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Flexible Classroom Seating Guide

January 4, 2021
Kelly L
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At first I couldn’t imagine a classroom without desks, but once I learned more about flexible classroom seating, I was intrigued. I adore the idea that students can be comfortable and move around while learning in the classroom. Can you imagine going into a coffee shop and seeing rows of desks as the only place to sit? Me neither! But be warned, if you can’t manage a class of students sitting at desks, then there is no way you can manage it with them scattered across the room. So before you jump on the alternative seating bandwagon, make sure you can implement an effective classroom management plan. I've learned a lot in the process that I want to share with you so you’ll be ready to tackle flexible seating and reap the benefits.

Teacher Insight: Even with an effective classroom management plan, much of the success depends on your students. I dove in with both feet and had no intention of going back, but one year my students had trouble with flexible seating. I share ,ore on that as I share my experience at the end of this post.

What Is Flexible Classroom Seating?

Flexible seating, also called alternative seating, is all about creating a more inviting learning environment by having a variety of seating options for the students. Typically this means less desks and more bean bags, couches, rolling chairs, standing desks, and exercise balls (to name a few). The physical setting of your classroom should be comfortable and accommodating for students of all heights and sizes by giving them the choice to sit where and how they want. The students can then move about throughout the day depending on the project at hand and how they are feeling. It’s completely up to the student, as long as they are being respectful and following class rules.

Does Flexible Seating Really Work?

Studies have found that regular movement and comfort improves a students ability to focus and learn, and that’s what flexible seating is all about. Science Direct has found that flexible seating is a win-win situation for both the students and the teachers. Teachers can accommodate a wider variety of classroom activities, and the students are better able to learn because they are moving more and can focus for longer periods of time.

Still feeling unsure that this can work? Think back to when you were in school… Sitting hour after hour on that rock-hard chair, rocking back and forth, trying anything within your means to get comfortable, resorting to watching the minutes slowly tick by until you could get sweet relief at recess. Once I remembered how terribly uncomfortable desks were for me, it made alternative seating a whole lot more appealing for me to give a try. Here’s how you get started.

Getting Started with Flexible Seating

Although you can’t choose which classroom you get to teach in, you can choose how to set it up. As you consider how you want your classroom layout to flow, know that flexible seating is also flexible in how you implement it. In fact, it’s a good idea to roll it out slowly to the students as you set expectations and teach how to use items appropriately (what I wish I had done). Otherwise the children may feel like they are walking into an indoor playground and will act accordingly (what I experienced). It’s completely up to you, but there is a process that every teacher should go through before buying that first yoga ball. Follow these steps to make sure you set up flexible seating right.

  • Be Purposeful .
  • Create a Wish List
  • Design Your Layout (Keeping a Phased Approach in Mind)
  • Purchase Items
  • Set Expectations
  • Refine Your Classroom Management Plan

Don’t worry, this list isn’t nearly as daunting as it might seem. It will go a long way to making flexible seating a success in your classroom. Make sure to go through all the steps before buying anything. There’s nothing worse than spending your hard-earned money on something that doesn’t work.

Be Purposeful with Alternative Seating

It’s so much fun to let the creative juices flow freely and dream up the “perfect” setup. However, just because you have a lot of cool chairs to choose from doesn’t guarantee that it will work well. Every choice you make for your flexible seating needs to have a thoughtful reason or purpose to it. To get started, grab a schedule of a regular day in the classroom and as you scan through the day, imagine what would be the most comfortable and engaging way for students to learn the lessons and do the tasks. Don’t worry about specific types of seating. Think about whether it would be good for them to be standing, working in groups, kicking back and relaxing, or working at a large table with others. Write down any ideas that come to you and keep these in mind as you discover all the different options available to you to start creating your wishlist. Talk to the teachers from the year before. Get to know your students before they even walk into the room. Think of your students and what their needs are. Do you have any autisic students or ADHD students? Does anyone have any sensory needs? Step back and envision your flexible classroom.

Create a Wish List

Now that your mind is primed to only choose items that will work well for your students. Take the time to research what will best help your students succeed? Anticipate how your classroom will flow. Design a basic layout and make your wish list. This will help you know what you would like to obtain and how much to acquire. The easiest way to do this is by inspecting other teachers who have set up their flexible seating. Here are some examples to get you started. These setups are some of my own, colleagues, and others I found publicly shared on the Internet.

Classroom Flexible Seating Examples

Bin setup example for flexible seating in the classroom

See all the bins and baskets. If you’re an elementary teacher, these are a must for keeping each child’s supplies organized. I chose the Better Homes and Gardens 16-Cube Organizer that comes in white or black and holds medium file boxes (see a sideview of it in the first picture). I used my Cricut to put their numbers on both sides so the students could easily see them. I also labeled the numbers on the organizer so they knew exactly where to put their box back when finished. Little details like this go a long way to better managing your classroom. These medium file boxes are the perfect size to put 2 in one square. This is what I used for the students to keep all of their personal supplies. When the students needed their items out of their boxes I would call them in groups of four to keep the area calm and focused.

yoga balls with swimming pools as braces for flexible seating
Gaiam Kids Stay-N-Play Children's Balance Ball

Under the semi circle table you can use yoga balls with braces. The little swimming pools are the brace to keep them from rolling all over the room. Had I found them earlier I would have rather used ones like Gaiam Kids Stay-N-Play Children's Balance Ball that has stabilizing legs on the ball.

Additional bin setup for flexible classroom seating

You may want to have nooks that work well for reading or keeping things organized. My students absolutely loved this area pictured above. The couch was their favorite but they loved bean bags too. If you have a choice on a couch then I do recommend going with a faux leather couch to easily wipe it off. Trust me on this!

YAHEETECH Modern Folding Futon Loveseat Black Faux Leather Convertible Couch
A variety of desks heights and chairs as a flexible classroom seating example.

Notice the many options of different table heights for students to choose from. I found that my students one year loved the standing table. The next year they loved the lowest table. My lowest table was a square coffee table I found on Facebook marketplace for a super price. You really can find deals anywhere, just keep your eyes out at all times.

Another example of flexible seating for group and individual tables.

Stools are great to put around tables for students to easily sit the way they want without being conformed to a chair.

Stadium seating example for a classroom.

Here you'll notice the stadium seating, and a large rug for getting all the students together. I recommend one at least 9-10 feet in length depending on your class size. I also loved using a small portable whiteboard as you can easily move this around the room wherever your kids are working.

For your wiggle worms who need a chair, these seat wobble cushions worked well for me. Check out the little knobs/bumps on them to provide sensory input and can effectively help children stay focused and sit still. These are especially suitable for kids with ADHD or ASD as it helps to absorb their energy and therefore allows them to sit still for longer and stay focused for longer periods of time.

More Examples from Twitter

As you make your wishlist and create your design, decide how you could implement it. For younger students you will want to bring out the new seating in stages. Trust me on this. Start with different chair options and practice with your students on how to use it appropriately. Trying to train them on everything at once will be quite a task for certain ages. The older grades will be much easier to start with more available flexible seating.

Purchasing Items for Flexible Seating

When you were looking at all the flexible seating examples, this question may have crossed your mind, “How do teachers afford to do this?” This is usually the most frustrating part because getting all the items you want can get pricey. That’s why you see many teachers go with lower-cost seating options like rugs, crates, and yoga balls with braces. With your list in hand you can then estimate costs, prioritize your list to get the most bang for your buck, and then work on purchasing the items.

Funding can come from a wide variety of sources:

  • Look for deals.
  • Ask for donations.
  • Ask other teachers, friends and family for items.
  • Scour garage sales and thrift shops.
  • Use crowdfunding campaigns like DonorsChoose
  • Apply for grants from local and national foundations.

I found some of my items at Goodwill, Walmart and Amazon. A lot of times you can get the best deals from shopping online.

Here are some examples of teachers getting funding, so go for it and see what happens!

Set Expectations to Refine Classroom Management Plan

Flexible seating is very exciting for both the teacher and the students. However, the classroom needs to be very organized and structured. You will need a well managed classroom, otherwise you will lose all control. Your classroom management plan must think of everything as students have a lot of “wiggle room” so to say. When introducing the students to the classroom you will quickly see they need to be taught very explicitly how to use each seat or area, along with your expectations for them in the classroom. You must model appropriate behaviors for each area and seat in your classroom. Post posters to show students how to appropriately use the seats in all areas of the classroom as you introduce them.

Classroom flexible seating can and will take a while for the students to make good choices about where they should sit to be successful. Once they realize where they can focus and stay calm the most, it will get easier. Using classroom flexible seating is definitely worth the battle in the beginning, as I have seen my own students grow by leaps and bounds from problem solving with each other.

Here are my Classroom Rules for Flexible Seating:

  1. Pick A Seat That Fits Your Bodies Needs Best To Learn.
  2. Use Seats Appropriately
  3. Take Care of Community Supplies When Finished
  4. Ask Teacher to Switch Seats
  5. Flexible Seating is a Privilege: A Teacher Can Ask You To Move At Any Time
  6. Quiet Work Unless Teacher Says Otherwise

My Experience

Many educators think flexible seating is more enjoyable as a whole for their classroom. I concur to a point. In my flexible classroom I have observed more thoughtful conversations, better peer relations, more teamwork, and fewer frustrations. All because the students are able to collaborate in groups, plus they are able to release their energy through their movements.

However, sometimes you just have a class who can’t seem to handle having a flexible classroom. One year my class would continue to talk over and above me at all times. That year, over Christmas break I decided what was best for my students was to add desks back into the classroom. Mind you, they had been warned that would happen before I did this and it still did not stop their chatter. So back to desks they went. Sometimes flexible seating works and sometimes it doesn’t. Go in strong and practice, practice, practice. Starting small helps also. Slowly add more seating or table options for the class.

Parting Thought

With flexible seating my students enjoyed coming to school and collaborating with each other, all while having a choice and some control over their environment. Flexible seating allows students to choose where and how they work and with whom. Giving students choices about their physical classroom space teaches them higher-order thinking skills.

Students can easily find their best spot to stay calm, focused and productive when using flexible seating. One of my teacher friends once said, “There is no better way to show students your support than by creating a classroom from a child’s point of view.” We all know that being comfortable is important and “comfortable students” are “engaged students.”

Most teachers who use Classroom flexible seating say they will never go back. Consider your situation and give it a go! Classroom flexible seating is enhancing learning for all ages and is here to stay.

Teacher Kelly
Kelly L
Whether you're a teacher or a parent, the strategies that I share are the ones that actually work for helping you manage kids in the classroom or the home. They took me years of trial, error and refinement. This is the resource that I wish I would have had as a new teacher. Nothing would make me happier than helping you have a blissful experience in your classroom day after day. Cheers!
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About Kelly
Teacher Kelly
Kelly here (that's me on the right), I'm the teacher behind Classroom Bliss. My hope is that no one has to go through the years of struggle I had as a teacher before finding the strategies that actually work for managing a classroom and enjoying teaching. This site is a true shortcut to success for teaching and running a classroom. Nothing would bring me more joy than helping you make your classroom a true bliss... one where you're excited to go to work each day!
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