In college, my professor made a comparison between schools and jails: by design or by accident, they're built on similar structures. You have your lunch time. You have your yard time. You're arranged in rows. There's a big desk at the front of the room where the teacher--or warden--sits. Days, weeks, months, and years follow a formula and expectations are set; in time, these schedules are set on auto-pilot. Nobody asks "why," they just "do."

Upon graduation, young adults are released into a beautiful, vibrant world where they can grow and flourish in their individual ways. They can choose what to do and how they do it; they’re allowed to ask why and make their choices accordingly. Without understanding how to evaluate and make decisions, they may become stagnant. They may not realize consequences or, conversely, the positive impact of a well-considered decision.

Because learning is a life-long process, it doesn't make sense to completely ignore a child's agency. My students step into their fourth grade classroom at an age that is deeply formative but still so wildly imaginative. They're capable of experiencing so many emotions but they may not know why they feel that way. They don't realize that positivity and happiness can be the result of a choice; they don't even realize that their lifetime will be full of choices.

Introducing flexible seating was a way to give every student the power to think for themselves, even if that choice is small. It isn't about creating the illusion of choice-- it's real. We split up the school day to best accommodate different modes of learning. When we have lessons, we all move to a carpet at the front of the room, coming together to gather and learn. When it's time to work independently, they scatter about the room, deciding what will work best for them.

This is their flexible time. At the beginning of the year, I teach them how to sit in the various types of rockers, yoga balls, and desks, telling them that a yoga ball isn't for bouncing and a rocker isn't for play. When worktime comes around, they migrate to the seat that they think will work best for them, having explored the options and realized on their own that they know what they want.

"Kids are so transient--so mobile--in todays world."

As with everything new, my personal journey through implementing flexible seating has been just as much of a learning process. There were events that I learned from and, over time, I figured out how to make this project work for my classroom, my students, and my teaching style.

After my first year of teaching in a traditional classroom, I saw students squirming and fidgeting in their seats and began thinking "how do I let them move?" From there, it started with four yoga balls and continued to grow. The next year, I abandoned the desks completely and fully integrated flexible seating. As idealistic as this may have been, it didn't account for kids who work best with a simple chair and a desk.

"I had a student who walked in and said, 'oh my gosh, this feels like a house!' and that was the best compliment - I had this four wall cinderblock classroom- but it felt homey."

Adjusting my plans, I brought back a few traditional desks and chairs; they're just as important as the other options for the kids who prefer them. At the same time, I brought even more active pieces into the classroom. Using even more yoga balls, rocking chairs, cushions, wobbling stools, camping chairs, and more. The options expanded--kids were even allowed to sit at my desk!--and every child could explore and see what worked best for them. They saw what was the most fun or most productive and they learned what they didn't like.

Meanwhile, I saw a shift in students' behavior. The fidgety students were able to subtly meet their need to wiggle, the troublemakers were preoccupied, and the class as a whole benefitted from the freedom. During worktime it was easy to see who was paying attention, making it easy for me to concentrate on each student as an individual.

"I can see everybody, and I can see who's listening"

Every student is a unique individual with unique needs. Every student wants to feel comfortable and safe in their school-- they don't want to feel constrained or imprisoned, as if they're in a jail. Flexible seating doesn't just color the landscape of my classroom; it is a way to preserve the kids' individuality and expression without taking away from the importance of learning.

It still isn't about the illusion of choice-- it's about the power of choice and how it will be important for the rest of their lives. Starting small with the ability to choose a seat, we pave the way for more choices and more ways that these kids can define their place in the world. We're seeing more and more teachers move to flexible seating patterns. More than a trend, it has become a movement that kids and parents have embraced. Even if it's just one part of a happy and healthy classroom, it has made a positive impact for the teachers and students who have embraced its benefits.

The future is flexible. It has always been flexible. Students face more opportunities than ever and shifts in the modern classroom are just one way to encourage growth. Learning is a life-long process and there isn't one singular path that one may take. Stay flexible; stay active in the journeys ahead. The option to grow makes all the difference and sometimes it starts with a seat.

The "What, When, and How" of Flexible Seating

We've all heard of flexible seating. It's a growing trend in schools across the country—especially those that embrace innovation and creative change. Endless pictures on social media show how teachers can configure their classrooms to make learning both exciting and effective. Literature, blogs, and think pieces explore the flexible movement, but what, at its core, is it all about?

Many people have questions, and, having used flexible seating in my elementary school classrooms for several years, I have answers. They all boil down to this: by giving students choices to enhance their comfort, they can do better work and feel better.

What Is Flexible Seating?

Flexible seating is, essentially, a way to diversify seating options in the classroom while allowing students to choose what will help them do their best work. Different kids have different needs—some fidget, some prefer something squishy, and some prefer a gentle rocking motion. Provide several options, and let the students decide what works best for them.

When Do Kids Use Flexible Seating?

In my classroom, we divide time between gathered learning and independent work. Kids flock to a carpet at the front of the room during lessons and group discussions to learn together. My students are young, so I am with them for their core subjects. No matter the topic, we learn together as a group before moving to in-class work time.

When we finish a lesson, students disperse and choose a workstation. Depending on the assignment, the difficulty, or even the day, kids can choose the appropriate place to suit their mood. Each seating style may have its perks and problems for each student. However, one kid's last choice may be another's favorite.

What Types of Alternative Seats Are Available? 

My journey with flexible seating began with yoga balls. I saw photos of imaginative classrooms in bright colors with yoga balls stationed at various workspaces. At the start of every year, I typically have about 12 of them. Since they're bouncy, round, and fun, I start by teaching kids how to properly sit on them. I tell them, "I shouldn't be able to hear your yoga ball" if they move too much.

Some kids prefer other active seating options, such as floor rockers or inexpensive scoop rockers. Others prefer softer options, such as cushions or modular shapes that can be stacked and moved to fit their needs. They can even sit at the teacher's desk. Different teachers employ different techniques and select suites of seats that are age-appropriate, size appropriate, and suit the demographics of their classrooms.

What About Traditional Desks and Chairs?

Some students prefer traditional seating to aid in their concentration. While nobody has a dedicated desk that's exclusively "theirs," there are several desks to work from as they desire. In my classroom, kids keep their personal supplies in one particular desk and use that as a touchdown point throughout the day. That all changes during flexible time—any desk is up for grabs, and everybody has equal access to any workspace. 

How Do You Ensure Fairness During Flexible Worktime?

Yoga balls sound like the most fun, don't they? While some students don't prefer them, many do—especially when they're first introduced. We take an egalitarian approach if the interest outweighs the opportunities. Students can sign up for their use, and we cycle through them as needed. Of course, the appeal of yoga balls may wear off over time, and kids will usually find their perfect fit. Some will stick with yoga balls; others will move on.

There's always added interest when I bring in any new piece of furniture, no matter what it may be. I take a similar approach and ensure that everybody can take their turn and, as always, interest evens off after a while.

Does Flexible Seating Affect Students’ Behavior?

Absolutely. Over time, I have noticed behavioral issues decrease, especially as the students learn to collaborate and share. If kids feel comfortable, they're far more likely to open up and become willing to learn. Kids who struggle with sitting still tend to benefit from subtle movements that can meet their needs without derailing their concentration. Overall, flexible seating leads to happier students, and happier students are better learners.

Choice is notoriously absent in K–12 education, yet it is necessary in the real world. Flexible seating isn't just done; it's taught. And by its nature, we're also teaching children how to make decisions that work best for them. They take control of their best interests—a lesson that can't come from a textbook.


How to Introduce Flexible Seating to Your Classroom

From allowing students to make their own choices to bringing more active movement into each day, there are many good reasons to add flexible seating to your classroom. Although this education trend is relatively new, myriad options are available in this category. Where do you start? Read our quick tips for how to introduce flexible seating to your students.   

Determine the Needs of Your Students 

Consider the number of students you have and their individual needs. Will you replace old furniture or simply add to it? Although some kids thrive in fully flexible classrooms, others may require a more structured setup. Many teachers prefer hybrid classrooms with both traditional desks and flexible options.  

Not only will you need to think about the learning needs of individual students, but you’ll need to consider different lesson plans as well. Do you want students to sit or stand during group exercises? Do you want them to use alternative seating options only during individual reading time? Only during group lessons? Every classroom is unique, and it’s up to you as the teacher to decide what setup will work best for your kids.  

Visualize and Measure Your Classroom 

Take a close look at your teaching style and consider where in your classroom you want your flexible seating to go. What areas of the room are underutilized? What can you rearrange to accommodate new furniture? Once you’ve determined where in your classroom you want your various alternative seating options to go, measure the space to determine what chairs and tables will be able to fit in the area when purchasing classroom furniture online.  

Introduce the Options to Your Students and their Parents 

Whether you go with exercise balls, wobble stools, couches, swivel chairs, or another active seating option, you’ll need a game plan to introduce them to students and their parents. Your kids will be very excited when they first see these seating options in your classroom, so it’s important to set boundaries and model them right from the start. The first week or two may be challenging, but remain firm and consistent, and your students will reap the benefits soon enough. 

Although introducing flexible seating to your students is important, explaining your choices to their parents is just as crucial. Because most parents did not have flexible seating when they were in school, they are likely to be unfamiliar with the benefits of alternative seating. It’s important for you as the teacher to educate parents so they understand why flexible seating will help their children learn.  

Make Plans for Substitute Teachers 

One of the biggest concerns teachers with flexible seating classrooms have is introducing the rules to substitutes. If you have a hybrid classroom with traditional desks and alternative seating options, you may find it easier to keep students in their traditional chairs during sub days. But if you only have flexible seating in your room, it’s best to write out instructions for your substitute that are as detailed as possible to avoid any confusion or students taking advantage.  

Remember that this is a major shift in your classroom setup, and there will likely be a steep transition period as you and your students get used to a new way of doing things. By preparing yourself for this transition and establishing clear expectations, you’ll set yourself and your students up for success from the very start.  

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