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How to Make Flexible Seating Work for Your Unique Learners

"Flexible seating" is more than just a trend—it's something many teachers have been doing for years to meet their students' individual needs.

students in flexible seating arrangement

Long before “Flexible Seating” became a buzzword in education, there were teachers who implemented the concept in their classrooms. You might have even been one of them!

Don’t believe me? If you have done guided reading in your classroom, then you’ve probably had some sort of flexible seating available to your students, even without fancy furniture.

The term “flexible seating” has morphed into the idea that teachers must have fun and elaborate equipment like couches, cafe tables, and stools. And many terrific teachers have struggled over the fact that those items are expensive, and so they’re convinced they are somehow depriving their students of something important and necessary.

There is no hard data to support the use of stability balls, balance stools, or other alternate seating options. But teachers know their students, and they know what’s best for them.

"But I didn’t give my student an option; I provided an alternative seat to meet his needs."

Years ago I had a student “melt” in a traditional classroom chair. By the end of our work session, he would be so far down on his chair, he’d almost fall off. Of course, it had an impact on his work. I asked my administrator for stability balls to encourage him (and others) to improve core strength. I was so impressed with the difference that I’ve been an advocate of providing seating options ever since.

But I didn’t give my student an option; I provided an alternative seat to meet his needs.

Over the years I’ve added other seats to my classroom: ottomans, a dorm chair, stools, and office chairs. I’ve replaced most of my traditional desks with tables and placed them at different heights. With each of these adjustments, I’ve experienced varying degrees of success.

As with any changes teachers make in their classrooms, there must be an intentional outcome.

Look at the students in your class: are they particularly chatty? Quiet? Fidgety? Are there students who prefer to work alone? Students who would choose to read silently when they’re finished their work? Others who look for a classmate to work with?

Each of these descriptions provides teachers with an idea of what those students’ needs are.

For kids who need to move, installing a thera-band on the feet of their chair might do the trick. For a petite child who needs the stability of putting her feet on the floor, using a foot stool could work. For a child with medical issues, a more traditional chair might be best. For a student who needs routines and consistency, a traditional desk could provide that. But these changes are intentional, rather than optional. Private conversations took place with any of my students who needed a particular seating “option.”

Even if you’ve never used thera-bands, foot stools, or stability balls, you’ve probably provided your students with options while working independently or in small groups. While doing guided reading in my third grade classroom, I give my students tasks such as writing, reading independently, or listening to reading while I work with my small group. I rarely assign seating because not every option is best for every student. My students have a choice throughout the day to sit where they choose, with the expectation that they're making the best choice to learn. We are never working on the same task for more than 25 minutes. If kids are in a popular seat, they understand that at the next transition to a new activity, they'll need to move to give someone else a chance. It's a process for some.

Each of your students has unique needs. While one person might do well in a dorm chair, another might fall asleep (it's happened!). Ball chairs are great for some, while others just bounce. Rolling chairs sound perfect, until one student starts spinning. It's not about FUN furniture, it's about functional furniture that meets the needs of your diverse learners. With some guidance from you, they have to learn what works for them.

What do you do for seating in your classroom, and how have you adjusted your setup over the years? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

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Want to read more from this author? Check out Amy's tips for managing student behavior, dealing with difficult parents, building a positive classroom community, or learn what special education teachers wish "regular" education teachers knew.

Author Bio:

Amy McKinney, M.Ed., is a third grade teacher in Pennsylvania. She has been teaching for eleven years, eight of them in special education. Her experience working with students with special needs has helped form her philosophy on teaching and collaborating with her colleagues. Follow her on Instagram: @theuniqueclassroom.

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