Essential Solutions 3-MIN. READ

Sit, Slouch, or Stand: How Physical Comfort Relates to Learning

By: Nick Alfred 11/28/2023
Create a comfortable classroom environment for your students to do their best work.
Two students are sitting on beanbag chairs and sharing a table while working independently.

Think back to when you were a student. Maybe your school hallways were chilly, your desk was squeaky, or your rigid chair always dug into your back. Did you sit next to someone who picked on you during recess or chewed loudly on their pencil during instruction? Chances are those minor discomforts were big obstacles to your learning success. In my 21 years of teaching, I’ve discovered that if students aren’t in a mindset to learn, they can’t learn. 

Why is physical comfort so important to learning?

I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot happier on Friday dress-down days when I can wear jeans and sneakers. My brain isn’t thinking about the tie that’s a little too snug or the sock that’s getting lost in my shoe. Instead, my brain is freed up to dedicate its full capacity to being the best teacher I can be.

Your students feel the same way. If their chair is too small or their desk mate is relentlessly tapping their pencil on the desk, that student’s brain isn’t fully focused on the learning at hand. Allowing flexibility in students’ seating arrangements is one way I combat distracted learning and promote engagement. 

Where there’s comfort, there’s learning.

Students don’t have to be in straight rows or sitting at stationary desks to be productive. In fact, getting creative with the types of seating in your classroom can hone student focus. Here are some fun ideas I’ve tried in my classroom.

  • Floor seating: Beanbags, carpet squares, and repurposed patio cushions can be used for floor seating. Try using a desk with truncated or detached legs for a lowered writing surface to give your students a different perspective that allows them to really get comfortable. But no lying down—you don’t want them so comfortable that they fall asleep.
  • Standing options: Repurpose bed raisers to elevate a regular desk or table in your classroom into a standing desk. This setup can be great for center work, direct teacher instruction, or small groups. Or a high stool can be a fun, coveted option to be used as a reward.
  • Alternative chairs: Sitting up straight isn’t always indicative of greater productivity, especially for students who struggle with attention. Try using exercise balls or tripod chairs that offer students more movement while they work.
  • Desk configurations: I’m always moving my desks in different configurations like pods, a giant circle, or scattered all around the room. It makes students excited when they walk into class, trying to figure out what’s going on that day.

Set expectations.

It’s no secret that presenting alternative seating arrangements might involve some crowd control. To me, it’s all worth it when you realize students come to class more at ease and more in tune with how they’re most productive. My classroom can be fun and flexible, but I still set boundaries with my students. Here’s how I keep things running as smoothly as possible.

  1. Establish routines: Determine what times of day students can choose their seats. For example, independent, partner, or center work may be a good time to allow students to choose where they work. I prefer students sitting upright to take tests or receive whole class instruction. Find what works for you.
  2. Set boundaries: Some students may struggle with the freedom of choosing their seats. When a student isn’t being productive, I might set a timer and ask them to complete five problems to show me they can be successful where they are. If not, they might lose the privilege.
  3. Get to know your students: Relationships are essential to creating a comfortable classroom space. From day one, I start building trust with my students so I can redirect their choice if it doesn’t seem like the right one. It allows me to ask questions like, “Is this the best seat for you?” or, “How can we get back to learning?”

Where do I start?

You can create alternative seating arrangements without a huge budget. Get creative and find things secondhand. An old barstool that may have seen some great times could find even greater ones in your classroom. Here are some places I find materials:

  • Facebook Marketplace
  • Buy nothing, sell nothing pages
  • PTO/staff donations
  • Carpet stores (for carpet square samples)
  • Curbsides
  • Secondhand stores

Giving up control as a teacher can be difficult, but breaking out of the assigned seating mode doesn’t have to happen overnight. Search for inspiration from other teachers as to how they make their classroom a more comfortable and productive place for learning. Most importantly, remember that your classroom can become a haven for students to do their best work while feeling their best.

Want more from Nick? Tune into this episode of his Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.