I have a lot to say about student desk arrangements! They are so important when it comes to managing teaching, learning, and behavior.
I’ve already revealed that I favor a horseshoe as my primary student seating arrangement. But that doesn’t mean that I only use a horseshoe, or that it’s the only thing that can work for you. There are situations throughout the year, from the first days of school to setting up for testing, that require flexibility.
Student desk arrangements in action
I have seen all manner of different student seating arrangements in various schools:
- Individual desks that can be moved any time
- Table arrangements that are immobile
- Open seating where students carry their personal supplies with them
Any one of these can work. Many times, teachers don’t have a choice about the seating arrangements provided for their children, so it’s not practical to advise you to use one or the other. I’m going to give you ideas on how to make anything work in order to achieve the best learning environment for your children.
Let’s cover several fundamentals of student seating, so you can apply them to your own situation and make the choice that is best for your students.
All eyes on the teacher
At the beginning of the year, I often start my classroom setup with desk groups or pods 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.
Regardless of how desks are arranged, I make sure that no student's back is ever to the front of the room. This is especially important during the first part of the year. At the most, I'll have them sit sideways by angling the pods. Why? Because, if they can choose, a student will often prefer to look at another child rather than looking at you.
Sometimes, the physical layout of your room unavoidably forces a classroom setup with children's backs facing the main teaching area. 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 and turn toward the front
- Rotate their whole body to face you
- Eyes on you and quiet hands
This may sound like overkill, but I assure you, it is not. Set and practice this expectation as soon as possible if any of your students don't have direct line-of-sight with your main teaching area by simply raising their heads.
Creating familiar patterns
No matter what desk configuration you start with at the beginning of the year, it’s okay to move individual students or desks whenever it is needed (even the first day of school if necessary). However, I don’t recommend altering 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 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.
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 due to behavior issues (separating talkative partners, for instance), I play with the arrangements of the desks to keep things interesting.
See lots of tips on desk separation for behavior management here.
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.
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.
Video tips: classroom seating for best student visuals
There are times when all desks must be separated in order to ensure privacy. Testing is one of those times. Even if the testing protocol doesn’t require desk separation, why tempt the cheating instinct?
Don’t wait to do this until the final big testing sessions at the end of the year; set desks up in testing mode for unit assessments, too. That way, your students will be used to it – and that removes one more thing for them to stress about during end-of-year testing.
Meeting student needs
As personality conflicts or the tendency to talk or bother others becomes apparent, the changes begin. Near the first of the year, it's a good idea to give them a heads-up about a big 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, so you don’t need to tell them. It very quickly gets to the point where I don't warn them at all – they just look for their nametags and carry on.
And rows do have their place, even in our collaborative school environment. No desk organization scheme is off-limits and anything can be tried. Sometimes rows for a few days can provide a bit of “shock value” for resetting behavior.
There are also times when kids need to take a break from groups for a bit; many classrooms don't have enough room to make every single desk an island with space all around it, but arranging students into rows is usually enough.
Rearranging should be intentional, as in done with forethought. 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! After finding the perfect arrangement (or so I hope), I snap a picture of the arrangement and project it on my screen so I can see it as I move desks.
Video tips: rearranging student 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 nametag) have to pick up and move.
So, who gets to sit in the front row? Everyone, eventually… but some spend more time in the front row than others. As noted earlier, all seats in my classroom rotate constantly, sometimes daily, if needed. But there are special cases.
Arranging for special needs
Who might spend more time up front? Students who need more one-on-one, such as my English language learners or perhaps a child with ADD/ADHD or Autism or challenging behavioral impulses.
Remember that there will always be children who do not fit into the particular style of seating and organization that you come up with. Plan for these exceptions in advance and they won’t cause you to stress out when you encounter them.
This may be as simple as creating some “room to roam” for a child with ADHD, or considering that students on the Autism Spectrum might be most comfortable at the end of a row rather than the middle, in order to keep their social inputs at a manageable level. It can also mean that some kids never move desks once they become comfortable, as doing so could induce unnecessary stress.