Like thousands of other teachers, I find the idea of flexible seating intriguing. Watching students squirm in uncomfortable chairs each school day is reason enough to see that a shift in the way that we design classrooms is necessary. However, like so many other promising ideas in education, being in a rush to implement can create even more problems. In fact, there are some serious pitfalls to be considered before tossing out student desks. In this except from the fourth edition of The First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide, I offer some suggestions about creating flexible seating.
"Although the idea of providing flexible seating options has customarily been more common in the younger grades than in secondary classrooms, it is a concept that is gaining in popularity in all grade levels as school districts recognize the importance of activity and student choice in promoting student achievement. In classrooms where there is a flexible seating arrangement, teachers create student work spaces in place of the traditional rows of student desks.
Just a quick search of online images for classrooms with flexible seating arrangements reveals the endless possibilities and variations available to teachers interested in flexible seating. In a typical classroom with flexible seating you could find arrangements such as:
· Soft cushions, bean bags, and chairs of all types
· Work tables for students to share
· Cubbies and bins for shared materials as well as for individual student storage
· A small work space area for the teacher
· Rugs and carpets to delineate specific work areas
· Balance balls, wobble chairs, stools and other options for student seating
Instead of being expected to sit quietly for long periods at a desk, students in classrooms where there is flexible seating can choose to sit, to kneel, to stand, to lean, to lie on the floor, or select another option their teacher designs for them. There are several unmistakable advantages to flexible seating arrangements in classrooms.
In classrooms with flexible seating, students can
· Choose the work space that appeals to them
· Learn to make good choices about how to work efficiently
· Move around and be more active as they work
· Be comfortable instead of restrained as they learn
· Remain on task while working because they are engaged and focused
While the benefits of flexible seating arrangements are unmistakable, there are some important negative aspects to consider, especially for first-year teachers:
· Other teachers may not be as open to change as you are and therefore not able to offer help and suggestions based on their experience.
· Switching from a traditional classroom arrangement where the furniture is already provided for you can create storage problems as you eliminate furniture.
· Your school district may not provide you with the funds to purchase the new equipment that you need, and the cost for many teachers (even those who are thrifty and inventive) can be significant.
· Classroom management problems may be an issue at first as you and your students adapt to new spaces and ways of thinking about how to work productively.
· Flexible seating requires experimentation, tweaking, and careful planning at a time when you are already dealing with many other classroom issues such as instructional planning, building positive relationships, and classroom management.
Despite these negatives, the advantages of flexible seating arrangements are unmistakable. If you decide to use flexible seating, here are a few suggestions to make the process a bit easier:
· Make changes very gradually and after careful consideration. Add in a shared work space. Provide a comfortable chair or two. As students adjust to these and as you learn how to manage them well, you can then make other changes.
· Safety should be a first concern. Furniture that has been purchased by a school district has been vetted for safety issues, while furniture you purchase has not. Some districts do not allow teachers to use classroom furniture that has not been purchased by the district. Check with your supervisors about the changes that you are planning to make before you begin implementing them.
· Expect to rethink classroom management. Different spaces require different behavior. What was unacceptable behavior in a traditional space may not be unacceptable in a space where there is more student movement and interaction.
· Continue to make your classroom as transparent as possible. Make sure your supervisors and the parents or guardians of your students are kept apprised of the changes you make in your classroom.
· Consider assigning spaces and rotating students through the different options at first to reduce student conflicts (they are likely to argue over seating choices), to expose students to the various work spaces, and to reduce student anxiety about having to compete with classmates for spaces.
· Help students make sound decisions about how and where they are most comfortable working. Student choice still requires teacher guidance.
· Students with special needs, IEPs, 504 plans, or other accommodations that require preferential seating need options that allow for those accommodations. You cannot disregard this when planning new arrangements.
· Enlist other teachers who may want to create flexible seating arrangements in their classrooms so that you can share ideas and resources.
· Don’t overspend your own funds. Instead, be patient and look for bargains. If you are committed to flexible seating, work with your district to fund your classroom changes instead of paying for them yourself."