By JENNA FEAR • STAFF WRITER
Nichole Etchason, who lives in Troy and teaches third grade in Wentzville, is only in her second year of teaching, but she’s already bringing in new ideas and seeing great results.
Etchason’s big idea this year was for flexible seating – a teaching trend she learned about from veteran teachers around the world sharing classroom strategies on Instagram. She saw different teachers raving about the benefits of switching up classrooms from their traditional assigned seating, and she said the makeup of her first class last year made her realize flexible seating might have great benefits for her students.
“Last year, I had a lot of busybodies in my class that always had to be moving,” she said, “and I realized that flexible seating would have really been helpful for them.”
So over the summer, she started researching and planning for a flexible seating set-up for this year’s class, and so far, it has been a great success.
of the traditional desk or table and chairs. Etchason has embraced what is called full flexible seating, which means that kids have full choice among the many options in her classroom. There are two tables at the floor level with floor cushions to sit on, one table with exercise balls as seats, one table with stools that have a hump on the bottom so they can wobble, one table with the traditional chairs, a standing table and options that let her kids work around the room with lap desks and clipboards.
One benefit of these many seating options is that kids who always seem to be moving around and full of energy can exert some of that while still focusing on learning as they bounce on yoga balls or wobble on the stools. Etchason has a rule about bouncing, though: “I tell them that if they bounce high enough for their butts to come off of the ball, they’ll get it take n away.”
She said the kids are very respectful of the seating because they like having options so much, and she teaches them that the various seats are not toys.
She also finds that the many options help in teaching her students conflict resolution skills; often, it will come down to two kids wanting the last of a certain type of seat, and they will have to make a decision about who gets it.
“When that happens, we stop the class and focus on how to work out the situation. They will usually play rock-paper-scissors or decide to take turns, whoever doesn’t get it this time will get it next time,” she said. She says it rarely becomes a problem and that the kids have become very good at resolving conflict in fair ways.
Along with the many teachers like Etchason who give anecdotal evidence to the benefits of flexible seating, there is some science behind the concept, too. Author and education consultant Eric Jensen wrote in a 2003 study about the concept of “episodic encoding,” which means that learners can unknowingly attach the things they learn to spatial references throughout the room.
The brain forms what Jensen calls “maps,” and more options throughout a room add “addresses” to that map that help with remembering specific learned information.
Movement throughout a room also increases heart rate and circulation, Jensen wrote, which can increase performance, and increased physical activity in a classroom, even just bouncing on a ball, can narrow students’ attention to tasks at hand.
There are some dissenters to the flexible seating concept, as many are concerned that without assigned seats at tables or desks, the classroom will become unruly and difficult to manage.
Etchason said that she combated this possibility by planning in advance how to introduce the children to the flexible seating options.
Her students started out the year in an assigned seat and then rotated on a schedule that allowed each child to try out each seat for one day as they learned how to properly use the seat. After that period, they were able to choose where to sit.
Because they want to keep sitting in their chosen seats, she said her students are respectful of each other and the classroom equipment because they don’t want to lose it.
There is a routine that keeps the kids in line with the alternative seating, too.
At the end of each day, the students stack their seats on the tables, and in the morning when they go to choose their seats, when a seat is taken off the table and put on the ground, they know that one has been chosen.
Another potential concern for parents is, of course, safety – aren’t exercise balls easier to fall off of?
But Etchason said that she introduced her plan for flexible seating to parents at curriculum night in the beginning of the school year so they would all be aware, and none showed concern for her choices of seats.
She doesn’t think any are very unsafe.
“Kids tumble off the balls sometimes, but they’re not high enough off the ground for it to do any damage,” she said.
And when the kids were introduced to each seating option at the beginning of the year, they were taught the rules and how to safely use each seat.
Etchason also realizes that the benefits of flexible seating depend entirely on the students. Some classes might not be such a good fit for flexible seating or the same processes she has in place with students this year.
“I haven’t planned to make any changes for next year because this year has gone so well,” she said, “but every student is different, so I’m prepared to change as I need to to fit the classroom.”
She said two other teachers on her team use variations of flexible seating in their classrooms, but she believes they are the only three in the school.
The results will vary from teacher to teacher and depend on the classrooms, she said, but she is excited about the success she has seen in her classroom and hopes more teachers will consider it.
Flexible seating basically means any way kids can sit in class outside.