5

Flexible Seating: What’s the Point?

I realize it is summer but some educators are have been reflecting on their current classroom set up or changes they have recently made to decide on what their classroom will look like next year.  I recently read a couple of articles from Mindshift and Edutopia (here and here) about flexible seating and it caused me to tweet out the following:

I have been critical of Twitter as it very rarely seems to create dialogue but for some reason, this tweet caused a number of different deeper conversations of which I thoroughly enjoyed and helped with my thinking.

As with any changes we make in education, it must come from a place of purpose. I like the question: What problem are we trying to solve?

So what is the point of flexible seating? What do we even mean by “flexible seating”? From the people I have talked to and those who responded on Twitter, it seems that the main purposes (yes, there are more but these were the main ones) of these changes in classrooms are:

  • comfort
  • decor
  • student ownership of the classroom
  • collaboration
  • self-regulation

Last year, we had 4 teachers decided to create pretty significant changes to their classroom set up. The district encouraged us to make these changes and because we had to get the orders for new furniture in by a deadline to get the stuff for September, we spent some money and ordered what we felt would help with classroom design. The error I made in this is that we actually never discussed the purpose for each classroom. We ordered it because we thought it would help but because we didn’t define the purpose, we were not able to see if “it worked” as a school (knowing the teachers that made the changes, they put a ton of thought into it and likely had a clear purpose in mind but I never asked the question). Whenever we make changes, we should have a clearly defined purpose or a problem we are working on; when we have this, we can assess at various points of the year if our solutions are hindering or helping.

For our school, some teachers made the following changes:

  • one classroom that kept the desks but added in some comfort areas and standing desks
  • one classroom that removed all the desks and used regular rectangular tables with chairs, shorter tables so students could sit on the floor, bucket seats, hokki stools, lap desks, and carpets. Lighting was also changed to a more natural light.
  • one classroom that removed all the desks and used smaller tables that could be put together and pulled apart for various reasons, standing desks, bucket chairs, and stools. Less fluorescent lighting was used as well as some aromatherapy.
  • one classroom that kept 2/3 of the desks but had options of couches and tables of various heights as well as some floor seating options.
  • one classroom that removed the desks and had tables of various heights. A carpet area was also added.

Throughout the year, we discussed how things were going with the new design.  For those teachers who made pretty significant changes, it was a struggle for 2-3 months to help students to understand their seating options and the responsibilities that came with this (helping students to purposely choose the best fit for them). After Christmas, some teachers felt that students started to settle in and they felt that this really had a positive impact on classroom community (care, collab, social-emotional). Some felt that students who needed to wiggle and move could do this and this helped with their focus and behaviour. For another teacher, the removal of desks was not working for her class. Students had significantly more self-regulation struggles and teaching a lesson posed a large challenge (students were very distracted at tables, struggled with not having their own space, and there was less calm, learning time for individual students) so a few tables were kept but desks were brought back in. Talking to a few students, they actually preferred the desks as they had their own space and were less distracted by those at their table.

As stated, we were not able to actually tell if the redesign helped or hindered students because I had not asked for clarity around purpose so we were not able to assess the impact.  The only thing we could go on was how it “felt” or “looked” to staff members. As a school, I think overall that the teachers liked the moves but there were some challenges.

Moving back to the aforementioned reasons that people choose to redesign their classroom, there are some questions/thoughts I now have:

  • Comfort: Comfort is important but does a more comfortable classroom lead to better achievement or more success? Classrooms need to be safe with a sense of belonging but we need to be careful that we are not putting comfort ahead of teaching and learning. I am more comfortable sitting on the couch or in bed but I get a lot less done than if I am at a desk. If comfort is the key reason for making these changes, keep in mind that some/many students need their own space and can become dysregulated if they have to share space or have too many options. How do improve comfort while also improving self-reg and/or achievement?
  • Decor: We all want our classrooms to look nice for students, parents, and colleagues. It feels great when we have a classroom we can be proud of.  When we shift the decor we always have to keep student learning at the forefront. Many people have said they are trying to model their classroom after a cafe – the “Starbucks” way of design. My concern with this is that people using Starbucks as a place of learning have a much different purpose than those in a classroom. People going to Starbucks are not learning from a teacher and are all self-directed. A high school learning commons area can use Starbucks as a model but for a classroom, there should still be an effective way for the teacher to teach a lesson (content knowledge is so important!) and having so many different areas with students facing so many different ways can be a real challenge. Even if we are just trying to change the look of our classroom so it is more trendy, we still need to be aware of these changes in achievement.  Are we assessing the effect of our changes on the classroom? What if these changes actually hinder learning in the classroom?
  • Student Ownership of the Classroom: Similar to the comments above, if student ownership is the problem we are trying to solve, how can we create solutions that not only help this but also benefit (or don’t take away from) student achievement? Ownership is important but this can be done in many smaller ways first to see if they make an impact (before changing the entire classroom design).
  • Collaboration: Creating more collaborative learning spaces is not something new as teachers have been getting students to push their desks together for years. I do see the benefit of tables but I also see the drawbacks. If a classroom goes to all tables, this could actually make it less flexible as tables cannot be taken apart and moved around for individuals or smaller groups. Collaboration only works if students have enough content knowledge to actually contribute to the dialogue. Ensuring that the classroom works in a way that the teacher can still teach content knowledge is important so how do we create environments that allow for instruction, individual practice and reflection, as well as collaboration?
  • Self-Regulation: For me, this is the most important reason to reflect on classroom design (and one that I have seen the most success). Beneficial changes in the classroom to help “down-regulate” and “up-regulate” can be done without having to throw out all the desks and bring in new furniture. Changes in lighting, adding calm areas of the room, and providing various seating options (actual seats like wobble stools and standing desks) can help with the whole learning environment and thus, help achievement. A few years ago, we brought in a couple standing desks and a few Hokki stools and then looked at the effect of written output. For some students, allowing them to stand or use a wobble stool helped them be able to write significantly more with a higher quality. For other students, the wobbling became a real distraction and actually hindered writing achievement. This creates a challenge as what works for one student may not work for others. What we did well was look at a specific way of assessing success/failure when we implemented a few ideas. When designing a classroom for self-regulation, seating options is just one thing to consider as there are multiple strategies that can be used with students to help them regulate themselves for effective learning. If a child is better regulated, their achievement should increase so this is an area that can be assessed throughout the year.

There is little to no clear research of the impact of classroom design on student achievement and with so many variables to consider, I don’t think there is a single optimal classroom design for all students and educators. Having said this, based on what I have read and the conversations I have had with people I work with and online, I think I will try to keep the following in mind when I work with teachers to redesign or reflect on classroom design:

  • Be specific on the problem, purpose of the change, strategies to implement, and markers for success. Without doing this, how will we know our time, efforts, and money are making a difference?
  • Keep some desks*. I am not saying you need to keep all of them but before making big changes, switch up a portion of the class and leave a good number of desks for those students who need their own personal space. *Note that this is more for grade 2/3 and above as many early primary classrooms have not used desks for years and lessons/instruction take place at the carpet.
  • Use small tables. Large tables actually take away from flexible seating as they present only one or two options for students. With smaller tables, you can put them together or move them apart as needed. If you are buying tables, you can also get tables that can be raised or lowered based on the need to stand or sit.
  • Offer comfortable areas. When starting small (in elementary/middle), for quiet reading, students may enjoy a bean bag chair or a bucket chair. Be clear with students the purpose of these areas so that when there is instruction or individual or small group work occurring, these are not used.
  • Offer seating options (stools, standing desks). You need not change your whole classroom to offer some seating options for students who may benefit from self-reg tools. Start with a few stools and some standing desks (or small, tall tables) to and see if student learning and achievement benefits from this. If we have evidence of increased success for an individual with a certain tool from past years/teachers, please embrace this as to go back to a standard chair may make the learning more difficult for the student. We can build on evidence from past success/struggles.
  • Fail small*.  One of the most common mistakes I have made is making significant (large) changes and waiting too long to see if it is working.  If you have a clear understanding of the purpose and the strategies, use the defined success markers to see if what you are doing is effective. After a short time (weeks or 2 months), check to see how the strategy is working. If it is working… keep going, if it is not, stop and pivot.  I have tried and observed classroom design that actually hindered learning so it is important to know the impact of the strategy.  *HT to Simon Breakspear for helping me with this.

If you are a teacher that does well (and whose students do well) in a classroom with all desks, don’t feel pressured to make significant changes unless there is clear evidence that it will positively impact your classroom. Some of the best teachers I have observed had classrooms with all desks while others had a variety of seating options. We are often quick to judge a teacher by what the classroom looks like at a point in time instead of moving deeper to look at the pedagogy and learning tasks that take place over a period of time. Be respectful in understanding that what works for one teacher and group of students may not work for someone else. Find what works for you and your students. Desks are not likely the enemy that some people seem to think they are.

I have seen success in a variety of classrooms (yes, even desks in rows! 😉 and I would argue that the success is due to the teacher rather than the furniture or set up. At this point, I am not for or against classroom redesign; what I am for is us reflecting and sticking with what works and/or trying ideas to see if there is a benefit to our students. As educators, we have very little time so when we put in time and effort, we need to be aware of the changes we make and the evidence of the impact of these changes on our students. With not much research out there yet on the impact of flexible design, we need to be clear on the POINT (our why) of the changes and then check to see if our HOW is making a difference.

As I am mostly thinking out loud on this one, if you have thoughts on why we should promote or be cautious of flexible seating, please share. Thank you to all those people at school and online who have pushed my thinking on this one.

14

10 Belief Statements About Student Discipline

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CC Image from Charlie Baker https://flic.kr/p/aTHCev

As I continue my journey in the first 4 months at James Hill elementary, I wanted to share my beliefs around student discipline with the staff.  Although my views continue to evolve and grow through formal and informal learning and school/home experiences, I want to be transparent about the lens I look through around student discipline.  At a recent staff meeting, I took the time to share these brief belief statements with staff:

  1. “Kids do well if they can…. if they could do well, they would do well.” (Dr. Ross Greene)  Behaviour is a skill. When a child struggles with reading, we provide interventions and differentiation to support and teach. When a student struggles with behaviour, we also need to support and teach… and then we teach some more.  Many students do not do well living in a grey world so, as with all learning, students need clear models and criteria (ex. criteria) of what effective behaviour looks like.  By focusing on skills, I am not saying that we do not use consequences;  however, when we use consequences, they must be logical and not punitive. We must be investigators of the skills that students lack to be successful and then work to teach those skills.  (See video below from Greene.) Create the conditions for student success.
  2. Start with strengths.  We must create the conditions for students to see and feel real success. We cannot wait until a student is on a long string of setbacks before we talk about what the students strengths and interests are… include these in their learning from the start!  These strengths should be embraced and never used as a carrot to be dangled or taken away.  If a child’s strength is working with younger students, put it in their schedule.  This will help build confidence and give them a sense of purpose and positive identity at school.
  3. Students need to belong.  We ALL need to belong.  If a student is consistently being sent out of class or moved from school to school, how can we expect a sense of belonging?  I realize that there are some students whose behaviours can pose a safety concern and we must look at and balance each student’s needs… but we must maintain the goal of creating a sense of belonging in the classroom.
  4. Students need to know they matter.  Take the time to connect with kids.  Find out their strengths and interests.  Find out who they are.  Take the time to show the students that you do care about their life beyond the classroom.  Differentiation is not just about teaching at a child’s level, it is also about including their strengths and interests.
  5. Focus on self-regulation and self-control skills.  If a student cannot sit still, they are telling us they need to move.  Yes, sitting still is a skill but it is also developed more easily for some.  If a student has meltdown, there are likely many opportunities to intervene (that occur prior that point) to help teach the student the skills needed to self-regulate his/her emotions.  We also need to reflect on if our classroom environments help or hinder a child lacking self-regulation skills.  Do our classrooms have a calming sense (as Shanker asks… have we removed some of the “visual clutter” in our classrooms?)?  Do we provide opportunities for students to move as needed?
  6. We cannot motivate students.  We can only create the conditions for students to motivate themselves. (adapted from Ed Deci and Richard Ryan)  The use of carrots and sticks will help students to become good at… getting carrots and avoiding sticks.  Students should learn to do the right thing… just because it is the right thing to do.  Carrots and sticks are effective in the short term but ineffective in the long term.  Teaching the needed skills and creating the conditions for students to motivate themselves takes a lot of time but it is worth it in the end.
  7. Students make mistakes… and they need to make things right.  Every student will make a poor choice, an error in judgment, or react inappropriately at some point. When this occurs, it is important that we look to restitution to help make things right (ex. doing something meaningful for the person that was hurt – see the work of Diane Gossen). Some view this as “letting him/her off the hook to do something positive” when what it is really doing is helping a child FEEL what it is like to do something positive and then creating a moment to reflect on the difference between what it FELT to do something negative.
  8. We need to move from MY students to OUR students.  We need to tap into the many relationships and resources in our school.  If there is an education assistant or former teacher that has a positive relationship and can help, embrace this. If the teacher across the hall can offer a quiet area when needed (for self-regulation), explore this idea.
  9. “How we teach becomes what we teach.” (Larry Cuban)  If we want to see it… model it.  If we want children that our caring, kind, empathetic, inclusive, etc, we need to model this at all times.  We are not perfect and we make mistakes but it is how we respond to these mistakes that teaches our students how to respond to theirs.  Whenever we have that opportunity to discipline and “teach the child a lesson”, we need to be reflective on what that lesson is.  Even at the most challenging times, we must do our best to remain respectful as our actions teach so much.  Being respectful, kind and caring does not mean we need to be permissive.  A teacher once told me that when we are working with students with challenging behaviours, we need to be kind and firm.
  10. “The kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.” (unknown)  We must seek to understand.  We often hear that we should “send kids home” when they misbehave.  There are many problems with this but the main one is that for many (not all) students who struggle,  life outside of school is not filled with love and care. Sending a child home to a stressful, uncaring situation can make matters worse.  In addition, if the goal is to teach a child to behave at school and in life, when we send him/her home we are crossing our fingers and hopeing for change… which rarely (never) happens when he/she returns to school.  As stated, kids need to feel they belong and they are cared for… sending a child home can escalate behaviours  in the long term.

Kids need us.  For students who struggle with behaviour challenges, it is never a simple solution.  Teaching 30 students (with a variety of academic, social and emotional needs) for an entire day can be completely exhausting.  When discussing solutions, though, we need to ask the question: who is this about – the teachers/admin? or the student?   It likely falls somewhere in the middle but it is important to keep in mind the needs of everyone.  In the end, it is our job as admin, teachers, and staff to create the conditions for student success.  Meet students where they are and teach the needed skills from there.

I share these statements here not to state that my views are correct but to share with others for understanding as well as provide an opportunity for feedback to help me grow.  Please add your thoughts (support AND challenge) in the comments.  Are there key areas that I have missed or need to be changed?

 

23

Movement is NOT a Reward

cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by Camdiluv ♥: http://flickr.com/photos/camdiluv/4441155157/

Kids need movement. We all need movement.  Recess is a need.  PE is a need.  Energy breaks are necessary.

If I am in a longer session and I need to move, I get up and take a break.  I bounce my legs. I type. This helps me to self-regulate so I can focus more and stay calm.  I wonder how I would respond or how my learning would be impacted if I got up to take a break and was told to sit down and sit still. 

At many schools, students are given energy breaks on a regular basis so students can spend the time in between the breaks being more focused on learning. Throughout the day at our school, you will obsever students walking/running around the school or climbing up and down our hill as we believe in the power of movement to help a child’s learning.

I wonder, however, how often we fail to listen to students telling us they need to move.  When a child is hyper or continually getting out of his/her seat, our first response is often “sit down”.  When a child is tapping their pencil or rocking in their child, we often tell them to “sit still” and  “be quiet”.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that there are times when it is important to not distract others but I also wonder how much effort we put into meeting the needs of students by providing an outlet for needed physical activity.  We have teachers/staff at Kent that promote the use of wiggle seats, fidget toys, exercise balls, and also encourage some students to stand up as a way to help them; I see this as a huge benefit for students. The challenge for teachers and staff is to determine an appropriate balance of movement, noise, and quiet, calm time.  My concern is that we confuse our needs with student needs and sometimes observe behaviours as a choice to act out and misbehave rather than a message of what their bodies need.

So if movement is a need that helps us all, how do we feel about these statements?

  • “If we all behave, we will have 5 minutes at the end to go outside.”
  • “If you don’t sit down, you won’t be able to go out at recess.”
  • “If you don’t get your work done, you won’t get to go to PE.”
  • “Every time you are out of your seat, you get a strike.  Three strikes and you stay in at recess.”
  • “Thank you, Sarah, for staying in your seat and remaining quiet.  Here is a ticket.”
  • “Just ask your PE teacher if you can miss PE class to work on your assignment.”

As a former PE teacher, I realize the unfortunate hierarchy of physical education in schools.  I also realize that students need to get the learning activities completed and movement can also be used as avoidance.   We also know, however, that we all need movement to help us regulate so let’s put ourselves in the shoes of students during a school day and reflect upon seat time and movement time.

Let’s work to create solutions to academic and behaviour problems without looking to PE and movement as a reward or something that can be taken away.  This sends the wrong message about physical education and often ignores what they are telling us – they need movement and other sensory solutions!  Each student often requires different movement needs.  Let’s work to create the sensory conditions for students to get these needs met so they can better focus on their learning.  For educators this is no easy task; however, by working together to implement strategies to increase opportunities for movement, this will not only benefit student learning but also the stress level of staff in schools.

Special thank you to Marc Landry, an occupational therapist from BC, for inspiring this post.

NOTE: Although I disagree with the punitive response of keeping a child in at recess I do know that there are times when this extra 1:1 time with the teacher can effectively help to meet the needs of the child.  We have staff that are often giving up their breaks to work with students to support them in many different subjects… including PE.  As always, we need to reflect upon the needs of each child and try to create an effective learning environment for each student.