George Lucas Educational Foundation
Learning Environments

Flexible Seating in Middle School

Tips on giving your students a choice about where and on what to sit—including ideas about seating charts and classroom management.
Girls work in class while sitting on chairs or the floor.
Girls work in class while sitting on chairs or the floor.
Eighth-grade students in Laura Bradley’s flexible classroom make themselves comfortable to work.
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I was already experimenting with flexible seating in my eighth-grade English classroom when I saw a video about combating writer’s block by working in a box castle.

We don’t have room for cardboard castles, but I could string up “box castle lights” and let students rearrange the furniture into writing forts. My students loved it! They turned tables upside down, built forts with their chairs, grabbed carpet squares to sit on, and settled in to write for a solid hour. They happily cleaned it up at the end of class and repeated the process every extended writing time. The next year my district made a commitment to flexible seating by equipping every classroom with seating options and chairs on wheels.

Flexible seating can add a wrinkle to classroom management, but with careful planning and clear expectations, our students will rise to the occasion and use flexible seating to improve their own learning environment. Here are the ways I’ve addressed classroom management in a flexible classroom.

Seating Chart

My students start each class period in assigned seats arranged in rows facing the front so that I can take attendance, go over the agenda, announce the homework, and take care of any direct instruction. With classes of students coming and going all day, the seating chart provides a smooth start for each group. Even if you teach in a self-contained classroom and can easily take roll no matter where your students are seated, I encourage you to have seating charts so that when you’re not there, your students will be familiar with the seating expectation and your substitute will know who’s who.

Assigned seats also address what is often an invisible issue for many students: the social anxiety that comes with entering a room and not knowing where to sit. Where are my friends? Who will let me sit next to them? Where is that kid who keeps teasing me?

Flexible Seating Options

After our start-of-class routine, students may move their desks (or move to a different kind of workspace) in order to work where they are most comfortable and productive. Often they have the option of working with other students. This flexibility includes being able to move again if their current location isn’t working for them.

Flexible seating options include:

  • Working at tables or traditional chairs with attached desktops
  • Standing at bookshelves or tall tables
  • Sitting on gaming rockers or stools, or on carpet squares on the floor or outside on the ground (weather permitting)
  • Sitting or kneeling on pillows at low tables
  • Sitting on soft seating, beanbag chairs, or couches—some fire codes allow only fire-resistant fabric seating, so check with your administrator
  • Sitting on the floor in work nooks—corners created with bookshelves and walls

You may allow students to use headphones to listen to music while they work (to block out distractions).

Expectations and Class Norms

If we want our students to succeed in a flexible environment, we need to be clear about our expectations. Can they really sit anywhere they want? Does that include on top of tables? Under tables? And what about behavior? Do our expectations change with seating options? I start the school year with lessons and activities to introduce my students to my expectations, including around seating options. My students need to know that after we start each class in assigned seats:

  • With teacher direction, they may move to specified options.
  • With teacher direction, they may work with/talk to others as they work.
  • During work time, they may move to better environments for them.
  • If they are disruptive or not working, they may be moved to a new location.

There are times when we have to go back and revisit the expectations and sometimes make modifications. For instance, I noticed that students would roll their desks back against a wall where I couldn’t see their screens. I didn’t want to assume they were off-task, but I also couldn’t help them with their work if I couldn’t see their screens. So we added the rule that if they were working on devices, they needed to be seated in a way that I could see their screens.

A fun way to train students to move seats into various configurations is with Desk Olympics. Furniture on wheels makes it easier to move from rows to partners to groups to a whole-class discussion circle, but those transitions can be noisy and time-consuming. We practice moving into the different formations, racing against the clock to see how fast we can finish. Extra points for silence!

Classroom Management

What about classroom management in a flexible seating classroom? Do some students abuse the freedom? Of course. Do some students lose some of their seating privileges? Yes, temporarily. But after three years of teaching all levels of middle school students in a flexible environment, I can say that the benefits far outweigh any management issues that arise. Students respond positively to the freedom and responsibility they are given, and they work hard to keep those privileges. But of course we teachers need to plan carefully, communicate clearly, and be fair and consistent in enforcing the expectations. Plan your transition to flexible seating with:

  • A start-of-class seating chart and routine
  • Clear expectations for behavior
  • Guidelines for where/how students may work
  • Consequences for abuse of the seating options

More Resources

For more information about flexible environments, check out John Thomas’s post on flexible seating for first and second graders, and see these resources that he and I put together:

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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Hi Kay, I assign seats but I work in an elementary classroom. I suggest you begin by giving everyone a chance to use every option on a rotating basis. Then you might just see if students gravitate to a favorite and there are not many conflicts. Sometimes I 'm surprised at the choices my students make- not all take the cool and comfortable gaming rockers. Not all like the standing desk options either. If issues arise, then you could coach students to work it out or you may just determine that you just need a weekly rotation. I'm a huge proponent of intentionally teaching the use of flexible seating. Make sure students are clear that it is intended to help productivity and if it gets in the way then the student(s) may lose the privilege of choosing their seat or maybe even flexible seating all together until they can figure out how to manage it respectfully. See my blog post here https://www.edutopia.org/blog/no-grade-is-too-early-flexible-seating-joh... which shares some other classroom management options. Even though I teach lower elementary grades, you may find some useful ideas. Let us know if you have more questions.

(2)
Traci V's picture

I would love to see some more pictures. My sister teaches kindergarten and LOVES using flexible seating. As a 7th and 8th grade teacher - with bigger bodies and more kids in a class - I am intrigued, but nervous about logistics.

(1)
Rachel's picture

I think this is such a great idea and would love to see more classrooms incorporating it, but my eye immediately goes to the laptop computers resting on the children's legs. There are actual health hazards associated with prolonged exposure to the radiation emitted from laptops. Young children, especially, should never rest computers on their laps.
Here's one article with some of the research:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/21/skin-cancer_n_785976.html

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Rachel, personally I agree we need to be careful with electronics in the classroom as we don't know all the long-term effects on children. I believe in moderation with all technology and prefer when my students use a table, floor or other option for technology. The article you linked only talks about the dangers from the potential high heat produced from laptops. It does not mention radiation. I've searched for credible sources on the effects of radiation from laptops and found none. Please pass along any links if you have them. I totally agree a hot laptop should not be put on a chid's legs. Although, typically the overheating of a laptop comes from extensive processor use which is usually done by a power user running many high need software programs, not word processing or web research/activities which is what most students do on laptops. I also believe Chromebooks are safer in this regard because they simply don't get hot like laptops.

(1)
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Rachel! I agree - we don't want our kids glued to devices 24/7. And mixing up their activities is as much about pedagogy as it is about potential hazards from devices. While my students do use Chromebooks for writing, they don't spend an entire class period with them on their laps and they learn through many other activities that don't involve devices. John is right about Chromebooks - they don't heat up very much at all. I'm trusting in one of my husband's favorite adages: everything in moderation. ;-)

Mel Lebel's picture

Hi Laura, while I agree that the concept and benefits of flexible seating has merit...I am very concerned about the posture and orthopedic impacts of having all these students improperly seated and using devices for periods of time on a regular basis. Ergonomics do not seem to factor into any considerations these days and we are setting up generations of students for serious possibly debilitating conditions. No one is showing them how to sit properly in front of a computer, how to align their posture to reduce shoulder, neck and lower back strain. Are you at all concerned about this? We could end up with kids experiencing carpal tunnel or pinched nerves or strains at very young ages and when their skeletal growth is not yet complete. I tell my kids all the time that if they need to work at the computer, they sit at a table with their feet flat and they use a mouse pad with wrist supports. I work in front of a computer 8 hours a day and without regular breaks, stretching and relaxing my eyes, I would leave work in pain and exhausted. Who is teaching our children about that in schools? I don't know how attuned teachers are to this but seeing this picture of kids with their necks strained down to look at screens when the best ergonomically safe posture is to have a screen that is at eye level is worrying for me as a parent. I don't want to have to take my 10 year old or my 14 year old to the doctor. Have a look at these resources: https://www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/kinrec/bsal/miniu/summer/backpacks.pdf
http://itkids.curtin.edu.au/papers/IJIEchildlap2000.pdf
I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi, Mel. Yes, I agree with you completely about these concerns (not only in my classroom, but in general, with all the time spent on devices these days). Unfortunately we don't have the option of having students work at desktop computers (which I agree is much better for their posture). The flexible seating in my classroom does allow for some of the things mentioned in one of your resources: my students can get up and move at any time; they can stand at tall shelves and work; they can move from the floor back to a desk if they'd like; and I teach them at the start of the year a few simple exercises to do during class so we aren't hunched over screens the whole time. Even during quiet writing time, there is a lot of movement in my room as students do what they need to in order to stay comfortable and avoid cramped positions. It isn't ideal, but we are trying to teach kids how to take care of themselves as they work online so much more often. Thanks for sharing your resources - they're great!

Carolyn Stein's picture

Sound interesting for middle school writing. Definitely does not apply for every classroom. Not a safe way to conduct a science class - a lab oriented one. I pictured the chaos and shuddered a bit.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi, Carolyn! Of course every teacher needs to consider their own classrooms, lessons, and students when looking at flexible seating! Lab classrooms like science, woodshop, etc., where safety and expensive equipment are a priority, would have different needs than my English classroom. But don't let the flexibility fool you - it isn't chaos. More like student-driven appropriate and productive work spaces. :-)

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