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Flexible Seating in the Classroom

Dr. Rick N. Bolling

Young students and teacher sitting on beanbags in a classroom.Why introduce flexible seating into your classroom? While it is almost automatic to ask why, one should also think about the ‘why not.’ Much of what is done in education is rooted in tradition. Simply because something has been done one way for an extended period of time does not justify its continuation or success. Change is difficult, but we need innovation in the classroom. Flexible seating options are one small step toward innovation.

Think of the classroom seating options during the 1950s, and then think of classroom seating today. The similarities outnumber the differences. Maybe the composition has changed, as wood has been replaced with plastics, but many classrooms still have all students in rows with desk-and-chair combinations that restrict movement and lack padding.

While the world we live in has changed dramatically since the 1950s, why do many educational practices remain stagnant? Time is a valuable resource in education. As such, implementation of flexible seating needs to be researched for its impact on student behavior and achievement. Educators need to make data-driven decisions about new practices that are most likely to impact students in positive ways.

What is Flexible Seating?

With flexible seating, traditional desk-and-chair combinations are replaced with a range of seating options and workstations that aim to increase engagement. A singular definition of flexible seating is not easy to develop as the phrase applies to a wide variety of options.

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In its most simplistic form, flexible seating might involve replacing a few traditional desks with standing desks, desks with moveable chairs, or stability balls for seats. It could also be used only in small-group settings, such as reading centers resembling a living room arrangement or beanbags for students to sit on while reading.

In its purest form, flexible seating replaces all traditional seating with a variety of seating arrangements found throughout the room. Often times, students are allowed to choose seats within this environment. Regardless of form, flexible seating aims to increase activity, engagement, and focus.

What are the Benefits of Flexible Seating?

Students come from diverse backgrounds and situations. As such, it is more difficult for some students to stay focused in the classroom. In fact, movement in the classroom stimulates learning and engagement for most students. Songs that reinforce learning and grab attention are regularly used in today’s classrooms. Many teachers also incorporate movement through dances and exercise at key intervals. Flexible seating offers another potential avenue to maximize engagement and focus.

Proponents of flexible seating argue that movement in the classroom increases engagement, productivity, and, with time, students’ love of learning. Focus is a prerequisite to the learning process. By decreasing off-task time, there is more time for purposeful instruction. Merritt (2014) conducted a study to assess the effects of flexible seating options for preschool students on literacy acquisition and off-task behavior. The study found no statistically significant difference in literacy acquisition, but found a significant decrease in the number of times learning was disrupted to address behaviors.

In addition to potential increases in learning, flexible seating could have potential health benefits as students are not remaining rigid in one position for extended durations. Educators need to reflect on practices. One big question to ask is whether you would want to be a student in your own classroom. I often think about how it is hard for me to remain seated for hours of interviews or meetings. Yet, my chairs often provide movement and padding. Would you want to want remain seated in the chairs in your classroom all day?

Flexible seating reduces sedentary time while the increased movement increases blood flow, oxygen to the brain, and boosts metabolism. Further, flexible seating options are likely to appeal to the sensory needs of some students.

A classroom should be welcoming and inviting. Students spend approximately a third of the day in the classroom. As such, classrooms should be comfortable and conducive to learning. The comfort and arrangement of flexible seating can bring a sense of community and foster collaboration among peers.

Transition time to group work can also be reduced. By easing classroom transitions, there will be more opportunities to appeal to the various learning styles found in a classroom. The classroom environment plays a role in focus. Although collaborative work can unease some educators who fear loss of control or worsened classroom management, it more closely mirrors future job scenarios. How many students will find themselves sitting in hard desks lined in rows performing repetitive processes? Very few, as routine processes are likely to be done through automation. Creativity and innovation will form the backbone of the future job market.            

How to Create a Flexible Seating Classroom

Far too often educators want to operate as independent contractors. Often times, the best professional development opportunities are found down the hall or in a school in a neighboring town. Good advice when creating a flexible seating classroom is to explore what is currently being implemented. If you hear about a teacher who is using this option in his or her classroom, ask your supervisor about being granted some professional leave to explore. Observation will let you see how students work within a flexible seating classroom. Further, fellow educators are likely to offer genuine feedback about both the benefits and struggles when implementing a flexible seating classroom.

Costs to implement flexible seating ideas can vary widely according to the approach. An incremental approach to implementation can have two benefits. First, the costs can be spread out over a longer duration. In addition, teachers can implement a few pieces at a time allowing for greater teacher control and comfort with the change process.

To help with costs, teachers have used grants associated with innovation. Also, as seating needs replacement, the funds that would be used to purchase traditional classroom seating could be used to cover the costs of more creative seating options. High-cost solutions need to be studied so funding is utilized in the best manner. Future studies should continue to focus on the impacts of flexible seating on student behavior and achievement.

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Mar.26.2020


Rick is an elementary/middle school principal and holds an Ed.D. in Leadership.

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