Why we shouldn't be telling pupils to 'sit still'

​​​​​​​If we really want good learning outcomes, flexible seating is the way forwards, says Heba Al-Jayoosi 

Heba Al-Jayoosi

Flexible seating in classrooms: Do pupils really need to sit still to learn?

Many of us who work in primary schools are over-familiar with the term "good sitting". However, sitting for prolonged periods of time is not conducive to good learning.

It’s no secret that children need to move, and expecting them to sit on the carpet or at desks for prolonged periods of time can make them at best distracted, at worst disruptive.

But the question I have is this: do they really need to sit still at all during their learning? If they wobble, bounce, lean, rock or stand do they learn any less?

Flexible seating in classrooms

There is, of course, the issue that excessive movement of some children can be distracting to others, but offering flexibility for children, including in their seating arrangements, can have a hugely positive impact.

In the past two years, we have invested in a range of different seats for our classrooms. We have tried standing desks, Hokki stools, rocking chairs at desks (yes, permanent rocking all day long!), and, of course, beanbags and large seating for book corners – to allow pupils to lie back – have always been options.

Also, HowdaHUGs (chairs with adjustable straps that cradle a child either on the carpet or placed on their regular chair) have been seen in the school, too. 

We have even tried replacing some of the children’s seats with gym balls.

Benefits to learning 

We started with a couple of different arrangements in each class, did swaps and then involved the staff and children in an evaluation. 

As expected, some children loved the different seats more than others – this makes sense if we take into account the different sensory needs of children.

Of them all, the standing desks continue to be a hit and we definitely have several stand-out cases of children whose attention has improved remarkably, as has their learning output.

We’re aware of some accounts that dismiss the notion of flexible seating as a gimmick, but this hasn’t been our experience. We will definitely continue trying and evaluating different choices for classroom arrangements that incorporate movement. 

Change of approach

If you decide to implement flexible seating, one of the things you’ll have to get used to, as a teacher, is teaching while some of your pupils are perhaps rocking or bouncing on their chairs. This may take a while.

But think of all the times you’ve spun around in your chair, had a conversation while hovering over a colleague, or practised something while pacing up and down. If this helps us to be more productive, then why not? And if why not for us, then why not for the children? 

You only have to see the copious amount of learning in early years when children are engaged in free flow to appreciate how the flexibility of that arrangement (and curriculum) allows for wonderful learning.

Just like "lining up in silence", "sitting still" is an unrealistic expectation of children. It’s time for terms like "beautiful sitting" to be consigned to the bin! And terms like "comfortable sitting" to become the norm… or, of course, standing

Heba Al-Jayoosi is assistant head (Inclusion) at Mayflower Primary School in London 


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