving students responsibility for their space, it’s important to also let them have a voice regarding their seating. Regularly ask them about their experiences and ideas. You can even send surveys home to see what their parents think, too.
  • Stay Flexible. Teachers should anticipate staying as flexible as their seating. You will navigate new issues related to instruction, management, and focus. Continue to tweak your arrangement and make adjustments slowly so there is time to establish norms and routines related to your classroom space.

Different Furniture for the Flexible Seating Classrooms

Here are some of the different furniture and setups teachers are using in their classrooms. Flexible seating classrooms usually have some combination of these.

  • Bean bag chairs
  • Standing desks
  • Balance ball chairs
  • Low tables (for sitting on the floor beside them)
  • High tables (with stools)
  • Benches
  • Isolated seating (for students who prefer to be independent)
  • Round tables
  • Floor pillows
  • Area rugs
  • Lap desks
  • Camping chairs
  • Scoop chairs
  • Coffee tables
  • Couches
  • Rocking chairs
  • Wheeled tables and chairs (for moving around)
  • Conventional tables and desks

There is an expansive array of classroom-friendly furniture that could fit your flexible seating classroom. The important thing is to remember your reasons for implementing flexible seating: Changes in posture, increase collaboration, new instructional opportunities, and student ownership. Staying focused on why you want to incorporate flexible seating in your classroom helps you identify the physical pieces that will allow to you do this the best.

Educator and writer Justin Randys summarizes flexible seating like this: “Ask yourself why you’re rearranging your space: Are you just doing it for the sake of it? Of course not. You’re “creating the circumstances” where your students can learn, grow, and succeed.”

What are your thoughts on flexible seating, and what ideas can you share with others to successfully implement it in the classroom?

Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s instructional development committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish.

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