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.
Any and all combinations should be employed by the teacher who is keeping on top of classroom management.
Individualizing your classroom setup
You see, individualization doesn't apply only to curriculum and instruction. It applies to the needs of the child, no matter what those need are. Just as some children need a particular approach to learning, some students need a particular approach to seating.
And, just as the child will grow and change in his academic needs 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 set-up.
The key point is this:
Effective teachers prioritize delivery of instruction and arrange the rest of the room around that.
Thus, you won’t get a carved-in-stone prescription from me: “Thou shalt do things MY way!” Rather, I’ll provide some thoughtful insights to help you plan out the best space for your students and your style of teaching.
The overall plan
When it comes to space planning, there are a few major areas of concern in your classroom:
Teaching and Learning. This is, of course, the number one consideration.
The Physical Flow… or how to “get around.” This becomes very important when you have a couple dozen children in one room who are all trying to take off coats, empty backpacks, hand in papers, move to and from the front of the room, etc.
Without forethought, you can lose precious minutes during transitions.
Accessibility of Supplies and Other Learning Materials. You don’t want a long line at the pencil sharpener when kids are supposed to be quietly completing worksheets.
Curriculum Considerations. There are times when your classroom must be arranged in a way that facilitates work groups – conducting science experiments, for example.
Behavior Space. Sometimes a student will need to have her desk a little more separated from the others in order to manage her own behavior. (Much more about that here.)
Personal Space, otherwise known at as “nooks and crannies.” These are areas that allow children to obtain a small amount of separation during silent reading or small-group work.
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.
Balancing student needs
Your overall floor plan will have to balance all of these needs. Depending upon the space you have available, it’s usually difficult to address all of them completely at the same time, so you will be constantly prioritizing. The best guidelines for creating your ideal classroom set-up are:
- Be thoughtful
- Be flexible and open to change
- Be child-centered
It’s all about effective learning. You have to put on your elementary-student glasses and consider anything you do from their perspective.
By the way, copying other teachers is totally okay. There will be other rooms in the building that have the same physical layout as yours; figure out what’s working or not working for your peers.
Focusing on learning
Remember that the first need we are meeting with classroom organization is “teaching and learning.” No matter what arrangement you create, you must maintain a gathering spot for all the kids to come forward when you need to teach or read with no distractions.
This is an area where all attention is on you, and it’s critical for effective learning and creating a sense of community. The focal point of an effective classroom is based upon the community learning together. And together means gathered.
I only “teach” (as in “deliver a lesson”) when children are gathered in my instructional focus area. That is the only way I've found to be certain that all students are absorbing concepts.
In my experience, delivering a lesson is not something that can effectively occur when the children are dispersed throughout the room at their desks. This applies to kindergarten through sixth grade – and possibly beyond!
At some point, growth and social development mean that children reach an age where it's not a good idea to pack them closely together on the floor when you are teaching. This is not true for elementary children, however. They like being squished in together (at least most do), and it is critical to get them close to you so you can observe their reactions while teaching.
It's a plus that having them gathered about you also means that they are not able to dig through their desks to find distractions. Desks are where children sit to apply the knowledge they’ve learned and muddle through reinforcement problems while the teacher circulates to assist.
So, with that understanding, let's consider what an effective classroom focal point looks like.
Video tips: classroom setup ideas
An effective focal point
When it comes to teaching, there is only one person at the center of focus: you.
The focal point in most classrooms will center on a teacher's primary instructional-delivery method. In my room, that's my interactive whiteboard. In your room, it may be a screen for a document camera or a regular whiteboard.
It may vary by grade level, as well. No matter how your room is laid out, however, your main instructional area must contain:
- No extraneous, distracting items
- Specific resources for the curriculum being delivered
- Everything you and the kids need to get the job done, because…
Focus requires comfort and ease of learning
An instructional focus area should also be designed with the comfort and attention of the children in mind; they're going to be gathered in that area frequently. First and foremost, kids must be able to see, as well as hear.
My default desk arrangement – a horseshoe centered on my interactive whiteboard with a couple of outlying pods of desks – defines the learning space by putting a border around it. It’s one of the reasons why I'm a huge fan of the horseshoe – it has worked out so well for me after trying many, many options.
Video tips: seating that meets all students' needs
If a horseshoe can't work in your room, figure out how to define your gathering space with something solid that kids can't squirm underneath, like they can with a wide-open table. Define your space with:
- One or two walls (I have used a corner of the room for gathering)
- Bookshelves (make sure they won’t move or tip if leaned upon)
- Desks (open underneath but with the chairs pushed in; they are better than tables)
Carpet areas are almost a must for defining a focal point! I am always on the lookout for rugs with clearance tags. I replace my rugs every other year because they get so much traffic and are difficult to clean.
Supercharging your focal point
It’s all about the students paying attention, right? Having all of the children on the floor is common and effective, but placing students at two heights is even more effective – like in a stadium-style movie theater, everyone can see what's going on.
So, if you can swing them: benches. You will see an almost immediate increase in engagement. I have three benches inside my horseshoe of desks. One of mine came from my school, and two I bought from Amazon (they fold up).
One of the great benefits to having a bench-lined horseshoe is that I can plunk down right in front of any of the desks in the front row to assist and encourage students. It is so much nicer than wedging between two students or kneeling down (ouch!) next to them.
“But… I can't swing benches!”
I know, and I sympathize. When I first started, benches weren’t just lying around the school unused, and I didn't have the money to buy my own. Just keep them in mind for the future; even one six-foot bench will get some of your kids’ heads up a level and improve the experience for all of them.
Even without benches, the horseshoe of desks comes to the rescue, at least a little. Some students can sit at their desks, and others can sit on the carpet. Of course, you will have to set expectations that there will be no hands in desks during teaching!
My students rotate from desks to carpet – when you build a trustworthy community, sharing desks is not a problem.
No matter what you end up doing, be sure to give your gathering place the attention it needs; it is critically important that every student can see and hear well for maximum engagement.
Your teacher desk
I remember some of my teachers in elementary school actually teaching while seated at their desks in the front of the room. Believe me, this is not something you'll see in any elementary classroom in America anymore!
So, what's the point of having a teacher desk? I know of many teachers, personally and through online comments, who do not even have a desk. In the modern classroom, where teachers are on their feet and moving around all day, all you really need is a flat surface of some sort for correcting papers and a place to lock away your personal items. Many make do with a medium-sized table.
Another advantage of a table rather than a traditional desk is that it can provide a workspace for small groups if needed.
Regardless of whether you use a traditional desk or not, it is best to locate it anywhere except your instructional focal point. That's why my desk, and the desks of many teachers, are at the back or the side of the room. My best recommendation: arrange everything else about your classroom to maximize student learning, then find a place for your desk.
Your classroom setup: So important to get right since it will pay dividends all year long.