Where to sit? Some important dynamics when teaching children

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We know there are important dynamics in seating arrangements. The chair at the head of the table is the ‘power’ seat. That position is usually reserved for the most powerful, senior, or revered person. Sitting beside your husband’s ex-wife’s new husband is one to avoid – don’t ask!

With students, though, there are other important considerations. We know that different seating arrangements can influence the climate of the classroom, relationships among the students and teacher, and learning in general.

For students with difficulty self-regulating, these considerations are particularly important. What do you do with a child who’s likely to disrupt other students? I’ve known teachers who put those kids at that back of the class. But that’s isolating to the student … and all the other students know why they’re sitting by themselves. Some children are seated up front near the teacher to reduce distractions. That also can cause social isolation – not something we want for the student. You can just hear other children remarking, “Bobby has to sit there cuz he makes too much noise or can’t sit still or …” It can all be pretty negative in terms of how other students view them and how they view themselves.

Considerations for seating arrangements are usually based on how students are viewed by the teachers (as potentially acting out or drifting off) and how that student might impact others. There are other things to consider, however. For example: What’s best for the academic learning of all students in the class? What’s best for learning appropriate behavior? What is tolerable for the students?

Academic learning is generally more effective when students are seated side-by-side in rows facing toward the teacher*. This seating arrangement keeps focus on the teacher and gives a greater sense of order to the classroom**.

Learning appropriate behavior is enhanced by grouping students together as buddies or in small groups. This means placing a child with self-regulation or learning challenges with students who have strong social and leadership skills. Small groups and learning buddies can help students learn cooperation as well as exposing them to good models. In addition, other children will start viewing them more positively. Just sitting close to a ‘higher status’ child can improve the buddy’s own standing in the classroom. Importantly, the children with strong social skills are usually not affected by the less regulated behavior of their buddy**.

Tolerable situations are those that are not too over-stimulating or under-stimulating. Children with autism and related conditions have many sensory sensitivities. Sitting close to other people, smelling their breath, sensing their movements, hearing them cough …. makes this all the more challenging. I recall a child who purposely made errors on a test so he could get away from the adult’s smelly breath.

Let’s look at the different seating arrangements.

Facing teacher sitting in rows. Students are expected to watch, listen, and respond consistently to the teacher (shown as gray chair). The physical closeness of the students can increase the sensory demands on them. Having to watch and respond to only one person (the teacher) can make this seating arrangement a little more tolerable for some students.

Students in small groups and pairs. In these seating arrangements, students are expected to pay attention and respond to verbal and nonverbal behavior of other students. They have to deal with the sensory issues related to being physically close, in addition to working on a task. Since children are generally less predictable in their behavior than adults, these seating  arrangements can prove to be quite challenging for some students. The reduced number of people in the one-on-one (rather than the group of four) can be easier to deal with. The side-by-side arrangement can further reduce demands.

Teacher or assistant face-to-face with student. This seating arrangement is typically used when testing children or teaching new or difficult tasks. The adult works individually with the child and the student is expected to pay attention and respond to them. The child has to deal with sensory issues related to being physically close to another person in addition to working on a task. The greater predictability of adults makes this situation a little less challenging. But there’s a confrontational nature to this seating arrangement because it is one-to-one and face-to-face.

Teacher or assistant behind the student. This seating arrangement is perhaps the best for teaching new skills and academic content. The teacher or assistant sits behind and to the side of the student. The student’s main focus is then on the task and the adult assists when needed. There are reduced sensory demands because the adult is not visible. Also, the adult’s role is as a helper rather than challenger.

The major take-away from this discussion is that there’s no best way to arrange seating. Observe children carefully and understand their sensory challenges in addition to their learning and social/behavioral needs. Use different seating arrangements for different purposes. If academic learning is the main goal, consider sitting behind the student or seating them in rows. Face-to-face across a table is still an option for teaching and testing but be aware of the dynamics and sensory concerns. If you want to focus on social learning as well as to practice skills, consider buddying children up or seating them in small groups. Those arrangements are not ideal for introducing new or more difficult tasks. As children develop their self-regulation skills, change seating arrangements to help build their resilience and self-advocacy skills.

* Note I didn’t say ‘looking at the teacher’. Eye contact can be disruptive to learning by students with autism and related conditions. Making students look at the teacher is not recommended. Looking in the direction of the teacher is something you can work on over time.
** For further reading, check out these studies:
Gremmen, M. C., van den Berg, Y. H. M., Segers, E., Cillessen, A. H. N. (2016). Considerations for classroom seating arrangements and the role of teacher characteristics and beliefs. Social Psychology of Education, 19, 749–774.
van den Berg, Y. H. M., & Stoltz, S. (2018). Enhancing Social Inclusion of Children With Externalizing Problems Through Classroom Seating Arrangements: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders26(1), 31–41. https://doi.org/10.1177/1063426617740561
***Sitting with a child with special needs may not be considered ‘cool’ by some students. It may be wise to rotate on a consistent basis in order to limit any negative effects on likeability.

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