Sara Morrice’s fourth-grade classroom at Lanigan Elementary School in Fulton includes several different options for seating, including hokki stools (pictured, lower front), high-back chairs, plush seats and small rocking chairs. (Photo courtesy of Sara Morrice)
Sara Morrice’s fourth grade classroom looks a little different from your average classroom.
The room at Lanigan Elementary School in the Fulton City School District isn’t lined with desks and chairs in neat rows. In fact, there are very few traditional desks in Morrice’s room.
Instead, kids sit on stability balls, yoga mats, wobble stools or other different forms of seating. It’s called flexible seating, and it gives students a bigger variety of options in where they choose to work.
“They’re more comfortable and actually have more space to spread out and work. They aren’t right on top of each other,” Morrice said. “I’m able to use all the space in the class much more efficiently.”
Flexible seating has become especially popular in the last three or four years thanks to social media. Morrice said she learned about it through a blog post and decided to give it a try.
“I was intrigued and implemented a very loose version in the beginning of the [2016-17 school] year,” she said. “I was letting kids pick where they wanted to sit each day, but it was mostly just at desks. In November  I took the leap to go all in.”
Morrice said she — and her students — are glad she did.
“The students love it and so do I,” she said. “I feel like it gives the classroom a more of a ‘home’ feel.”
Flexible seating isn’t just aesthetically pleasing; those who use it say it helps students to learn.
“The need of students is paramount in a flexible seating environment,” said Randy Matthews, who teaches third grade at Karl W. Saile Bear Road Elementary in North Syracuse. “They sit in an area that allows for sensory input that best fits their need, while being more relaxed and focused.”
While experts generally accept that sensory stimulation improves learning, scientific research into flexible seating and the larger field of sensory integration — how the nervous system receives messages from the senses — is lacking. What little examination there is does suggest a positive correlation.
A 2007 Mayo Clinic study found that college students with attention problems who traded desks for stability balls were able to focus better, and a 2014 study at Gannon University found that teachers reported “a significant decline” in the number of interruptions to instruction due to off-task behavior. (That study, however, failed to find any correlation in literacy test scores among students using alternative seating.)
The science may not be there yet, but teachers who use it in their classrooms are convinced.
“Since implementing our project, I have seen a definite improvement in student attention and engagement,” said Jenn MacArthur, a K-5 reading specialist at East Hill Elementary School in the West Genesee Central School District. “Sometimes a student’s need for movement interferes with his or her ability to learn. Flexible seating has provided movement in a safe and structured learning environment and helps students stay engaged in intervention groups.”
MacArthur said students themselves recognized the change in their focus since the project was implemented.
“When we were making a thank you video for our PTA [which provided funding for the project], we asked the kids what they like best about the hokki stools [ergonomic stools with a convex base so students can be in motion while sitting] in particular and their answers were really powerful. I was surprised by how students as young as first grade were able to verbalize the impact that hokki stools have in their learning.”
MacArthur’s students said the stools “help me think a lot better,” “help me calm down,” “help me pay attention” and “helps me relax and think better… when I am stuck on a problem.”
“Students are empowered to have input on how they learn best while demonstrating self-control with parameters around seating,” MacArthur said.
While the term “flexible seating” is fairly new, the concept has been around for a long time. Occupational therapists have used alternative seating with special needs students for two decades, and plenty of teachers have employed different methods of seating without using the term.
“Flexible seating is a popular idea right, now but it has been around for quite some time,” said Katelyn Cleveland, who uses stability balls, wobble stools, scoop chairs, a rug, beanbag chairs, a big pillow and a small couch in her kindergarten classroom in the Syracuse City School District. “Some teachers in my building have been using flexible seating techniques for many years without the title of ‘flexible seating’ to describe it.”
Cleveland said she always employed some form of alternative seating—letting kids read in the hallway or lie down on the floor. She said flexible seating can involve just a simple adjustment.
“The cost can be minimal — lower a table and let students sit on the floor. Use clipboards and to allow students to lie on the floor to work,” she said.
But if you’re looking for more options, converting to flexible seating can get expensive. Materials like hokki stools aren’t cheap; even with a discount for educators, they cost about $100 each, plus shipping. Other seating isn’t so expensive — stability balls, yoga mats and pillows can be purchased at Target or 5 Below. Still, it adds up.
“I would say I have about $600 invested in my classroom right now,” Morrice said. “But it’s not all my money.”
To offset the costs, teachers like MacArthur and her colleagues write grant proposals and submit them to their PTOs, or go to a site called DonorsChoose.org. The site was started by a history teacher from the Bronx in 2000 to allow public school teachers to crowdfund projects. Morrice used DonorsChoose to fund her flexible classroom, as did Cleveland.
No matter how you pay for it, the teachers advised newcomers to start slow, as a complete classroom change can be overwhelming to both teacher and students.
“Start small and see what works best for your students,” Cleveland said. “You don’t have to throw out all of your tables and chairs to really make an impact.”
Once you do make the change, know that there is a learning curve.
“Know that you have to build in time to teach the students how to use the new seating in the classroom,” Morrice said. “It took me some trial and error to figure out how to organize the classroom and where to store the things kids had in their desk. You need a plan!”
But generally speaking, students, at least in these teachers’ experience, have adapted well to the change.
“Flexible seating does not mean a free-for-all for the kids,” Morrice said. “They know that I have the right to move them if they are not using something correctly.”
After seeing how well it has worked with the wide variety of students she serves, MacArthur counts herself among flexible seating’s advocates.
“Flexible seating on any scale has a positive impact on students,” she said. “It allows students to have ownership in their learning while addressing students’ developmental need for movement. Flexible seating encourages self-reflection and self-control. It also allows differentiation for various student needs and provides additional strategies for student engagement.”
Randy Matthews agreed.
“It’s a big difference from the desks facing the blackboard environment many people picture,” he said. “Students work in smaller groups with teacher feedback and instruction at their learning spot in seating that fits the individual needs of all learners. This is a student-centered environment, not a teacher centered environment.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.