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How to Stay Flexible and Create Optimal Seating in Your Classroom

These 9 tips will help you decide what kind of seating works best in your classroom.

seating

There are so many factors to consider when creating a seating chart: age, academic skill, gender, friends, enemies, role models, behavioral issues, students on IEPs, students with language-based disabilities, quiet students, loud students, distracted students… the list goes on and on. That's why I'm sharing a couple of seating tips and tricks to help you run your classroom as effectively as possible.

1. Change things up!

I find that students are able to do different things depending on who they sit with. For instance, maybe I have students in one grouping for two months, and when I change it, all of a sudden I hear significantly more math talk. Or perhaps I change a grouping and someone who has never spoken in reading now has lots to say based on conversations with her new desk partner. Worst-case scenario: I change the seating and everything falls apart.

Changing up the classroom encourages student engagement, lets kids converse with a variety of peers, and promotes differentiation. Additionally, the organization style you use for the physical desk setup can make a big difference. I typically prefer clusters of 4-6 desks to promote conversation—and with an even number of students, each person gets a “desk partner.”

Other configurations to try could be a double or single horseshoe, rows, or a circle.

2. Be flexible with your seating and when plans go awry.

Before even getting into specific seating chart “do’s” and “don’ts,” know that sometimes—even when you have the best intentions and thought-out plans—kids will throw you for a loop. There have been times when I structured my seating chart in a way that I thought would result in the most well-behaved, perfectly partnered kids, but I completely forgot that Johnny is out of the room for 90 minutes each day.

"Allow yourself to be flexible with your seating choices, and know that things may not work out perfectly on the first try."

So many factors slip our minds as teachers because there is only so much we can remember! Allow yourself to be flexible with your seating choices, and know that things may not work out perfectly on the first try. This flexibility also shows students that it’s okay to change things up.

3. Go homogenous (sometimes).

Teachers often wonder if their seating should be homogenous or heterogeneous. The answer is that both can be great options, depending on the goal.

I choose homogenous groupings for book club work, intervention times during the day (periods where students are all working on differentiated assignments), and for specific types of partner work. Partnering or combining students based on ability can be very helpful in getting those high-achieving kids to extend themselves while also giving yourself time to help lower-achieving students.

It seems like many teachers believe that all groupings must be heterogeneous, but if something is not consistently helping kids get what they NEED, don’t do it!

4. Go heterogeneous (sometimes).

While I like to create homogenous groupings for various activities in the classroom, I try to make my actual desk groups heterogeneous in order to promote the most learning.

When you group students of varying abilities together, you’re bound to get more interesting results than when you group kids homogeneously. In a desk group of six, I like to have two kids from each of the three levels (high, middle, low). This is because as an elementary school teacher, math lessons are typically my highest priority. Why? Because kids need to be talking about math, sharing strategies, and discussing solutions with one another in order to learn.

If I have a whole desk group of kids who won’t understand the lesson until going through it a few times, they also won’t be able to discuss the material. By placing these students with classmates who grasp math concepts immediately and others who ask questions, I find I get the best conversation.

I’m also always thrilled when I see kids helping one another, especially when it ends up being the opposite of who I expected to be the helper and helpee! Long story short: in my opinion, heterogenous desk groups work best.

5. Don't put too much pressure on "role model" students.

Seating can be tricky when you want to prioritize emotional needs rather than behavioral ones.

As educators, we always want to refrain from placing the burden of “role model” onto the same child/ren over and over. Well-behaved kids deserve the chance to learn independently of their ability to provide structure and peace in the classroom. It is not their job to maintain decorum at a table group; it’s ours. Sometimes I think teachers forget that just because a role model student is willing to help difficult classmates, it doesn’t mean they should have to.

That being said, you’re bound to have a group of easygoing, friendly, and smart kids who will be a good influence when seated adjacent to your toughest cookies. The tough kiddos often distract those around them, so to place a child on an academic IEP right next to a child on a behavior plan may result in a loss of learning for both. In some cases, depending on the behavior of the student in question, it may actually help them to be placed near a friend.

6. Allow for friendships.

Teachers often subscribe to the notion that they must separate all close friends at desk groups because all those kids will be doing is goofing around. Fortunately, this is not always what happens.

"Use your best judgment, and don’t assume that best friends will automatically spend all their time fooling around."

After a certain point in the year, you know which students you trust in certain situations and which ones you don’t. Some students’ friendships actually facilitate better writing, math discussions, or reading comprehension because their level of comfort allows them to take risks.

Granted, there will still be students whose friendships are too silly and disruptive, making for unsuitable partnerships. Use your best judgment, and don’t assume that best friends will automatically spend all their time fooling around.

7. Help the fidgeters.

This tip is probably one of the most important yet disregarded strategies to consider while planning classroom seating. I know that I always forget to take into account students with ADHD and major distractibility when I think about heterogeneous seating. I typically start with academic level, move to social/behavioral needs, and then stop there.

However, we need to be thinking about the kids who can’t sit still! Here are some ideas for physical tools that may be helpful to our fidgeters:

  • Standing desk: Let the kid(s) stand up to help with movement. Position this desk in a way that doesn’t distract or block other students from seeing the board.
  • Stress ball: Give the child/ren a discreet stress ball, and go over the rules of using it very clearly. Make it known that this is not a toy.
  • Resistance bands: Wrap a resistance band around four chair legs or two desk legs, and let the student(s) move it with their feet to release energy.
  • Sensory seat cushions: Put an inflatable sensory seat cushion on the child/ren’s chair. You can find versions of these at many retailers, and they provide an outlet for kids to wiggle around and feel sensory stimulation, right from their seat.
  • Velcro: Stick velcro (soft side, rough side, or both) on the underside of a desk for tactile sensory stimulation.
  • Get rid of distracting, unhelpful items: You know that kid with 17 erasers, 94 index cards, 2 extra notebooks, and 45 pencils? Yeah. Get that stuff out of there and put it away. Maybe even create a whole new system for that kid in which they can’t keep any unnecessary items inside a desk.

8. Rug seating may require you to switch your strategy.

If you work in an elementary school, chances are you have both desks and a rug area. Seating at the rug feels very different than at desks for a number of reasons: the kids are sitting cross-legged instead of up on a chair; they’re all right in front of you; they’re all very close to one another, especially as they get older and bigger; and so on.

In my experience, students’ flexibility (literal, physical flexibility), sense of personal space, and distractibility all come into play even more on the rug than at their desks. I try to avoid assigning “rug spots” because I hope my students will make wise decisions, but when necessary, I do assign seats using the same guidelines outlined above: I try to make sure everyone has a turn-and-talk partner, and I try to account for fidgety kids.

"Keep in mind that everyone can gather around a particular spot without all being seated in the exact same manner."

One of the most important things to consider with regard to rug seating is flexibility. Some kids just cannot focus sitting on the rug and must be in a chair. As a teacher, make this work for you! I sometimes have 6 or 7 kids pull over a chair with the other 14 or so on the rug. If it helps them learn, let it happen!

Have a conversation with the kids about rug seating and behavior to ward off potential problems, and allow for flexibility. I know if someone told me to sit cross-legged and listen to a 10-to-15 minute lesson, after about five I’d be squirming all over the place! Keep in mind that everyone can gather around a particular spot without all being seated in the exact same manner.

9. It bears repeating: be flexible!

When it comes to teaching, no two classes are the same. No two DAYS are even the same! Remind yourself that it is okay if your seating arrangement fails, and that failure will help you realize what your kids need. Promote conversation, differentiation, and new friendships by changing up your students’ seating every couple of months, and if something isn’t working for you or your students, feel free to do it differently!

How do you do seating in your classroom? Have you embraced flexible seating, or do you stick with a chart? Share your thoughts with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google+.

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Want more from this author? Check out Lisa's tips for implementing meaningful classroom rules, how to approach homework, or watch her classroom management video series!
Author Bio:

Lisa Koplik is a fourth-grade teacher at the Greenwood School in Wakefield, Massachusetts. She loves teaching math, reading intense read-aloud books that promote complaints when she has to stop reading, and figuring out educational games to play with her students. Check out her videos on classroom management!

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