Classroom Setup

Making Your Desk Organization Work

view-video-on-pageI start my classroom setup with desk groups, as a I explain in my first day of school section, because it helps build classroom community.

Plus, the kids have to sit somewhere and I need to see how they relate to each other before making decisions about the best classroom organization.

There are other important early-in-the-year considerations for seating, however.

Both Eyes on the Teacher

Especially during the first part of the year, I make sure that no one’s back is to the front of the room. At the most, I’ll have them sit sideways.

Why? Because, if they can choose, a student will always look at another kid rather than looking at you.

Yes, turn your whole body!

Yes, turn your whole body!

Sometimes the physical layout of our schools unavoidably forces a classroom setup with children’s back facing the front. If that is the case in your room, the answer is setting proper expectations. It’s not enough to say, “When I speak you need to look at me.” The children have to actually practice how they will pay attention to you:

  • Push out their chair a bit with a slight turn toward the front
  • Rotate their whole body
  • Eyes on you

This may sound like overkill, but I assure you it is not. Set this expectation as soon as possible if any of your students don’t have direct line-of-sight with your main teaching area.

Betsy’s Video Insights: Classroom Arrangement for Effective Instruction

Creating Familiar Patterns

Moving individual students or desks can start whenever it is needed (even the first day of school if necessary), but don’t alter your overall layout until all procedures are in place. So, if you start the year with rows, stick with rows…with groups, stick with groups.

It’s important to keep this familiar structure in place until all of your other daily procedures are well established, from getting seated and started in the morning, through lining up for lunch, to putting up chairs at the end of the day.

Making significant changes to your classroom setup prior to “locking down” your procedures will only generate chaos.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to avoid chaos in the classroom if I can!

…but a little change is good, too!

After your procedures are in place, moving things around a bit is a good thing. Aside from moving individual students for behavior issues (separating talking partners, for instance) I play with the arrangements of the desks to keep things interesting.

Kids grow and change and their socialization patterns change as well. Combining this with the need to accommodate curriculum (a science unit, for example, may require certain size groupings) leads to a shifting pattern of rows and pods all year long.

Two things are set in concrete in my room, though:

  • A communal gathering / teaching area in front of my interactive whiteboard
  • “Nooks” for kids to go to read or work on assignments

Adults like their routines, but they also like a little change. We’re complex creatures, aren’t we?! Kids are no different.

Mix up your classroom setup a bit – with a purpose – but not too much…and keep student social patterns optimized for learning and their interest levels high.

Organizing Your Desks to Meet Student Needs

Nothing is set in stone with a classroom floor plan. Student desk arrangements are meant to serve the learning and management needs of your classroom. Very often, that means moving things around.

Rearranging for a Reason

view-video-on-pageAs I pointed out in my first day of school pages, my kids start the year being being randomly assigned to table groupings. It really doesn’t matter how the groups start out, because they will not be permanent.

As personality conflicts or the tendency to talk or bother others become apparent, the changes begin. Near the first of the year, it’s a good idea to give them a heads-up about a change to the classroom floor plan:

“Wow…after teaching and learning for the last week, I see a few changes that need to be made so ALL students can focus and learn well. Be prepared for a desk mix-up tomorrow!

Children will accept these changes once they get used to them. And, truth be told, they usually know the reason they are being moved. It very quickly gets to the point where I’m don’t warn them at all…they just look for their name tags and carry on.

NOTE: I avoid singling out a student who may be the issue.

Humans do like a little bit of change now and then. New classroom configurations keep things interesting.

Bottom line: If desks need to be moved…don’t hesitate. And if you are in a classroom where it is difficult to move the desks, just move the students.

Betsy’s Video Tips

Supporting learning objectives

Aside from personality and behavior issues, the classroom floor plan must sometimes be set up for curriculum. For example, if your science unit requires groups of six instead of groups of four.

And rows do have their place, even in our collaborative school environment. Aside from the “shock value” for behavior management that I discuss on this page, rows can also facilitate:

  • Testing. Some separation helps limit attempts at cheating.
  • Space. Sometimes kids need to take a break from groups for a bit, but many classrooms don’t have enough room to make every single desk an island with space all around it. Simply arranging students into rows is usually enough.

Hybrid Approaches to Classroom Organization

It’s entirely acceptable to arrange some desks into groups or pods and others into rows if that’s what you need to make your classroom space functional.
Here is my most-common room layout (I made it on ):

Horseshoe plus groups

Horseshoe plus groups

Yep…four doors and three radiators to work around!

Community spaces small and large

Classroom floor plans are not all about moving desks around; they are also about creating space for other needs. I think a gathering place, as you see in the diagram above inside the horseshoe, is always important. Plus, I like to make room for a couple of comfortable beach chairs in a cozy corner for reading, as well as my circle table for group work and my laptop table.

These “extra” spaces also serve another important function: They provide spots where a kid can go to reset his approach to learning. Sometimes a small location change is all that is needed for a student to start getting something done.

The basic rules for creating your ideal classroom setup are:

  • Be thoughtful
  • Be flexible
  • Be open to change

It’s all about effective learning.

Organizing Your Elementary Student Desks

A formal classroom seating chart…as in names written into little squares on a poster…does have a place in many situations (more on this below). But if you have mobile individual desks, then you need something much more flexible.


Because, as I discuss on on my classroom floor plan page, students will be moving desks throughout the year to facilitate learning and behavior objectives.

Keep it Simple

The teacher deals the cards

The teacher deals the cards

At the beginning of every year, I write the first name of every child on a small card. Then whenever I need to rearrange the room, I play “student solitaire” and move the cards around until I find a combination that will work.

It’s a lot easier to move cards before you start moving desks!

There are situations where a child must move rather than the desk:

  • Combo desks where two students sit together
  • A rotation model school where children move to different classrooms for different subjects

That’s when classroom seating charts come into play; student and supplies (and name tag) have to pick up and move.

If your desks are immobile, starting the year with a chart that accommodates using pencil and eraser is a good idea for managing your classroom floor plan. You can get fancy with a computer program or buy a seating chart of some sort online, but you’ll probably find that low-tech is good enough.

Renting Desks: The Landlord is in Charge

If you do have the option of giving kids their “own” desk, it is preferable. Kids like having a sense of control over their personal area in the classroom. It makes them feel good.

However…the children are really more renters than owners. They are not allowed to do anything they want with it; they must still comply with teacher standards regarding what’s allowed inside and how messy it’s allowed to get.

Click to this page for a video tour a messy student desk vs. an efficient one.

Keeping Your Community Organized and Effective

An effective elementary classroom layout is the key to keeping your community on track – even if the layout changes weekly.

Groups, pods, clusters, rows…I’ve tried them all.

And you know what? There is no “right” answer to classroom layout.

Anything and all combinations should be employed by the teacher who is keeping on top of classroom management.

You see, individualizing doesn’t just apply to curriculum and instruction. It applies to the needs of the child, no matter what those need are. And, just like some children need a particular approach to learning…some students need a particular approach to seating.

And, just as the child grows and changes in his academics as the year progresses, his seating arrangement needs will change as well.

Be flexible and always err on the side of what works rather than what you or another teacher believes is an ideal classroom setup.

Classroom Layout: Day 1 and Beyond

Personally, I usually start with groups of 4+, dividing children randomly as I explain on my first days of school pages. Kids need to join a peer group as quickly as possible on the first day and groups/pods/clusters serve that purpose well.

Desks in elementary classroom

It’s usually not long, however, before I move to my hybrid arrangement of “horseshoe plus pods” as you see on this page. I just find that it really enhances my ability to provide individual attention.

The main point is that my kids come to understand that they may walk into the room on any given day and find that their desk has moved:

  • They may be in a different group so personalities interact differently
  • One or two of them may be my close little “islands” to help them better manage their behavior
  • The whole room may be in rows for testing, or, sometimes for an attitude reset

How can desks create an attitude reset?

It’s a perfect example of the impact that physical environment can have on behavior.

A classroom layout of desks organized into rows when kids are used to table groups can provide a bit of “shock value.” If you are restarting the behavior expectations for an entire classroom (such as after a day or two of poor behavior with a substitute teacher when you’ve been away), it helps to change the environment.

It surprises them a bit and also ensures that their full attention is focused forward and on you.

That’s when I use that focus to start a conversation:

Why do you think I rearranged the desks?”

“Why do you think it’s important that we focus and pay attention?”

“What are my expectations?”

Be aware, however, that classroom layouts are not magic. Shock value only lasts two days at the most. By day three, it’s completely worn off, and if you haven’t addressed the underlying behaviors and reset expectations then you have simply bought yourself one or two days of peace and no long-term improvement.

Community is non-negotiable

I cover more ideas for classroom layouts in the articles in this section. But keep this in mind: No matter what arrangement you create, I feel strongly that you must maintain a gathering spot for all the kids to come forward when you need to teach or read with no distractions.

This area where all attention is on you is critical for learning and community.

Managing Elementary School Supplies

Kids use learning tools all day long. And the key word here is “tools.” Your approach to managing classroom supplies will determine if pencils, rulers, markers, scissors, rulers and glue become toys in the hands of your children, or if they remain tools for learning.

The articles in this section will help you keep those supplies corralled and keep learning distraction-free.