rainbow, unicorn and cactus balloons

How Flexible Seating Classroom Management Really Works

The 2019-2020 school year was the first year that I implemented a seating arrangement in my classroom that was fully flexible. It also happened to be the year I finally really hit my stride with classroom management. I absolutely loved my flexible seating classroom, and I had far fewer behavior problems than in any previous year.

Most teachers who scoff at flexible seating, or simply feel it can’t work for them, are worried about losing control of their class. They simply can’t visualize how students could maintain order, boundaries, and routines with a flexible seating arrangement.

Currently, I doubt there’s any classroom in America who has been able to utilize flexible seating because of Covid19. Our entire campus had to switch to a very rigid management of space due to all the CDC protocols. But I hope most of these procedures will be going away within the next 18 months!

I’m excited to help you figure out how flexible seating really CAN work for any classroom. You don’t have to sacrifice your classroom management skills; in fact, some of you will thrive as a teacher more than ever before. Flexible seating revolutionized my teaching!

flexible seating classroom management options
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My students loved the t.v. trays. Each student also had a little metal cup from theTarget dollar spot. At each transition to a new activity, I would post on the whiteboard a list of exactly what supplies they needed. In groups, they would be sent to collect supplies while other groups continued working. I awarded quick transitions with coupons.

What is flexible seating? 

Flexible seating means that you’ve got different types of seating in your room, rather than just traditional desks or table and chairs groupings.

Students are encouraged to sit wherever they like in the classroom on any given day. Sounds crazy, right?

There is a LOT of teaching, expectation setting, and boundaries communicated and enforced, even within that very loose framework.

flexible seating classroom management - boy using a lap desk properly

I found these lap desks at the Target dollar spot. Since they were $5, and I wasn’t sure how well they would hold up, I only bought two. If I could do it all over again, I would have purchased more.

I got the rug for $5 at Five Below, believe it or not. It was 4×6 feet!

Is your classroom always a mess? It doesn’t have to be that way! Teach your kids to clean up perfectly every day, in under 5 minutes.

What are the benefits of flexible seating in the classroom for teachers?

You’re not fighting human nature. Kids earnestly seek new little bits of freedom, have a desire to move around the room, and often appreciate change. When you work WITH that desire rather than trying to restrain it, you free yourself up for the more important battles.

You’ll have fewer little fights in the classroom. You know how sometimes you just need space from someone? Kids feel the same way. Maybe they’re having a bad day, and they just can’t deal with that one kid. If you’ve got assigned seating, kids don’t get a chance to set boundaries for themselves.

You’ll feel more at home on those long days. I also find that I love the way my classroom looks with flexible seating. I utilize furniture that looks more like home, and I feel more comfortable there, too.

Kids will take better care of your space. If kids love their classroom, they take better care of it. From August 2019 – March 2020, I never had a kid intentionally mistreat my things.

Kids work more diligently during independent work time because they are comfortable.

flexible seating classroom management - using stuffed animals

Clipboards solve a lot of problems in a flexible seating classroom. Students knew they were required to use a clipboard if they chose the Adirondack chairs.

Stuffed animals, especially oversized ones, are a big hit. At the end of every day, my homeroom class was required to gather all pillows and “stuffies” on the carpet at the front of the room. I would then quickly Lysol spray all sides of every item.

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How does seating arrangement affect learning? 

I’ll speak first to my personal experience. My kids performed much better academically than in any previous year when I taught the same subject in 3rd grade. Now, that could absolutely be correlation, not causation. However, I believe the way we moved around the room throughout the class period kept their brains geared up in a way that benefited learning. Children need to move.

For students with ADHD or ADD, sensory input assists with focus. So when a student with an attention disorder is able to wobble, bounce, or stand, that will benefit their concentration. The key is keeping them away from other students who find that sort of behavior distracting.

Finally, my students had much higher engagement when we had a flexible seating arrangement. Engagement translates to higher performance. It was easier to keep them excited about attempting their independent work because they were excited about their space and tools. Here is more information about how flexible seating can improve engagement.

How can I implement flexible seating classroom management?

Finally, let’s get into the meat of what scares teachers! Flexible seating classroom management can seem intimidating to teachers because it requires a completely different approach. But you can do it! And it’s so fun!

State expectations clearly and often in the first 6-9 weeks.

Okay, this is a biggie. You know how every year, you have to really hammer in those expectations for all your procedures? It’s the same with flexible seating. You teach really heavy up front on how to use all the supplies, what your expectations are around tidiness, and how you want them to move through the room.

The best thing about flexible seating is that it’s so motivating for the kids. Classroom management is easy when you’ve got such a powerful tool in your back pocket. When kids don’t meet expectations around the seating requirements, you just reserve the right to seat them yourself that day. So students VERY quickly learn to take the procedures seriously, because there are no warnings. If you mess up, you just get lovingly relocated. They don’t tend to make the same mistake twice.

To teach expectations from day 1, make use of your camera phone. Below is a picture I took with my iPhone before the first week of school after setting up my room. I used the markup feature to write “tidy” on this one so students could see how I wanted it cleaned up and stored at the end of class. I dropped this photo into a Google Slides presentation, along with a photo for every single seating possibility in the classroom.

flexible seating classroom management - staying organized

Students would sit on the floor at this low table, and the cushions for their bottoms were stored in this laundry basket. Many students liked to just sit on their knees. I spent some of my yearly allowance on these wobble seats, but the pillows were more popular.

Show students exactly how to use each seating option in a full presentation. 

Here is another photo that I dropped into a Google slides presentation for the first week of school. I used check marks to show where students were allowed to sit.

Flexible seating classroom management depends heavily on clearly stated expectations from the very first day of school. Don’t be afraid to go slow!

A picture of a rug and chair marked up with check marks to show where kids can sit.

Even a rug can be a flexible seating spot when combined with a lap desk or clipboard. This vintage chair was also a hit, and students usually paired it with a t.v. tray. On the end table was a lamp and materials buckets.

During independent work time, I would often create a coffee house vibe using lowered overhead lights, a Spotify writing playlist, and lamps to create ambient light.

Design classroom management groupings that aren’t based on a seating arrangement.

So many aspects of my classroom management had previously revolved around table groups. You need groups in your classroom, even if you don’t have a seating arrangement. It’s so handy to shout out, “Unicorns – Line up! Rainbows – trash duty! Dinosaurs – please round up all the markers on the floor!” So just remember: they don’t have to be sitting anywhere near one another!

Having groups can also help with storage of classroom supplies. For example, in my own class, I had five different three drawer organizers – one for each group (unicorns, mermaids, rainbows, cacti, clovers). I spread them throughout the room to avoid traffic jams when we were gathering supplies.

Most importantly, you need classroom groupings to help with choosing flexible seating spots each day. See below!

I had five groups, with about 3-5 kids in each one. They don’t really need to be an evenly balanced number.

Good flexible seating classroom management requires a system for choosing spots each day.

Kids need an organized, fair system for choosing their seat each day. You don’t want them fussing at each other, running across the room to score their favorite seat, or any other nonsense. Your groups can help with this problem.

My groups were named as follows (in case you didn’t read the previous section): dinosaurs, mermaids, clovers, cacti, and unicorns. There are 5 days in each school week, too, which is why five groups was the magic number! Each group had a “go first” day, but the order that followed always stayed the same. So each group also had a “go second” day of the week, and a “go third” and so forth. It started off a bit slow to get everyone seated in the first couple of weeks. Once the kids learned the system and trusted it was fair, we were off to the races and it was FAST.

Here is the chart that I blew up into a poster.

flexible seating classroom management - a chore chart with order of seating

We would meet at the rug at the beginning of class. After my first mini lesson at the front of the room, I would send kids to choose their independent work seat in the correct order, depending on the day of the week. They chose spots quickly, because they were always worried the next group would be called and they’d lose their preferred seat.

They also knew that whatever seat they chose would remain theirs for the rest of the class. We only chose seats once per day.

flexible seating classroom management - table on risers with swivel boards

These table risers were used to extend the height of this table so students could work standing up. For my most fidgety kids, this was the most coveted spot in the room. I paired the standing table with wobble boards pictured here. These were $5 each at Five Below.

Have visual cues for each group.

I LOVED my balloons, and so did the kids. So it only made sense to name my groups after the balloons! The visual cues helped the kids remember their group name. On the occasion that we would play competitive games or group up for collaborate activities, they would meet up under their balloon.

rainbow, unicorn and cactus balloons

I love the balloons hanging from my ceiling. They are $6 each in the party section at Target, and they stayed up all year without deflating. These are NOT helium; you just blow them up! Hang them from a string, and they’ll even hold up over the summer without needing to be replaced!

Flexible seating classroom management doesn’t require you to change up the groups regularly.

There’s no need to change your groups during the year like you would change up a seating arrangement. The groups are strictly procedural and it will only confuse everyone!

This table was the only traditional seating in the room, although it DID have kick bands. Kick bands provide resistance for kids to kick against them while working. The kick bands are a bit pricier than some other options, though!

Assign chores and classroom jobs to each group. 

We started off using the chore chart above, but over time, I adapted the chores to whatever our needs were each day. No matter what our chores were, they were assigned by group.

“Dinosaurs! Please pick up all the pencils!”

“Mermaids? Can y’all please pass out highlighters?”

This seemed to build a real sense of teamwork in the classroom!

How can I afford to buy my own flexible seating?

If you try to buy traditional flexible seating from an official district provider, it will be EXPENSIVE. It’s much cheaper to keep an eye out for garage sales and look for things like sturdy arm chairs, couches, end tables, coffee tables, lamps, and more. Facebook Marketplace can be a huge source of discounted furniture, too!

Unless you just happen to get lucky with downsizing your own home, it’s very likely you might need to make this transition slowly over a couple of years while you scout amazing deals. Don’t worry! It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing.

In most cases, you can raise or lower your tables with a screwdriver. You can probably ask your building manager for help!

Stores like Five Below, Amazon, and the Dollar Tree can be a huge help for things like wobble boards (mine were $5 each), rugs, pillows, and more.

kick bands for fidgety kids

These kick bands are relatively affordable and can really help kids with the fidgets!

How can I slowly introduce flexible seating? 

Don’t get all frazzled, thinking you’ll never be able to pay for all the different flexible seating options. Brand new wobble stools, exercise balls, and lap desks can all be pricey!

But maybe you’ve got an awesome bar table sitting in storage, which has never found a good spot in your home. You can definitely use it! Start off by just using that table as a reward for hard workers, and try to give everyone a shot at it occasionally. You can probably gather up some pillows and cushions at Goodwill, and lower a table in your classroom to sit on the floor.

Think about using alternative seating as a reward rather than the default system in your class. As you incorporate more pieces, you can transition to a fully flexible seating classroom.

Even traditional classrooms can have accommodations to help wiggly kids ON A BUDGET 🙂 These flex bands for my traditional seating tables worked great!

How can you keep flexible seating sanitary and safe?

You need a spray can of Lysol – lots of them. The pillows and stuffed animals are gonna get germy and gross, but I sprayed mine down at the end of every single day.

I also had a routine at the end of every day, where we used Lysol wipes on everything. Each kid was entitled to a single wipe. As they came to pull their wipe from the can, I’d give them a cleaning assignment: “Isabella, You’ve got the door! Marcos, please wipe off the Adirondack chairs. Faith, will you get all the end tables?”

I’m so hopeful that as a country, we can kick this Covid19’s booty and return to learning the super fun way! Don’t be scared of the flexible seating classroom management component – you can do it!

flexible seating classroom management pin

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