Do you want to try flexible seating in your classroom but you aren’t sure where to start? Maybe it’s not the right fit for your classroom management style. Let us walk you through how to start alternative seating options in your classroom so you can decide for yourself if it’s the right fit for you.
Hint hint! It’s not right for everyone.
Our goal is not to convince you to try flexible seating, but instead give you a realistic idea of how flexible seating can be a benefit to your students, problems you’ll encounter and what you should think about before you go buying yourself flexible seating furniture.
What is flexible seating?
Getting students engaged in their learning can only happen when students have their brains and bodies relaxed and ready to learn. Being uncomfortable, anxious at agitated makes all learning stop. It’s like the fly in the staff meeting that keeps landing on your notebook. Who cares about test results and district policies when there’s a fly harassing you (although there is limited engagement at the best of times for those kind of staff meetings)?
Flexible seating is about giving everyone choices about where they sit to work. Generally as an adult, you do this naturally. You choose the place where you can work the best and you tend to avoid places that are distracting or uncomfortable.
Flexible seating in the classroom allows students to start to learn about their preferences and how they are able to work best.
What are some of the flexible seating options?
Guess what? Not all students like to work sitting at desks. Do all adults grow up to sit in desks all day? Is there a rule somewhere that says students have to sit in rows of desks?
We hope not, because we’ve broken that rule. Here are some of the seating options in our room:
- desk with chair
- desk with a chair with a wiggle cushion or a Hokki stool
- on the floor with a clipboard
- at a table in the classroom with a chair
- in a “box”-iffice (a cardboard divider around the desk)
- bean bag chair with a clipboard
- chair at a counter
- sit in the window seat (sorry to anyone without one of these)
- sit under the counter (there’s no cupboard there)
- at the quiet desk in the storage closet in our room (it’s bigger than you think-used to be a resource room)
- with or without sound blocking headphones
- with or without classical music headphones
- in groups or pods
- sitting or standing
- out in the hallway at a a desk/table
- in the library (during certain times or projects)
- choose your own spot (kids love the floor)
Flexible seating does not have to cost money, so how do we do this?
How do you make this happen when you have no money to fund it? Lack of money has never been known to stop a teacher from giving the best for all students. But, you don’t have to spend your own money to furnish your classroom. Moreover, flexible seating is a mindset. Having cute furniture will not result in students magically learning to manage themselves.
We brainstorm all the possible seating choices and make a list. All of the options are things already in our classroom. We do not buy any extra furniture. Students try out the different options they like or do not like or what works best for certain situations. So, we might try a day where we all do our reading in a spot on the floor. Students who liked it write their name in the list next to that option. We reserve the right to veto choices when work is not getting done or students are distracting others.
Of course there is a time and a place for different parts of the day. There are a set of guidelines we follow. Not every space is available for every activity. During testing, everyone is in a desk (possibly with an alternate chair) where they can work alone. During guided reading students are working with their groups in different parts of the room.
And students who abuse the privilege of choosing their own spot to work are placed in places they can learn to focus before being allowed to make independent choices.
Here are some more options for flexible seating with very little money.
- Need a hard surface for writing? Can’t afford laptop tables or clipboards? Textbooks or large books work just as well.
- Don’t want kids sitting on a dirty floor? Make “cushions” by wrapping newspapers or old towels in a plastic bag and masking tape it shut. It makes a durable, waterproof, somewhat softer than just sitting on the floor cushion. If you want a fancy one just search how to make a sit upon. There are lots of recipes out there that you can make WITH your students.
- Another option is to have tablecloths or picnic blankets available. These can be tossed in the wash when they are dirty. We also contacted a carpet store one year and asked if they would donate their out of stock carpet swatches. We were given 30 squares of the ugliest carpet that we used for all kinds of seating. FREE! And most of the squares have lasted several years.
- Arrange your desks or tables to naturally provide alternative places to sit such as in groups or individual spots.
- Write a letter to parents. We explained what we were trying to do and allowed students to bring items from home to make seating more comfortable. Donations of a yoga mat, two blankets, a few chair pillows and a small bench arrived. We realize this isn’t an option for everyone, but it might be a place to start-especially if you’re experimenting with the concept. If you can show that it works when you have no budget, your administration might be willing to pay for some of the big ticket items to bring your ideas to light. Best of all, you can send items that aren’t working back home.
Flexible seating is more about classroom management than physical space.
Establish the 5Ws.
- Where can students sit/not sit? It’s important to provide limits.
- What is the expectation of work that will be done? You know what your students should finish. If they aren’t getting the work done, the seating option isn’t working properly.
- Who can sit together/not together? Some students need more help than others learning who they can work with.
- When will flexible seating take place? It doesn’t have to be all the time. When will it not happen?
- Why is flexible seating an option? Why are you doing this? Does it work?
The biggest factor in whether or not flexible seating will work in your classroom is whether or not you have strong classroom management. Students need very clear expectations for what happens if they are not working from their chosen spot. You need to be consistent in the consequences that are given when your expectations are not met.
If you don’t have strong classroom management, flexible seating will not work for you. And that’s ok.
Flexible seating requires organization.
How do you keep students and their many belongings organized when students are not assigned a specific desk?
Handing Things In
How do you want to take in assignments? In our classroom, everything goes in one Hand-In Bin. Regardless of what subject area, whether it’s a form, assignment, note, drawing or books-it all goes in the hand-in bin. This bin is featured prominently on a table at the front of the classroom. We sort through the bin. Usually, we have a student sort the items in the bin for us.
Each subject area also has a bin for student books. We keep these bins on a shelf. Once assignments are marked, they go in the subject bin. These items all get handed out the next time we have that subject. Students help hand out books or work (if there is no grade on it). Student work that is marked is handed back by us to ensure privacy for student grades.
Pencil Cases-Not Boxes
Where do you want to keep pencils? Students have two cloth pencil cases. One for their writing tools such as pencils, pens, scissors, glue and erasers and the other for their colouring gear (which we store until needed).
Cloth cases make far less noise when students dig through them or are dropped. They are portable and small enough to be stored easily. Students are expected to have their pencil case with them wherever they are working. If a student has destroyed their case during the school year, they are gifted a plastic zippered bag.
Books, Assignments and General Stuff
Where will students keep their personal items? Each student has a bin (those dishwashing bins you can get at Canadian Tire or the Dollar Store). Students choose a place to keep their bin on one of the shelves in the room. Bins are labelled with the students’ names and they can be swapped around the room as needed.
There is enough room to keep the current things they are working on, their pencil cases, library books and other odds and ends. Bins are too small for those students that hoard paper to keep all that paper, so they generally stay clean. They are also portable enough that a student can have their bin with them if they are working in one area of the classroom.
What else? Our students also use a binder for Language Arts which contains everything they need for reading and writing assignments. These are stored on a shelf together. Binders are generally used to store reference materials and organize completed assignments in our classroom. All of our student binders fit on two shelves of a shelf where we also keep textbooks.
Oddly Shaped Weird Stuff
What else? Occasionally you’ll be working on a project that just doesn’t fit. This happens. We have a flattened cardboard box that has been taped into a folder shape so students can place larger pieces of paper in it. Tuck this behind a shelf so it doesn’t get bent or stepped on.
We also use the window ledge, tops of shelves and any other odd spot we can find when we are working on odd-shaped items. Sometimes we’ll temporarily designate a tabletop as storage overflow space. We keep art projects in a larger bin which just gets tucked on a shelf in our storage closet while we aren’t working on them. We take a lot of photos and videos of student projects and then SEND THEM HOME!
What if you don’t have enough room? To make room for all the stuff that needs to be on shelves, we made room by packing up some of our unused stuff. We rotate out our classroom library, so only a few shelves are dedicated to books at a time. Only materials for the current units are in the classroom. The rest is carefully stored in our storage closet and at home. We keep all the extra supplies for students in boxes tucked away so there is never too much stuff accessible. Less stuff to manage=less mess.
Is flexible seating right for you?
Flexible seating is naturally more noisy than traditional desks in rows. Students have more time to chat with each other, but if your students are chatting more than working, the seating might not be the only problem. Take a look at your lessons and decide if they are engaging. Look at your classroom management and student expectations. If those are in place, chances are adding flexible seating to your classroom will improve learning even more.
But, if your classroom is already on the brink of chaos, flexible seating will enhance that, too!
Students in our classes are used to flexible seating. We’ve used it for eight years and have no plans to stop now. It works for us, but just because it works for us, doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for you. Do your research. Think it through and remember you can always go back to a more traditional setting (but don’t spend any money until you know for sure!)
What questions do you still have about flexible seating? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll do our best to answer them.