Assigned Seating Takes Back Seat to Flexible Seating
On any given morning, Wafiqah Talukder, a fourth-grader at Windermere Boulevard Elementary, might start her classwork sitting on a stability ball. It is her favorite place to work because she can bounce while she reads a book.
If she has a worksheet to complete, she might move to the moon chairs, her second favorite spot, where she clips her work to a clipboard and settles into the comfy cocoon-like seat. When she has to take a test, she chooses the round table, which is the most traditional seating in the classroom.
Wafiqah and her classmates in Lauren Ladowski's fourth-grade class at Windermere Boulevard get to move about throughout the day to choose where they want to sit to complete their schoolwork. While they work, they can bounce, wiggle, fidget, rock or stretch.
Their classroom design is modeling flexible seating where movement is encouraged. As a result, Mrs. Ladowski's students are learning a new set of vocabulary words. They know how to describe and use a stability ball, peanut ball, wobble stool, scoop rocker, yoga mat, moon chair and seat cushion.
Enter Mrs. Ladowski's room and you will see students spread out in different areas of the room. Some are completing worksheets, their papers secured on a clipboard, while they rock on a scoop rocker. Others are at a trio of desks, bouncing slightly while sitting on a stability ball. Others sit at a table on wobble stools. This is the second full year implementing flexible seating in her fourth-grade classroom.
"My students use flexible seating throughout the entire day," she said. "I see the most benefit to them when they have the power to choose where they will do their best learning. It makes them actively think about where they are most comfortable and who they are sitting around. Students are able to easily move into groups when needed and also separate from peers when doing independent work."
A similar scene is happening in the first-grade classroom of Aubrey Brodfuehrer, who piloted flexible seating last year.
"In first grade, students choose their flexible seating choice in the morning when they come in. There is a sign-up board. That choice is where they are during work times in different subject areas throughout the whole day," said Mrs. Brodfuehrer, whose classroom has disc seats, comfy floor seats, wobble stools, crate seats, stability balls, scoop rockers, pillows, rug squares, and bouncy bands on chairs. "However, we do provide the opportunity for students to pick a new choice as they reflect on their choice for the day."
Three years ago, Mrs. Ladowski, who spent six years as a special education teacher in the district, put two standing desks and then a sitting table in her room. By the next year both she and Mrs. Brodfuehrer were researching flexible seating and each approached their principal with a proposal to expand seating options in their classrooms.
"These are the two teachers that got the whole thing going," said Julie Flanagan, principal of the 3-5 intermediate education center. "This came from them, knowing there was a need for it."
Mrs. Ladowski submitted a three-page summary of research on what equipment to buy and how it would be used, said Mrs. Flanagan. Meanwhile Mrs. Brodfuehrer had approached Mary Lavin, principal of the K-2 early childhood education center about the possibility of using flexible seating. Mrs. Lavin and Mrs. Flanagan earmarked additional funding for the two teachers to purchase flexible seating furniture.
With support from Mrs. Flanagan and Mrs. Lavin, there is one classroom at every level K-5 that has flexible seating options so now there are six teachers are involved modeling some type of flexible seating for their students.
Zachary Schneider, a first grader, said his favorite area to sit in his room are the pillow seats because they are soft.
Proponents of flexible seating say it increases time on task, as well as provides choice and self-reflection on what choice best helps students to learn. Flexible seating provides sensory input and constant body movement to help students focus, as long as they are using the right tool for them. Both teachers start the year modeling, setting clear expectations and having discussions about which seating area is right for a student. In both classes, each piece of equipment and seating area has specific directions.
"At first, I help many students make those choices about needing to move. I talk with them individually about why I may need them to choose another space, whether it be they are not using a seat appropriately, it's not appropriate for the given task, or they are talking too much to those around them," said Mrs. Ladowski. "Usually before beginning a lesson, I ask students to look around and ask themselves whether they are in their best learning spot or if they need to move. I have them reflect on their seating choice as well as making sure they can see the instruction. Students become better at recognizing where they learn best and who is around them."
Even at first grade, students have learned to be self-reflective and say why the choice was a good fit for them or not.
"At the beginning of the year, the first two weeks were allotted for interactive modeling of all of the choices. Students had the opportunity to try every single choice to see how it felt and how it helped them focus more on their learning," said Mrs. Brodfuehrer. "Group discussions took place to talk about how the choice was beneficial or not beneficial to their individual learning needs."
"The stability ball," said first-grader Madison Day when asked what her favorite seat was. "It helps me concentrate and do my work because I can move around on them." She said she can grab a clipboard, pencil and an eraser and sit on the stability ball in certain parts of the room as long as she is not blocking any tables for the other students.
Fourth-grader Arnav Dabadi has a favorite seating spot tucked by a bookcase in the back of the room. There is a back cushion and seat pillow and he likes to do his ELA or math work there. His second favorite place to sit is the green peanut because "it's bouncy and comfortable," he said.
"Flexible seating may look different in every class or grade level, but the end result will be the same," said Mrs. Brodfuehrer. "It has a profound impact on classroom community in collaboration, movement, comfort, and sensory input on a daily basis."
In Mrs. Ladowski's fourth-grade class, supplies are in trays at each seating area and student work is in their folders on shelves. Coats, boots and other supplies are kept in a row of lockers in the classroom.
"I talk with my students about taking care of the seating and community materials in our classroom which promotes that sense of we all work together," said Mrs. Ladowski. "Students show a lot of responsibility for keeping our classroom a clean space for all. It promotes students to pick up after themselves because it is not just their work space, but a community work space."
"We think it all starts with choice," said Mrs. Brodfuehrer. "When students have an active role in how they learn, they are more committed to the learning. By students having a say and choice in where and how they learn throughout the day, they feel ownership which keeps them engaged in their learning."
Flexible seating is not a magic tool to help students automatically focus, but it does help promote slight movement when needed from students. "Not all students work well in a traditional chair so they may bounce slightly on a stability ball while working," said Mrs. Ladowski. "This helps move some of that energy to a physical motion and helps students then focus on the instructional task."