I have lived four decades on this earth, and still, there is nothing more intimidating than that moment of walking into a room and wondering… where am I gonna sit? Throw in the changing bodies and brains of adolescents, mixed with a social media landscape rife with tension, and it is nothing short of an emotional minefield.
This is why I’d like to promote the concept of the seating chart—and yes, I mean at the high school level! In my time as a teacher, instructional coach, and assistant principal, I have witnessed the value of this strategy.
As author Brené Brown stresses, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
Seating Charts Create Clarity for Students
What we need to realize is that there is an implicit seating chart every day when teenagers walk into a room. A student will want to sit by their friends on the day when they’re getting along, but not when they had a fight last night. One student is wondering where their bully is going to sit and how they can avoid that without making a scene. Another student is wondering where the cool kids sit. Nobody wants to sit by that student. Another student wants to focus and sit away from their distracting peers but doesn’t want their peers to know that.
Once students get over the initial—and natural—response to an assigned seating chart, they can settle into the routine of learning with a lot less drama. They appreciate the clarity, and predictability, that allow them to focus on academics rather than on the social scene for that class period.
Designing seating charts for clarity:
- At the beginning of the year in your introduction survey, ask students about conflicts in the room that might impede their learning.
- Collaborate with other key stakeholders who might better know the social dynamics, such as prior teachers, counselors, and administration.
- When analyzing the behavioral communication of students, observe the impact of the seating arrangements.
Seating Charts Create and Communicate an Intentional Space and Place
Priya Parker’s book The Art of Gathering addresses how important this is for whatever event we are hosting. And our class period is an event we host every day for a specific purpose. Walking into a room that has a seating chart, especially after a free passing period, reminds students that they have entered—what I call in my class—a sacred space for community and learning. This acts as an invitation for students to recalibrate and arrive fully.
Designing seating charts that communicate intentionality:
- Use seating charts as an intentional social and emotional learning activity. Starting with an inclusion activity and ending with an optimistic closure are great ways to build strong peer-to-peer relationships in the designated seating groups and communicate that this is a place where we know one another and are known.
- Your seating chart should serve the intention of your lesson(s). When the goal is solid relationships and safer collaborative experiences for students, create a “home group” seating chart for a full quarter or trimester. When the goal is student-led discussion, rearrange the room in a circle with assigned seats. When the goal is an independent assessment, assign students in rows. When the goal is to ensure that students are owning their thinking every day, regularly use randomized seating. When the goal is differentiation, use homogeneous assigned groups.
Seating Charts Make Academic Learning More Accessible for All Students
Many students who receive additional support for language, learning difficulties, or physical differences often have listed on their accommodation plans “preferred seating.” Assigned seating ensures that a student with vision struggles sits where the best sight line is, a student who needs someone to translate directions sits next to a reliable peer, a student who is easily distracted sits away from the door, a student in a wheelchair has an appropriate area set up, etc.
- Be aware of and honor all support documentation for a student.
- Collaborate with other key stakeholders such as assistants, nurses, and support teachers.
- Ask students what they need.
Seating charts foster optimal behavior choices from all students. Students more often than not want to do well; they really do. But unfortunately, their frontal lobe development doesn’t always allow for this.
Assigned seating charts allow for the teachers to ease the burden for students to behave appropriately. If a student struggles with paying attention, sit them near the front. If they struggle with side conversations, give them two assigned seats: one for independent work that’s isolated and one for collaborative work with a group. If they are negatively influenced by a peer, sit them on opposite sides out of each other’s sight line. If they are having a rough day, sit them in a quiet corner for their own little space.
Leveraging Seating Charts for Optimal Behavior
- Avoid using seating charts as a reaction to frustration or as punishment. When they are a regular part of your instructional strategy, students see them as a beneficial tool rather than a weapon.
- Accept that it is better for you to be unpopular because of where a student has to sit, or not sit, than it is for them to be unpopular by visibly making that choice for themselves.
- Just as with academic learning, monitor the efficacy of your seating charts through data and feedback, and then adjust accordingly.
Seating charts offer opportunities for the teacher to communicate “the why” to students. High school students need to know the why, and they love when they are invited behind the curtain of our actions. Be visibly and consistently metacognitive about all of your seating strategies. When I am new to a group of students, there is always the eye roll and grunt from students when I tell them that I will use seating charts. But then I tell them why I do it and how I do it at various points of the process, and slowly but surely they buy in.
Seating charts may seem old-fashioned, but they can revolutionize the high school classroom experience!