George Lucas Educational Foundation
Learning Environments

10 Common Flexible Seating Myths

An elementary teacher who has been using flexible seating for over a decade responds to the concerns he hears most frequently from other teachers.

September 3, 2019
Student reading a book in a flexible seating environment
John Thomas / Edutopia
A student at work in the author’s classroom

During my 14-year flexible seating journey, I’ve taught a mix of first through third grade classes, including multigrade classrooms with up to 28 students. I’ve encountered plenty of challenges, but through research and some trial and error, I’ve been able to create a sustainable flexible seating environment that is differentiated for my students’ needs.

The path has not always been straight, but when I see the impact flexible seating has on my students’ focus and learning, I’m certain the journey has been worthwhile.

The Reality Behind 10 Misconceptions About Flexible Seating

1. I have to buy my own furniture! Every piece of my classroom’s flexible seating was funded—by the school or through grants, donations, and crowdfunding. I’ve received funding from private grants, DonorsChoose.org, and the federal Rural Education Achievement Program.

I’ve also added small amounts to my regular budget requests by reducing some supply item lines to make room for flexible seating options. And when my school has needed to replace desks, tables, or chairs, I asked if I could give up some traditional furniture and spend the funds on flexible seating, which got me six standing desks.

And then there’s old-fashioned scrounging: I found one table in storage, and someone donated a coffee table.

2. Some students just can’t handle it! You’re right, some can’t—at first. Moving to flexible seating is a process that must be intentionally taught. Sometimes I have to tell a student they can’t use a seating option, and I have traditional options for this reason. But I always give that student another try with flexible seating. It typically doesn’t take long for them to meet the expectations. It’s good to keep some traditional seating anyway—there are those who prefer it.

I’ve written more on interactive modeling and expectations for classroom management, and I find California middle school teacher Laura Bradley’s article on managing older students’ use of flexible seating useful as well.

3. My room isn’t big enough! With the right options, flexible seating can be done in any size classroom. It can even create more open space if done thoughtfully. Stand-up desks take less space than traditional ones because there’s no chair footprint. Table or desk legs can be removed to make kneeling workspaces that don’t require chairs. Students of all ages love sitting in nooks and crannies around classrooms—on carpet squares or cushions on the floor, behind bookcases, or under tables.

I have a lightweight, folding adjustable-height table that I store away behind a bookshelf. Plastic gaming rockers can stack with a small footprint, and rubber wiggle cushions or vinyl seat pads on traditional seating don’t require more space.

Try adding a few things that don’t take much room, and keep adding from there. It took me 10 years to fully transition to flexible seating due to space and money restrictions.

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4. Flexible seating won’t last—it’ll fall apart! Traditional furniture is expensive and heavy duty for a reason—it gets used for almost seven hours a day, 180 days a year. Unfortunately, most educators don’t obtain enough funds to buy heavy-duty versions of flexible seating options all at once, so I suggest buying a small number of sturdy school-grade items whenever possible—it will just take a few years to complete the switch. Patience is a virtue, right?

For the last several years, I’ve found the funds to get three to six wobble stools each year, and I now have flexible seating options that will last decades.

5. I need flexible options for every student! My flexible seating journey began 14 years ago—I was supporting students with dyspraxia and ADHD who had weak core strength and needed to move. I worked with our occupational therapist to get OT seating tools written into the students’ IEPs. Then I asked our OT for an additional tool to share so every student had a chance to try one out. The students with IEPs benefited the most, but other students liked the options too. For several years, I had only a handful of flexible options, until I found ways to fund my whole classroom.

6. The fire marshal won’t let me use fabric furniture or pillows! There are dozens of fire-code-safe options. I have no fabric seating—my students use stand-up and kneeling desks, plastic wobble stools, vinyl cushions, plastic scoop rockers, and rubber wiggle cushions.

I was told I could have pillows if I applied fire-retardant spray. Work with your fire marshal to ensure that you’ll be able to use whatever your school purchases.

7. Students need to learn how to sit in desks for the real world! Have you been in a staff meeting with a teacher who chose to stand in the back or a college course where someone sat on the floor with their back against the wall? Do you like to read while sitting on a chair with one leg folded under you, or lying on the floor? So do some students, no matter the grade.

Sitting still in traditional seating can be challenging. People who have trouble sitting still may not take a desk job for a career, but if they do, knowing about tools that can help will be key. Seat cushions, ball chairs, standing desks, and more are available in many workplaces. And flexible seating encourages the collaboration and communication that will be necessary in that future workplace.

8. Students will be overstimulated by all the wiggling and wobbling! Typically those students who would be overstimulated choose seating in a quieter area of the room. I’ve seen these students face their seating toward the wall to help themselves focus.

Classroom expectations should be clear: Flexible seating must help all students retain focus, and students must be mindful of how their movements affect not only themselves but others as well—for reasons of both safety and focus.

9. My substitute teacher won’t be able to handle the class! I make sure my students know the expectations around flexible seating in the first six weeks. I intentionally teach each piece of seating, and students know what is expected of them, no matter who the adult in the room is. My rule is that if I hear that a student had difficulty utilizing flexible seating with a guest teacher, they will lose the flexible seating privilege for a while—but this has not happened in the 14 years I’ve had flexible seating.

10. Flexible seating can’t be used during standardized testing! I’ve searched the Smarter Balanced standardized testing requirements and found nothing stating that students must sit in a chair at a desk. Check with your standardized test administrator to be sure your state, test, or district doesn’t have specific seating requirements.

I’ve known some teachers to use libraries, large multipurpose instructional areas, or conference tables and chairs during testing. My students in grades 1 to 3 perform considerably better when they can use flexible seating during assessments because they use flexible seating during all learning situations and assessments. So I say assess away and let the flexible seating benefit not only student learning, but also student assessment.

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Filed Under

  • Learning Environments
  • Classroom Management
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary