Flexible seating in the classroom offers seating options to increase focus and student engagement. Make sure your seating options give proper sensory input AND promotes good seated posture.
I love working in elementary schools and homes and seeing the increased use in flexible seating options. Years (decades) ago, it was a process to provide a kiddo with adapted seating, yoga balls, or wiggle cushions.
The options were limited and they were only available in pricey specialty magazines. Teachers had a difficult time being permitted to use them with traditional desks. Plus, kids who really needed them were singled out and looked different than their peers.
Now, it’s fun for me to see how more elementary teachers are using flexible seating classroom set-ups. They create areas for small groups or at kids tables or they offer a variety of seats and tools at student desks. The choices I see offered are creative and functional. Students use the various seating choices seamlessly as part of their daily routine throughout the school year.
There are so many different options for flexible seating. Most sensory seats, wobble cushions, and wobble chairs meet student needs appropriately and support posture. But some do not, so I’m sharing my thoughts and best occupational therapy recommendations in this blog post!
What is Flexible Seating in the Classroom?
Flexible seating is offering a variety of tools, chairs, and seating options in a learning environment. The alternative seating options are placed in various locations in the classroom. Offering a variety of learning spaces supports student engagement and student achievement.
There are many different seating options for students that can be used in different locations, depending on the type chosen.
Flexible seating can be used in chairs at traditional desks. Seating items can be used on the carpet or floor for individual work or group activities. Or, they can be used in a specific center or a learning space in the classroom.
Flexible seating can also be used at home for homework options. Kids (and adults) lose focus and attention when sitting in the same position all day. Attention especially decreases at the end of the day. Our bodies need to move and change positions. Younger students have less mature nervous systems. They need even more movement and position changes throughout the day.
Using sensory seats are easy ways to increase alertness, attention and focus in kids. Additionally, providing extra sensory input is a great way to help wiggly kids. And, it can greatly improve seated posture if the right choices are made.
What are the Benefits of Flexible Seating in the Classroom?
The benefits of flexible seating include giving kids sensory input, improving posture, and increases student achievement and engagement. These all improve focus and attention for learning.
Provides Sensory Input
Kids need extra sensory input while learning! Flexible seating in the classroom gives children’s bodies and brains important sensory stimulation that helps increase focus and attention.
Many flexible seating options give extra movement (vestibular input) for kids. This can greatly improve focus and attention in kids that have trouble sitting still and staying in one place.
Alternate seating options provide the muscles and joints with added proprioceptive input that improves focus and attention. This proprioceptive input increases alertness in your sleepy kiddo, and it calms your kiddo with extra energy!
(Making proprioceptive brain breaks as part of your daily routine also helps all kids focus. The input is calming, alerting, and organizing for the brain and nervous system.)
Flexible seating can also provide a little bit of tactile input that is alerting for the nervous system.
Improves Core Strength
Many young children also lack core and trunk strength. Weak core muscles make it hard for kids to pay attention. If they don’t have strong muscles to sit upright, they spend a lot of time re-positioning their bodies as they try to learn and attend.
Several seating options help to improve core strength which helps with seated posture. Using different muscle groups in different positions strengthens the body and increases blood flow and oxygen to the body and brain.
Increases Student Achievement
Offering proper choices for seating improves student engagement in the learning process. Additionally, different seating options allow kids to choose their preferred learning position.
It supports a thinking classroom and more independence in students as opposed to the traditional rows of desks where the teacher stands and talks most of the time.
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Flexible Seating in the Classroom – Occupational Therapist Recommended and Kid Approved!
When creating your flexible seating classroom, also make sure you have an area where kids can lie on their stomachs on the floor and work at a vertical surface. There are many benefits for students lying in a prone position (on their stomach on the carpet) as well as benefits of working at a vertical surface. They both increase the visual presentation of work, decrease environmental distractions, and strengthen postural muscles.
Additionally, when you choose seating options, check that your seats and work surfaces are set up at the appropriate height for kids.
Regardless of the seating option they use, teach kids how to sit with good posture (click the previous link to learn how.)
Encourage sitting with an upright posture when possible. Add core strength exercises to your daily brain breaks.
The following flexible seating options are my favorites as a school based occupational therapist. Use them in the classroom or at home in a learning space.
1. Adjustable Wobble Stool
The adjustable feature is a great option for this balance stool to ensure correct height for optimal posture. It can be adjusted to fit a child’s leg length and to make sure they fit at the table or desk height.
This stool provides constant, subtle movement input for wiggly kids. The added movement helps with core strength and stability as well.
For older students with good balance and motor coordination, T-stools are my favorites. They provide subtle movement input while giving so much input to the muscles in the core as well as the nervous system. I love this Stabili-T-Stool Tube or this more traditional T Stool Balance Vestibular Kit.
2. Balance Ball Chair
Just like the balance and wobble stools, these stability balls give added movement input for a child’s brain. The gentle bouncing while on the ball stimulates the muscles along the spine.
Side to side movements stretch and strengthen the core when on exercise balls. This is great for improving postural muscles and core strength.
Use them at a table or desk or use them for carpet time.
For a DIY version of a ball chair, find a small gym ball and put it into a milk crate. Ball crate seats can be adjusted to fit your student needs.
3. Wedge Wobble Chair Cushion
I love this wedge cushion! If you’re going to use a wiggle cushion for the chair, this is the one! It gives tactile and movement input AND improves posture.
The wedge design facilitates a more upright posture. The higher part in the back helps a child’s hips roll forward. This creates the proper inward curve in the lower back and allows the spine to be more upright.
It’s perfect for kids who slouch and round their lower back.
4. Stackable Stools
If you don’t want wobble stools, stationary stools are great for posture. Regular chairs often have a dip in the back that causes kids hips to roll back. Or, kids lean back against the chairs and slouch.
Stools have a flat top to encourage an upright spine when sitting. Kids can place feet flat on the floor with an inward lower back curve.
5. Portable Lap Desk
These portable lap desks are great for floor work. Regular floor lap trays tend to be too low for school-age kids – these lap desks offer a higher work surface to keep kids sitting more upright.
Kids can also sit cross legged which is good to stretch out the hips.
These portable lap desks are also lightweight and mobile. You can take them outdoors for learning!
They are meant for laptops – but you’re definitely doing your part to limit your student screen time, correct?!
For a school-based occupational therapist, these portable desks are especially great for buildings with limited work spaces. I often have to find whatever space is available in some buildings for my treatment sessions – hallways, stair cases, library reading nooks, etc. These serve as a great mobile desk when one is not available.
6. Standing Desk
Using a standing desk, podium or bookshelf offers an additional learning position for kids. Kids’ hips are bent most of the day in school. Giving breaks to stretch them and move helps with blood flow in the body which improves blood flow to the brain for learning.
As previously noted, also using vertical surfaces is helpful for kids.
The more parts of the body kids use, the more parts of the brain are activated. (During my COVID virtual therapy sessions, I HAD to alternate sitting and standing for my sessions. It was so tough for me to stay focused just sitting in the same position all day long!)
7. Ergonomic Kneeling Chair
For an even better stretch for the hips (and to really facilitate good posture) try a kneeling chair. I currently work with a reading support teacher who has her entire small group table set up with these chairs. The kids absolutely love them!
Tips for Creating Your Flexible Seating Classroom
Many teachers I know make a wish list at the beginning of the year for their classrooms. They share the list with parents, the parent-teacher-student association, or with their administrators. Others work with grant writers to obtain money to support their schools.
A few teachers have been buying adapted seating for their own classroom out of their own pockets. You can find a great price on M@c Discount.
Contact your school district’s custodial staff, wood working programs or local vocational technical schools. I’ve had luck over the past couple of decades reaching out and collaborating with these professionals to make seats, stools, or specific items for students.
Additionally, locate a contractor or woodworker to make and donate items with leftover materials. My husband and my father have made t-stools and footstools for my OT kids using leftover lumber in their woodshops.
Consult with your occupational therapist before making a purchase or finding seating. Some students might need more postural support. Others might need the seating options for sensory based needs. Ask for feedback regarding your flexible seating classroom.
The nice thing about providing a variety of seats for all students, is that it does not single out students who really need different options. Kids are given choices and you can provide options to meet more learning needs.
Consider your set-up to improve social skills during partner work or group work. Or think of your learners who need fewer distractions.
Additional Considerations for Kids Seeking Movement, Proprioceptive Input, and Deep Pressure Input
This list provided in this blog post consists of my favorite seating options. They address the needs and difficulties that I see with most students in schools. The focus of these seats is to increase attention, enhance student engagement, and improve posture.
However, you may have kids who need more movement during learning (click for more ideas.) Consider setting up a “pacing lane” in the classroom (make a designated space for standing and walking while reading or listening.)
In addition, a small rocker would be greatly beneficial. The linear movement is incredibly organizing for the nervous system.
For your kids who constantly seek proprioceptive or deep pressure input, check out Calming Deep Pressure Weighted Tools and Activities that Increase Focus.
You’ll find more specific tools such as bean bag chairs, weighted lap pads, etc to give extra pressure input for kids that need it. It’s such powerful input for the brain during learning! Proprioceptive sensory input helps kids stay relaxed and pay attention better.
Be sure to add Brain Breaks throughout the day. (Click the link for a quick brain break exercise series that includes Brain Gym Exercises. A free handout is available.)
Classroom Exercise Program – 8 Weeks of Brain Breaks and Hand Exercises
If you’re interested in more daily occupational therapy exercises for your elementary kids, check out the 8-Week Classroom Exercise Program. This program offers additional movement input, proprioceptive exercises, crossing midline activities, fine motor skill exercises, and more.
Use these specific occupational therapy exercises to improve:
Attention… focus… core stability… crossing midline… sensory processing… visual development… & more… Click for more info!
Related Sensory Strategies for the Classroom
48 Quick & Easy Alerting Sensory Strategies for Kids – Choosing specific sensory activities can be very effective in increasing alertness in the brain. Some sensory activities calm kids… make sure you know the ones that can wake kids up when they need it!
Sensory Diet Strategies to Help Kids Focus on Homework – This post gives a variety of sensory strategies and sensory activities to increase focus in the home environment. These strategies are great for homework or for homeschooling. (And they also help adults increase focus, too!)
Wake the Brain with Proven Oral Sensory Activities – The sensory receptors in the mouth and jaw have a powerful impact on the nervous system. Many kids need oral motor and oral sensory tools and activities to improve focus.
Pyramid of Learning – This post will help you understand the importance of the sensory systems as the foundation for learning, behaving and attending.
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