Editor’s Note: My thoughts have changed since I wrote this. I leave it here as documentation of my learning journey. Please see Day 8 for clearer thoughts.
Here’s the thing.
I understand the flexible seating fad. I understand why people think it adds value to their classrooms, and I understand why some people are so passionate about it. I understand it because I used to feel that way, too. I used to think that in order to be a good teacher with progressive pedagogy, I had to rethink everything about my classroom. In order to work against the archaic and traditional education system, everything in my practice had to evolve.
It was John Dewey who said, “For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.”
It’s a hard quote to decode, so I’ll share with you how I interpret it. People become so caught up in working against certain ideologies that they form their opinions and act based on a commitment to resist an ideology, as opposed to taking the time to figure out the root causes of a problem and sensible solutions that meet underlying needs.
Such is the case with flexible seating.
It’s true that there are some benefits to increasing the choices for seating within a classroom. Having various types of stools or even a standing desk or two can help kids who need to wiggle a bit more. It can even help children who struggle in terms of their vestibular or proprioceptive sensory integration.
But I hate to break it to you, setting up coffee tables or making your classroom look like a start-up company is not going to help these children solve their sensory integration challenges or even help them cope with their wiggles. In fact, some of the set-ups I’ve seen online can actually be counter productive to inclusive pedagogy.
Children who struggle with sensory integration need to learn how to manage their bodies. They need to learn coping strategies, because as they grow older, they will have to find ways to integrate into all sorts of environments, including environments where they’ll need to sit in chairs. Laying on beanbags, sprawling out across the floor, or leaning haphazardly can be bad for core strength, and it can even worsen deficits in vestibular or proprioceptive sensory integration. In fact, when children struggle with these sensory systems, the whole point is to help them build an internal sense of order, balance, control, and strength–so that they may eventually attend to tasks for long periods of time that require sitting.
Sensory integration aside, many of the flexible seating arrangements I see aren’t conducive to productive learning. When kids are not mindful of posture and the positions of their bodies, it’s hard for them to develop fine motor skills, and it’s hard for them to direct their attention towards a given task (It’s actually recommended that students are seated with both feet on the floor to optimize attention and focus.). I don’t know about you, but when my kids are laying down on the ground working (or relaxing in a beanbag), the quality of their work changes almost immediately. Their handwriting becomes messier, and they often look lethargic, like they’re about to take a nap. That’s even true for me, as an adult.
I hate to sound like a curmudgeon. I really do.
But these so-called “progressive” trends in education aren’t really progressive at all. They’re actually quite regressive, creating spaces that aren’t actually addressing student needs. They’re, instead, addressing student preferences.
That’s not to say that our kids shouldn’t have choice. They absolutely should have choice. But the choice must be more bounded, especially at young ages, and when putting boundaries around the choice, we must use authoritative practices to teach them about their bodies and why laying on the floor or slouching in a beanbag isn’t actually good for their brain or their learning.
But Paul, they really *like* doing this. It makes them more engaged in the classroom when they are able to choose where and how they sit.
To that, I say… well, sure. Of course they like picking where they sit and how they sit. But as the teacher in the classroom, it is my job to know that sometimes kids like doing things that aren’t good for them. Sometimes kids like doing things that built bad habits–habits that I don’t want to be responsible for creating or worsening later in their lives.
And this is the hard part.
Moving away from flexible seating might mean you can’t be the “cool” or “trendy” teacher anymore–or at least in this way. It might mean that you won’t be able to post a picture of your trendy classroom to Instagram. It might mean you might have to direct your attention towards what really matters in the classroom. And what really matters is responsive and flexible pedagogy–not flexible seating.
Here are a few recommendations for flexible pedagogy that is both inclusive and can help to address sensory and attention needs, helping to make all children feel heard, seen, and successful in your classroom.
- Create a sensory area. This doesn’t have super fancy. It can be as simple as a shelf with a mindful jar, yoga mat, and some squishies. These will go a long way! If you have students who struggle with proprioception, put some heavy items in a backpack and they can carry it around the school when they need a body break.
- Leverage the workshop model. The workshop model is the antithesis of lecture-based teaching. It is specifically designed with a short minilesson followed up by time where students can work on their own and in small groups.
- Create multi-sensory, project-based experiences. Project-based learning is great for engagement. Leveraging inquiry, hands-on, and collaborative experiences makes the curriculum come alive and allows all types of learners to integrate into the curriculum.
- Teach them about emotional and physical regulation. Kids will not learn how to regulate if we don’t explicitly teach them about the systems and processes in their bodies. Flexible seating won’t do this for you, but using some of the resources from Social Thinking, Responsive Classroom, or Zones of Regulation are great for this.
- Partner with students to create individual plans if they need extra body breaks. Some students need more help. And it’s our job to give them that help. In those cases, I recommend coming up with: (1) a hand signal so the child can quietly inform you when they need a break; (2) a menu of choices that the child can use when taking their break; (3) clear time limits on their body break; (4) a plan for reintegration into the group after their individual plan.
For those of you who are not able to change your furniture, you’ll notice that all of the options above could happen in any classroom, regardless of physical space. This is the kind of “flexible” classroom that we need to be talking about. This is the kind of flexible and inclusive pedagogy that we need to promote.
What do you do to make your classroom flexible?
Comment below! These and more ideas will be available in my book, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, which comes out October 1st!