How teachers use alternative seating to engage students

April 16, 2018 | Posted in: Elementary

At the beginning of the school year, my fifth-grade son’s teacher asked parents to donate spare stools or chairs to her classroom so she could offer some nontraditional seating options for her students.

This was something my son, and I, were very excited about. My son has ADHD, so spending the bulk of his day seated at a desk does not work for him. He needs to move to stay engaged and focused. He loves yoga balls, and in fourth grade often stood at his desk rather than sit in his chair.

Many teachers and schools across the country are embracing the idea of offering nontraditional, or flexible, seating options for students.

“Sitting in the same spot, in rows, is not how our kids learn anymore,” said Nicole Enny-Tully, a fifth-grade teacher at William H. Barton Intermediate School in the Queensbury Union Free School District.

Enny-Tully has no desks in her classroom – not for her students nor for herself.

Instead, her students may choose to sit on a yoga ball, swivel chair, bungee chair, bean bag or a stool. For those students who find they learn better when standing, there is a stand-up desk. And for those who prefer to sit directly on the floor, there is a table whose legs have been replaced with shortened versions so it’s at a comfortable height from the floor.

Enny-Tully and her father used two crib mattresses to create a corner couch with pillows for the back. If needed, students seated there may use TV tray tables to hold their papers, books or Chromebooks.

“It allows kids to choose where they learn best and to work comfortably,” Enny-Tully said. “Let them be where they are comfortable and productive.”

When parents first enter her classroom, most seem surprised there are no traditional desks. That surprise quickly turns to curiosity.

“Most of them want to try out all the chairs,” she said.

Learning environments can have a direct impact on student achievement, Smith System, a K-12 furniture manufacturer, stated on its “Education Trend” blog.

“A 2012 study from the University of Minnesota found that students participated 48 percent more in discussions in a classroom with collaborative group seating versus traditional lecture-style seating and also improved their performance on standardized tests,” according to Smith System.

Alyssa Thalmann was introduced to the benefits of alternative seating while filling in for a teacher who had taken leave from the Monticello Central School District. Thalmann traveled with the same cohort of students as they transitioned between three classrooms, each with various seating options.

She saw first-hand how much more engaged students were in the classroom with alternative seating options. When they transitioned to a different classroom with fewer or no alternative seating options, the students were more easily distracted, had more behavioral issues and were less engaged.

“I instantly saw the behavior change,” she said.

As she pursued her special education certification, Thalmann learned more about the benefits to students of using alternative seating and knew it was something she wanted to incorporate into her own classroom.

Now a Liberty Central School District teacher, Thalmann offers flexible seating to her sixth-grade students as an incentive. Students can opt to choose from a variety of seating options, such as yoga balls, stools paired with tables and bean bags.

“Today’s students require environments that encourage discovery and deeper learning, and flexible design is fundamental to the next generation of teaching and learning,” according to the California Department of Education School Facilities and Transportation Services Division.

If homework is a struggle, try offering some alternate places for homework time, Thalmann suggests.

“Providing them with that option would maybe make homework a bit easier,” she said.

She offers to her own children alternatives for where to sit when doing their homework. One of her sons choses to sit on a yoga ball and another chooses a large round cushy chair and uses a clipboard if he needs a hard surface to lean on for writing.

Homework is often a struggle at my house, and I’m rethinking where I have my kids sit while they work on it. If alternative seating works for them in the classroom, maybe it’s something we should try at home.

Benefits of flexible classroom seating

Smith System, a K-12 furniture manufacturer, cited on its Education Trend blog the following reasons for flexible classroom seating.


Students feel empowered by having some degree of choice and control over their environment. Flexible seating allows students to choose where they work and with whom. It also allows them to change their location and positions as needed.

Physical Health

Children need to move. Flexible seating allows them to wobble, rock, bounce, lean or stand, which increases oxygen flow to the brain, blood flow and core strength. In turn, this burns more calories and increases metabolism. It also helps keep young minds more alert and focused.


An uncomfortable student is a distracted and unproductive student. Flexible seating encourages students to find their best spot to stay calm, focused and productive.


Traditional desks can make students territorial or possessive over their space and supplies. Flexible seating encourages students to share both. And, it encourages them to take turns in different locations and with different seating options.


Flexible seating allows students to quickly and easily pair up, work in small groups or discuss as a whole class – without moving heavy desks to establish eye contact.

Sensory Input

Many flexible seating options stimulate students’ sense of touch. This type of stimulation can help children focus and process information. Sensory input is especially helpful for students with ADHD, ADD and ASD.

Source: Smith System, Education Trend blog, “Top 10 Benefits of a Flexible Seating Classroom.”

Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her third- and fifth-grade sons and is planning to pitch alternative homework locations to them tonight.

Tags: , , ,