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How Classroom Seating is Changing to Help Today’s Diverse Learners

An old black and white photo from the archives of a renowned all-girls college shows students in class listening while furiously knitting and crocheting.  Traditional Native American meetings, and important negotiations are known to have taken place while members held a ‘talking stick’ and sat around a fire.  Out on the putting green some of the most important business deals and negotiations have been transacted over golf balls and clubs!

Fast-forward to today’s classrooms and the format for how we expect students to learn, listen and communicate is painfully different.  Rows of students, seated with torso and legs at 90-degree angles, face forward and sit erect. In fact, students who choose to play with items on their desks are accused of “fidgeting” and face sanctions for such “off-task” behavior. (Slouching or foot-tapping, doodling or pencil tapping is, of course, similarly discouraged).

As I write this article, I have abandoned my own desk, where my back is painfully compressed in a static chair. Instead, I have taken to working on my couch, with my laptop on my curled up knees—and my work just seems more fluid.

It is not clear how seating and standards for students in classroom space has become so militant, uniform, and well---just plain boring. Likely the large numbers of students and the chief goal of minimizing disruptive behavior while maximizing obedience to teacher-led instruction has led to linear rows of desks since the days of the one-room school house.

But Enter ‘Neurodiversity’ and, mercifully, the culture is changing.

Educators are increasingly embracing the notion that children are not wired the same, but this difference, or ‘neurodiversity’ is not necessarily bad---just different. For instance, children can differ according to the amount of stimulation they can tolerate; with some being very sensitive to things such as noises and textures and the task of sitting still and others being   under-sensitive, in which case they, naturally seek out ways to arouse or energize themselves. Other areas of diversity, neurologically-speaking, concern the many children who have ADHD or show signs of distractibility or inattention.

I believe that it is the historic difficulties of managing children who have ADHD and other neuro-diverse conditions that  (thankfully) have necessitated alternative methods of sitting and learning in the classroom.

These innovative, more comfortable classrooms are still far and few between. But they are, in my opinion, a welcome alternative from sitting in a cold desk-chair for every class, every day.

Departures from the traditional student desk seat include:

  • Large inflated balls. These allow children to listen and write while getting some ‘wiggles’ out as needed.
  • Chair-sized, personal bean bag seats. Similarly, these cushiony chairs permit students to move and shift their bodies; lean ‘in’ to a conforming chair, as well as enjoy time on a rug, next to other collaborating peers. Kneading, squeezing and even elbowing the material also appears to sustain, rather than disrupt, attention to tasks.
  • Round-top stools. Some teachers might complain that these invite kids to spin aimlessly. They might be right, but aside from this potential pitfall, stools allow more flexibility and movement, and a break away from a board behind one’s back!
  • Miniature, low-lying rocking-chairs.  I have seen students collaborating on a rug while enjoying the movements of rocking as needed. Since these are low-to-the ground, students are not able to rock in overly disruptive ways

The take-away message, having glimpsed some of these alternative classrooms, seems to be that:

  • With neurodiversity, comes the understanding that students are no longer best suited to sitting in a one-size-fits-all, static desk chair when learning.
  • One advantage of softer, flexible and/or movable seating units is the opportunity to self-regulate; that is, moving, squeezing, rocking, lightly bouncing etc., can inadvertently adjust the attention, energy levels and moods of various students.

I am hoping that as school districts across the country become more receptive to the neurodiversity concept, the old wooden or cold fiberglass desk assemblies will be used very minimally. Of course, schools are a long way from, say, permitting students to knit during lectures or hosting a fire pit summit and peace talk, but an array of different seating structures is definitely a start!

Written by Mandy Stern

Mandy Stern is a board-certified, licensed Educational Psychologist, with national certification in school psychology.