5 Steps to a Flexible-Seating Classroom
Last updated on August 17th, 2021
The benefits of flexible seating in K-12 education aren’t just a bunch of hype.
Listen to this elementary student’s enthusiastic review:
“Our flexible seating classroom helps me focus and have fun while learning. It’s improved my grades, too!” During the 2016-17 school year, this student’s teacher did a total redo, transitioning her Grade 5 classroom from traditional school chairs to flexible seating chairs.
Hold on, though. Don’t let the phrase “total redo” undo you. Introducing flexible or alternative seating can be easier than you think. Foremost, it can be a gradual and/or partial transformation over time.
To learn more about the benefits of flexible seating, take a look at the top 10 benefits of flexible seating.
Plan, Don’t Panic
What’s important is having a plan, according to Dianna Radcliff, the aforementioned fifth-grade ELA teacher and technology specialist. Doing so has made her a convert to flexible seating.
“A flexible seating classroom cultivates an environment for better health and better education. My students enjoy being in my classroom, and by giving them the power of choice, I now have their undivided attention at all times.”
Here’s how she created a flexible classroom-seating utopia in five easy steps.
Step 1: Make the Mental Shift
Introducing a flexible-seating arrangement first requires a mental shift for teachers, administrators and parents. The extent will correlate to the amount and type of flexible seating that lands in the classroom. Often, the shift is harder for teachers than for students.
For teachers, Radcliff advises first visualizing the end goal of your room arrangement, then embracing small changes along the way. She says teachers must get comfortable in relinquishing some amount of control to students.
“The biggest mental shift is that it’s not your [the teacher’s] role to decide on the arrangement. It is now the students’ classroom. Having a student-centered classroom means your room will resemble how 10-year-olds [or the age you teach] feel most comfortable.”
She added that most teachers will have to let go, step back, and facilitate following the students’ lead. Doing this can be tricky, but teachers do so for the benefit of students mentally, emotionally, physically, and most importantly, academically.
Step 2: Inform Parents (and Principals)
Assuming you already have approval from your principal, it’s time to inform parents. How you do this will vary, based on the age of your students.
Some schools may already have a few flexible seating classrooms, so parents are familiar with the concept. For other schools, it may be an entirely new concept, so more parental education is required.
Radcliff introduced the idea to parents during her Florida school’s open house. She spoke about it and shared information through a brochure and flyer. Naturally, parents wanted to know the nuts and bolts of how Radcliff would maintain effective classroom management with flexible seating, i.e., could the students handle the autonomy?
Here are other questions to anticipate:
- What are the benefits of flexible seating?
- How do you select the types of seating and the overall arrangement?
- How do kids get to decide their spot?
- How often will they rotate among choices?
- How do you keep kids focused if they’re not sitting uniformly?
- How will this arrangement work with testing?
- Will you keep any traditional desks and chairs?
- What happens if my child can’t handle the nontraditional set-up?
Looking for more information on the Flexible Seating?
Step 3: Introduce Flexible Seating to Students
For Radcliff, the transition to flexible seating happened gradually, and only after students were following basic classroom procedures. Using a student-centered approach for the next step was essential.
Open Minds. Midway through the first nine weeks, she introduced the idea of flexible seating to her students. They looked at different photographs online of types of flexible seating in other classrooms in the United States.
Rules and Safety. Radcliff then had two mini-lessons. The first was “What is flexible seating in our classroom?” The second was “The rules for flexible seating in our classroom.”
Most rules are pretty basic. As another elementary teacher explained, “It’s very simple in my classroom. You either sit right or you don’t use the comfy seating. I don’t have any problems. The students want it as bad as I do, so they follow the rules.” The teacher also posts those rules for all to see.
Fair is Fair. Students of all ages will jump on how to keep seat selection fair. Radcliff says her students decided to rotate every Tuesday upon entering class. Other teachers create fun visuals, such as charts with magnets, so students can see how everyone will get rotated through a first choice, second choice, etc.
Step 4: Begin the Transition
The general consensus among online teacher-chatter is to introduce one new style of seating at a time. Again, this may vary based on the age of students. Teachers also report that it’s helpful to personally demonstrate the proper way to sit and be dramatic about the wrong way.
Here’s what one teacher offered: “Maybe take one learning station at a time and change the seating in that station until everyone has had multiple attempts practicing the correct way to sit there. Then switch out seats at another and so on until you’ve got it how you want it.”
Radcliff transitioned her classroom from September to October, switching out one table group of desks at a time. During that span, she allowed all students to try each new flexible seating option. She also left two regular student desks for those who still preferred traditional seating.
Finding seating options involved some footwork and tenacity. Radcliff found alternative seating at garage sales, in discount stores, via online shopping, and by asking parents for furniture donations. She also used an online fund-raising site and asked for money contributions.
Here’s what her flexible seating menagerie (minus a partridge in a pear tree) included by the close of the school year:
- 10 exercise balls
- 6 stack stools
- 4 butterfly chairs
- 2 camp chairs
- 2 futons
- 2 lap desks
- 2 traditional desks
- 2 video rockers
NOTE: K-12 furniture manufacturer, Smith System®, offers numerous seating options for creating a flexible-seating classroom environment. Consider Smith’s active seating chairs like Flavors® school chair line including the Noodle® chair that moves with students, or Oodle®, its new stackable stool line. The company also offers adjustable café-style tables and chairs, lounge-style seating, and collaborative desks.
Radcliff says that she continues to do traditional whole group lessons on a large carpet with her chair and easel by a smart-board. She places the flexible seating options in other places throughout her classroom.
Step 5: Evaluate and Modify
Education is never static, and the same holds true for flexible seating. A new student might arrive, a new school year begins, students forget some rules over break, a new seating option is added or an older one is retired.
This makes ongoing evaluation and modification essential. Radcliff says she regularly reviews the rules of seating choice with her students. Initially, she went through this process at each step, until the entire room was transformed. But, she reports, it’s all been worth it.
“How can I expect them [students] to sit straight and still all day in an uncomfortable desk and chair if I can’t even do that?” Flexible seating has helped her achieve the best practices for students in a complete student-centered classroom.
“I’ll never go back to [all] traditional seating,” concluded Radcliff, who says her students’ parents are pleased, too.
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