Today we are diving into all things flexible seating. Now flexible seating has become quite the trend over the last few years. And behind many trends, there’s a lot of good behind them. But there can also be things that go wrong. So today I want to really focus on:
- The power of why we do flexible seating
- The importance of including your students in the process
- Ideas on how to fund creating flexible seating in your classroom
Flexible seating is a huge passion of mine and I am so excited to share it with you. So, let’s dive right in.
How my journey with flexible seating has evolved
When I first started teaching 11 years ago, I worked with a wonderful occupational therapist. I talked with her about how I struggled with ADHD and sensory integration issues. But most of the things that she offered weren’t offered to me when I was a student. So, she took me to her room. And showed me all these amazing things that she had acquired to support the students that she worked with.
I just remember feeling like a kid in a candy shop. I sifted through Movin’ Sit cushions, yoga balls, TheraBands, and squishy tools. All of these things hadn’t been offered to me, and I hadn’t actually seen them implemented in classrooms yet. I was just so excited. So, she gave me access to her room. She said, “Whatever you think your students need, just come down, ask, sign it out. And it’s yours.”
I started watching my students and putting myself in their shoes. I tried to think about what might be causing some of the wriggling and behaviors that I was seeing. And I helped myself to this treasure trove of supplies.
The process of finding what worked and what didn’t
I started trying these tools and supplies out in my classroom to see what worked and what didn’t work. And honestly, a lot of it didn’t work. But what really did work was having those conversations with my students about these options, letting them make some of the decisions, and asking them to reflect on the tools that they were using.
So, from that first year, I learned how to listen to my students. And I learned how to engage them in the process. That was a tremendous jumping-off point for me. Over the next couple of years, I started to really be able to better assess what types of tools might be working for different types of kiddos in my classroom. I was seeing a decrease in behaviors and an increase in the ability of my students to focus. And it just felt great.
I was using wedge seats and cushions and yoga balls. We were having spots within the classroom for students to take breaks and giving body break options. We were having really wonderful conversations to help guide students in making different choices. All of these came in my first few years of teaching, and I was just feeling really proud.
Making it available to all students
However, after a few years, I started reflecting on how I was introducing these tools. I started thinking about who I was introducing them to. Through some careful reflections, I realized that I was selecting the students I thought would benefit from the flexible seating model. And it really didn’t sit well with me.
I couldn’t really answer the questions like: Why was I choosing the students who would benefit? What assumptions was I working off of when selecting those students? What biases were informing those assumptions that I was making? And ultimately, why was I giving myself so much power over these choices?
While I was giving a lot of choices and having a lot of discussions with the students I selected to participate in flexible seating, I had essentially ignored the rest of my class. I had ignored the possibility that I might not be meeting their needs. So, it wasn’t too long before I started allowing other students to try some of the models of flexible seating.
For example, if I was allowing some students to lie down on the ground with a clipboard, stand away from peers, or take a break, I started allowing the rest of the class to try it too. I started having the same conversations with the other students that I had been having with the students I selected. And it started turning into a group conversation around these tools. We started talking about what our bodies need and making responsible choices about how we can do our best work.
Allowing students to self-select
The next step was making these tools that I had been offering to specific students open to all students. I started referring to them as “classroom tools” and allowing my students to self-select based on their own needs.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I had this big chest full of toys and I just let students run wild with selecting. There were a lot of discussions that preceded me offering these tools. If you listen to my podcast, episode 10 was all about intentional classroom setup. I talked a lot about introducing routines and materials to our classroom. Introducing our flexible seating options is no different.
So, I started introducing them at the very beginning of the year. I shared about the different options offered to the students. For example, I would introduce a Movin’ Sit cushion and then we would all try them out. Some of my students were repulsed by the idea. They really did not like how it felt. And, other students were able to say, “Wow, this feels really good for me.” And we were able to have an open discussion as a whole class about how that tool made us feel and respect everyone else’s opinions, whether they mirrored our own or not.
We had this conversation with each tool we introduced, and students were able to try out each one and see how their body reacted in a safe space. This was also a really powerful learning opportunity for my students to recognize that each of us learns differently, and we all need different things to feel successful.
Setting up flexible seating in the classroom
As I’ve grown more and more comfortable with having flexible seating, I’ve been able to release a lot of the control that I sometimes cling to in the classroom. And I’ve been able to give my students a lot of control in how we set up our classroom.
So, as we are introducing these tools throughout the first few weeks of school and throughout the school year, my students can tell me what is working for them. If a lot of students feel they’re enjoying a floor space with a lower table, they choose how many tables we lower in the classroom. If there are only two or three students, we only need to lower one. But if there are several that enjoy that option, we need to lower more. Or, if there are more students who feel like visual distractions are really hindering their ability to focus, we carve out different areas within our classroom to offer small nooks that are relatively distraction-free.
My students are choosing if areas in the classroom are working for them. And if they’re not, they’re making suggestions for improving them.
How flexible seating helps with learning
Flexible seating has really enhanced our workshop model, whether it’s in math, writing, or reading because my students are able to focus in the best way possible for them. They’re listening to their bodies and what their bodies need. Their brains can absorb and access all the information they need.
And because we’re having explicit conversations about listening to our bodies and knowing ourselves and what we need, I’m finding a lot of decreases in behaviors and classroom disruptions.
I also find that with all of the front-loading that we do at the beginning of the year, we make up for it and then some by how quickly we’re able to move through content the rest of the year. We aren’t dealing with all the behaviors and distractions.
I personally feel that the investment we’re making in discovering how they learn best and ensuring they know their learning environment, opinions, and reflections are valued, it makes them feel safe. Therefore, it allows them to academic risks.
The importance of understanding the “why” behind flexible seating
There is so much thinking that has to happen behind the scenes to make this a working part of a classroom instead of just following a trend. I know that when things become trendy, there is often a focus on the material aspect of something rather than the pedagogy behind it. I know a lot of teachers may be seeing pictures of flexible seating in the classroom on Instagram, Pinterest, or blogs, and just think it’s a cute idea.
Thinking of flexible seating as a “cute idea” that you want to put in your “cute classroom” is dangerous. When we’re introducing things like lap desks, stools, of floor seating into a classroom without having those critical group conversations with students around the expectations, routines, and about understanding your body and listening to it, we’re not really doing flexible seating. We’re bringing in couches and putting pillows on floors.
First and foremost, students need to be able to understand how to use the materials and tools appropriately, so they don’t get physically hurt. I think we also need to really think about students and picking options that will support them and their bodies as they grow. And choose the right options as their gross motor skills improve, and their fine motor skills improve. You need to do your research on which items to be putting into your classroom and knowing that they’re going to be supporting your students with their sensory needs, physical needs, and ensuring that they can do their best focusing.
It’s not about how cute or fun you can make your classroom.
This also means we need to consider our space
You need to ensure that flexible seating options are arranged in a way that is safe in your classroom. For example, one year I made a huge mistake, and thankfully, I made it before students ever even set foot in my room. When setting up my space, I placed my lower tables in the middle of my room. But what I didn’t realize was that I had also put a bookshelf in front of them. So, when I walked into my classroom, I saw the bookshelf, but I didn’t see the tables behind it. And as I tried to wrap around the bookshelf, I kept tripping over the low tables.
That meant this was not a safe location for those tables. If I was tripping over it constantly, and I’m the one that put it there, other people are going to be tripping as well. It wasn’t going to be a safe space for my co-workers, support staff, parents, or children.
So, make sure that while you are thinking about and considering your flexible seating options, you really think about your floor plan for your room. Make sure that all those pieces flow together in a safe way.
Also, with space, one of the great things about flexible seating is that it actually offers more space. I know a lot of people think you lose space because you’re putting so many things in the room. But the truth is that it’s such a great option for small classrooms because you don’t need as much table space. Students are standing at counters and sitting on the floor. They’re able to pull up whatever means they need to be successful, and for many students, that doesn’t mean needing a table and chair.
Don’t forget about those that need their space
You also need to remember there are students who enjoy the traditional seating options. And those must be made available to your students.
Sometimes a student may enjoy sitting on the carpet for a little bit, but they’re not going to be able to sit on the carpet for six to eight hours. They need to be able to move around during the day. So, your flexible seating classroom needs to be able to have room for students to be able to move around. You have to be comfortable with having a lot of moving parts in your space and you need to have an environment that’s set up for that.
One thing that I didn’t consider early on when I was introducing whole class flexible seating is that there are students who really just need a home base. They need to know where their space is, and they need to claim it as a part of their routine. So, they need to come in and know that space is already there. For some students, the anxiety caused by not knowing where they’re going to sit every day can actually impede their ability to focus. And, since our whole goal with flexible seating is to increase the ability to focus, we need to be mindful that some students will not respond well to the idea of moving around and not knowing where their place is.
So, look for ways to carve out little sections of your room where students can have those spaces without making them feel different or less than for needing that.
It doesn’t mean that they can’t participate in flexible seating at all. It might mean that they bring flexible seating to their space. For example, if I have a student who really needs their own home base, I might offer them a little space. Then, throughout the day, they can bring up a stool or yoga ball or a chair with a Movin’ Sit cushion. They have those options still, even if they want their physical space to remain the same throughout the day.
How to fund flexible seating in the classroom
The final piece I want to talk about with flexible seating is funding. I know that for many teachers, it feels like an insurmountable hurdle in implementing flexible seating.
Yes, there are incredibly expensive versions of flexible seating out there. You can spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on tables and stools and couches and all the things. You could spend a fortune on your classroom to implement flexible seating.
But that’s not necessary to be meeting the needs of your learners. There are plenty of options out there that cost very little.
Inexpensive options for flexible seating
Clipboards are very inexpensive and provide excellent access to flexible seating. Students can lie down on their stomachs. They can sit up with it in their lap. They can bring it over to a counter and work while standing. Clipboards are amazing and are found in most classrooms already.
Other simple ways of introducing flexible seating could include finding the dollar pads at IKEA. Putting those out as an option for students to put on a chair or on the floor, works really well.
I know pillows can get expensive, but you can find them on sale. In the fall after the summer season, you can usually find the seasonal sales for patio furniture. Those types of pillows make fabulous options because you can wash them better. And you know that in schools being able to wash things is so important.
At some of the schools I’ve worked at, I’ve worked with the occupational therapists to have grants written to be able to implement a lot of tools for flexible seating. It has been really wonderful in providing a lot of additional opportunities such as yoga balls, TheraBands, wedge cushions, and other things that might be beneficial to students.
Asking on the classroom wish list
Finally, don’t be afraid to include these items on your classroom wish list. You can also allow your students to add to that wish list if they have ideas that you think would be really beneficial to your classroom that would further allow them to be invested in the process.
Final thoughts on flexible seating in the classroom
There are a lot of ways that you can fund flexible seating in your classroom. It doesn’t necessarily have to come out of your pocket. But before you go ahead and find ways to buy all the things, please really take the time to think about the why behind implementing flexible seating.
Create a plan so that you’re introducing items slowly and students can take ownership of how to use the tools that you’re offering in the classroom. Have those open conversations where students feel they can talk about listening to their bodies in a safe space and creating an environment where they feel comfortable speaking up for what they need. And finally, make sure that you’re planning your space appropriately to ensure that flexible seating is being implemented safely in your classroom.
I hope this has given you a lot to think about whether or not you plan to implement flexible seating in your classroom. If you have any questions, feel free to drop into my dm over on Instagram @jillianstarrteaching. And follow me on social media and subscribe to the podcast to learn more on topics like flexible seating and intentional classrooms.