Search form

Teacher's Lounge - Effective Seating Arrangements During Pandemic

Dear Teacher’s Lounge,

I'm a third-grade teacher, and one upside to our new "social distance" classroom setup is having structured rows vs. tables or clusters of desks. I find I can better control the impact that a student with a negative attitude has on classmates. These students have less of an influence over their peers when sitting in rows. Oftentimes when a child has a negative attitude and is in a small group, they can dominate and negatively influence a group. For example, if you ask students to express how they feel about a certain topic and one student says, "This is stupid," it will discourage other students in that group from participating.

When the pandemic is finally behind us, is there a place for rows in a classroom setup?   If not, what are some strategies to prevent negative attitudes or behaviors from overtaking small group clusters? Often, in arranging clusters of desks you have those students who just struggle with working cooperatively with any group of students. How does pulling that child (or children) away from the group negatively impact their school experience or possibly accelerate the negative behaviors?

                                                                                                            ~Seating Arrangements

Dear Seating,

Classroom dynamics are pretty fascinating, aren’t they? The presence or absence of one child can change how the class operates, one way or another. Often, a child’s influence can be seen as positive or negative, but I like to think of it in terms of productivity. As teachers, it’s our job to embrace all students and ensure that we create safe spaces for learning so that all students can be productive, but doing so in a pandemic has provided new challenges. At first, your question appears to be about seating arrangements (rows in particular), but it’s really about so many aspects of teaching: management, differentiation, and providing opportunities for equitable instruction.

The key to reducing disruptions to instruction is not just grounded in how students are sitting. It is much more about how students who intentionally create disruption perceive their role in the classroom community, and what opportunities they have to release some of that unproductive energy and focus on learning. To that end, the students who can derail an entire lesson have to be given positive attention, as well as a clear role in the classroom community. My favorite technique is to assign students roles that increase their sense of importance. For example, if you know that the next day there will be a group assignment that the student will declare “stupid,” ask students in advance for ideas that might make the project as engaging as possible. Then, the challenging student can collect ideas, sift through them, and share them with the class. Put the student in charge of writing down the thoughts that people discuss the most enthusiastically. The next day, it will be less likely that a project everyone was prepared for and could give feedback on will be called “stupid.” 

While increasing an unproductive student’s responsibility can be one technique for improving dynamics both during and post-pandemic, there is still the issue of seating, as well as proximity to the teacher. The reason row seating has become unpopular in recent years is that it limits student-to-student discourse, particularly during collaborative work. That doesn’t mean, however, that row seating has to be banished, always. It just means that as the teacher, you can be selective about when to put students in that formation. Test-taking, for example, is the best situation for implementing rows, since it reduces both distraction and lowers the temptation to look at a classmate’s work. Similarly, individual activities that require focus, such as writing, are absolutely good candidates for row seating.

However, seating should not replace skillful classroom management, and it threatens to do that (and limit interaction) when it is always in place. A teacher often desires both proximity and visibility when it comes to working with students, and that can be accomplished by any number of arrangements: a giant U-shape, strategic table groupings (with unproductive students sitting alongside students who are more likely to remain on-task), or even a classroom in which there are some table groupings and a smaller section for direct instruction, as occurs with centers or stations. In other words, seating arrangements can and should change based upon the lesson plan for the day. That sounds like a lot of work for the teacher, but students can be taught that first week of school (or anytime, really) a few key arrangements, and they can have the responsibility of moving things around. In fact, the less productive students who cause a great deal of disruption might love having the role of “traffic director” as everyone bustles about. It also creates movement, which students need on a regular basis.

As you point out, the last thing you want to do is separate a disruptive child from other students. That only increases their sense of isolation and injustice, and will escalate behavior that is unhelpful to all. What disruptive students really want is to be included, to be acknowledged, to be paid attention to. That is why they make themselves so noticeable: they want to be part of the class, but they don’t know how to get there productively. The easiest route to get someone’s notice is negative attention, which is why children often act out.

However, showering positive attention on students, increasing their responsibility with praise whenever they are helpful, and teaching with inclusivity can make a slow difference. When each school year draws to a close, many teachers remember disruptive students more than the other children, mainly because something changes and the relationship becomes a good one. To that end, take extra time at the beginning or end of class to engage the student patiently. Without being too forward, learn about likes and dislikes. Make an offhand comment about something you see, even the color of a lunchbox, to create common ground. That attempt at building rapport will pay off if you are consistent, and then the gradual frustrations of unproductive behavior or lack of cooperation will eventually fade.

Please feel free to write back in and let us know how things are going!

Have a question, comment, or helpful tip about virtual teaching and learning? Send them to the Teacher’s Lounge  We’ll get through this - together!

Read more tips and advice from Teacher's Lounge!

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

Copyright© 2020 Education World