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'A new classroom setup had my daughter excited. By the end of the term she was worn out.'

The growing trend to toss the traditional classroom in favour of flexible options, where children choose where and how they sit (stand or slouch), is, in my opinion, a bit of a stretch.

Right now, across the country, many schools are being issued grants to replace desks with flexible seating and equipment, despite the apparent lack of research to support it. So why are our educators giving primary school children, as young as six, the autonomy to choose seating, whether it be a fitball, cushion on the floor, high bench, couch, next to a friend, in a group or alone?

It seems flexible seating “gurus” are attracted to ‘un-seating’ to foster creativity and collaboration, but is it working and what of the consequences?

I first became aware of the flexible classroom this year when my daughter, a student at a Catholic primary school, experienced this new learning environment.

At first, being a social creature and restless to boot, she was excited about it, and it seemed to suit her, but as the term wore on she became worn out. The choices of where to sit and with whom weighed heavily on her and getting her to school became a constant battle.

We ask a psychologist about whether or not it’s ok to bribe your kids to do well at school with cash, on our podcast for imperfect parents. Post continues after audio.

Being separated from her friends this year didn’t help matters; but this wasn’t a concern, until faced with the challenges of a fully-flexible and socially demanding classroom.

I wondered, if my socially well-adjusted child was struggling, how were other children faring. It seemed that playtime politics were no longer confined to the playground, but now followed our children into the classroom. It reminds me of the social media challenge we face, where a difficult day at school follows our children home if we don’t monitor and makes restrictions on devices.

Ngaire Stirling, owner of Brisbane Kids, says – as a mother of a special needs and neurotypical child – allocated seating matters. “What it means is that children with a lack of friends or social challenges are seated next to different and varying personalities offering them new friendship opportunities that would never be afforded if the seating was organised via the children themselves.”

So, does permitting young children to choose their own learning space impact negatively on the classroom atmosphere? Should teachers take responsibility for the social and emotional well being of children via allocated seating?

Researchers, Van den Berg, Segers, and Cillessen stated in their research paper that, “careful structuring of the classroom environment, especially the seating arrangement, could be a non-intrusive way to promote a more positive classroom climate with less victimisation, aggression, and rejection, and more acceptance, cooperation, and friendship.”

flexible seating feat
Image: Getty
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Jesse Diggins, a school psychologist, says the flexible classroom may not be as well supported and evidenced as some believe.

“My observations in classrooms are usually on students that are having difficulties. For these students what is needed to support learning is routine and structure. The open layout of the classroom can sometimes leave students feeling confused as to which space to occupy and how best to use the space to complete the task.

I have witnessed children wandering around for a long time between spaces, unsure where to begin.What can also happen is that students can get lost in this space, going unobserved by teachers. So, for some students, this environment can be less preferable than a traditional classroom where there are clear rules around expected “on-task” behaviour and how to seek help.”

The inherent benefits of a flexible classroom space seem to be in fostering creativity and peer discussion, according to Diggins. “I have seen this occurring in open layout classrooms. Though, I suspect these learning benefits are reserved for students who are already strong academically and socially.

I suspect it also provides opportunities for students to develop leadership and collaborative working skills,” he adds.

So, what’s the alternative? Diggins says, a combination of traditional desks and breakout areas may be a way to better meet the needs of all learners. “One thing I have noticed to be very beneficial for students is an attached breakout space.

I have seen this private space — often filled with sensory tools - be used regularly to help kids regulate their emotions before returning to class successfully.”

Has your child had a negative or positive experience with flexible classroom seating?

Haley Williams is a content writer for Australian Online Courses.

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