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.
Classroom Arrangement Tips
It’s a fact—there is no one-size-fits-all solution to classroom seating. Class size, student behavior, and the teacher’s lesson plans greatly affect how a classroom should be set up. Of course, it’s usually up to the teacher to decide how to arrange the classroom, and that typically involves some degree of trial and error. To help you decide what configuration is best for your students, check out the benefits and drawbacks of these popular classroom setups.
Stadium-style seating involves angled rows of student desks that touch on the sides. This common desk arrangement faces all students to the front of the room, ensuring everyone has their eyes on the teacher and the lesson.
Pros: The primary benefit of stadium seating is that the teacher can see what every student is doing at all times because everyone is facing the front and is in clear view. Likewise, every student also has a clear view of the teacher, ensuring everyone can see what’s happening. Because students are already next to each other, group work can be done quickly and easily. The advantage of angling the rows rather than leaving them straight is that it’s easier for students to see the front of the room and also leaves some space at the front of the classroom for a podium or AV cart.
Cons: Although stadium seating works well for smaller class sizes, it may not be ideal for larger classes as the rows would need to be farther away from the front of the room to accommodate more students.
Horseshoe- or U-shaped seating is ideal for seating a large number of students without taking up the entire classroom. In a U-shaped configuration, students are seated side-by-side and can be easily separated from their friends if necessary. This arrangement allows you to utilize more wall space around the desks for other purposes.
Pros: The horseshoe shape enables teachers to fit a large number of desks in a small space, making this an ideal configuration for larger classrooms with more students. Students are more separated from each other in this configuration, making individual work easier and preventing students from getting distracted by one another.
Cons: The same benefit of spreading students out can also be a negative aspect of this classroom arrangement. Because children are so spread out, it can be difficult for a teacher to address the entire class directly. It can also make group work a little trickier since desks cannot be moved around the room as easily as they can be with a stadium configuration.
Runway-style seating involves 2 rows of desks facing each other with a good deal of space between them, forming a "runway." In this setup, the teacher stands in the runway during lessons and can walk up and down freely while speaking.
Pros: This setup emphasizes paying attention to the teacher. This configuration is best-suited for classrooms that hold a lot of lectures and class-wide discussions.
Cons: Due to the amount of space it takes up in the classroom, the runway-style configuration is not suitable for large class sizes. This type of grouping can also make group and partner work tricky.
Clusters or group seating works well if you have a smaller class and include a lot of group activities in your lesson plans. This grouping may not work with larger classrooms because it encourages collaboration, which you may find difficult to manage if too many students constantly get off-task.
Pros: This type of configuration can really save on floor space, and it’s great for supporting group activities. After all, everyone is already in groups! It doesn’t get much easier than that.
Cons: Students may be more likely to chat in this configuration, so you may struggle to hold their attention. This arrangement is distracting for many, so it may not be right for every student.
Hybrid seating involves a combination of the arrangements listed above.
Pros: Hybrid seating is very flexible and allows teachers to accommodate specific student needs. Remember what we said about there being no one-size-fits-all solution? This arrangement allows teachers to accommodate specific children with specific desk arrangements.
Cons: This style can be tricky to accommodate since it requires special procedures for passing out and collecting papers and supplies.
NBF's Back to School Survey Findings
With the help of social brand ambassadors in the education space, National Business Furniture distributed a survey around Back to School to better understand the unique set of challenges educators are facing this school year. The survey also shed light on solutions and advice for educators, from educators. The survey ran approx. two weeks (from July 23 - Aug. 7), and 1,160 responses were collected from educators across the country.