Flexible Seating Makes a Difference

By Carolyn Lyon James

I’m working summer school through the end of July at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids. It’s not our home school, and certainly not our home classroom, but we have to make do with what’s available to us. The first thing we did when we were assigned our classroom was to start shoving tables and chairs around to make it more conducive for our needs and for our students’ needs. Next, we found comfortable chairs in the room and the hallway for us all to sit in. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do for the six weeks we’ll be there.

Honestly, that’s how easy setting up flexible seating for your students can be. Think about what makes you most comfortable. And yes, the answer to that can change depending on what you’re doing. When I’m home, I have my favorite chair for reading. Nobody is allowed to pester me when I’m in that chair with a book in my hand. (They do anyway, but they’re not supposed to.) But when I’m typing or working on my computer, I need a chair with a straight back. Kids are the same way. Turns out, putting them in hard plastic chairs in neat and tidy rows isn’t necessarily the best way for them to learn.

I called up a couple of teachers who use flexible seating in their classrooms to see how they got started. My first call was to Katie Cervantes, a sixth-grade teacher at McKinley Middle School in Cedar Rapids. While I was talking to her, she was crashing around in her garage, sanding and repairing furniture, and repotting plants for next year’s classroom. Plants?

“Yes, of course,” she says. “Plants make a room feel more homey. I put them all over the room, and even on the kids’ desks. I want the kids to feel like coming to class is like coming home.”

Katie’s garage is stuffed full of chairs and other furniture to use and rotate as she sees fit — and to give to other teachers who want to start using flexible seating themselves. Her advice? “Start with a few things you already have and grow from there.” (Says the woman with enough items in her garage to outfit three more classrooms!) “I’m helping other teachers get their own rooms started,” she says, laughing. “It’s kind of turning into my side business.”

Michelle Bessman teaches fifth grade at Mid-Prairie Middle School in Kalona, and I called her next. Michelle was suffering from a migraine, but she spoke with a gentle clarity, the calm strength of a teacher who soldiers on through every adversity, including the pain of a migraine and the accompanying medication-induced fog. Michelle said that wobble chairs — stools that allow a person to sit stationary or rock back and forth — were the best investment she ever made. She also has some exercise balls for kids to use. Next year, she plans to add standing desks as well.

“The best thing about flexible seating,” says Michelle, “is that if everybody has a choice of seating, the kid with ADHD or autism doesn’t stand out.” Wait. What? That bears repeating. Flexible seating does more than just improve student engagement and focus. It helps students feel normal. An antsy student can simply stand up and move to a standing desk to help them re-engage. No explanation needed. Normalizing a student’s change of position improves the behavior of the whole class. When everyone has the go-ahead to sit where they prefer, not one person stands out as being weird or different. It allows for individuality, while simultaneously normalizing their differences.

So, how do you get started? Take a look around your own house — find a couple of chairs, stools, and a lamp or two. Heck, throw in a couple of houseplants for good measure. And see how these small changes make all the difference for your upcoming school year.