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Happy back-to-school to you and your students!

As the school year starts, OTs, PTs and SLPs can utilize their expertise to collaborate with teachers in designing a classroom environment that promotes learning and that addresses the need of every student. At the same time, a well-thought out classroom arrangement can help the student achieve IEP goals that you, as an OT, PT or SLP, is helping the student achieve – whether it is communication, socialization, mobility, reaching, or others.

1. When it comes to seating, more is better

There are various ways to arrange the classroom, each with their own benefits and disadvantages. This decision is often driven by the goals of the class and their activities.

  • A U-shaped seating, for example, may work well to facilitate whole class discussion and participation, but may make it difficult for small group work.
  • Seating with 4-5 students grouped together, facilitates interactions, sharing, and learning from their peers; however, some students may not have an optimal view of the blackboard, and the grouping can be distracting to some students.
  • Separate individual seating arrangement provides optimal views of the blackboard and minimizes peer distractions, but it also decreases peer-to-peer interaction and socialization.

However, considering classroom goals when deciding seating arrangement should just be the beginning. The 2nd, and, perhaps, the most important question and the most difficult to answer is: “Which seating arrangement can each of the students benefit from?” Once you ask this question, then you will quickly realize that the needs of every student is different; therefore, employing a combination of different seating arrangement within one classroom is best. For example:

  • A student who is easily distracted may best seated without other student in front of them. Or this student may be paired to sit next to a less distractible peer that can serve as a model for good classroom behavior.
  • Students who learn best by visuals and peer modeling may benefit from a group seating arrangement. Such group seating arrangement can also facilitate communication and social skills.
  • Other students may benefit seated in rows. A student with very involved behavior issues may be best seated in the edge of such a row near the teacher.

There is also an added psychological and emotional benefit of a mixed seating arrangement to the students: not one student carries the stigma of being singled out to sit in a way that is different from all their peers! That is universal classroom design at its best.

While you are at it, might as well suggest a standing desk and a beanbag that students can take turns using when they need a change in position.

2. Some disabilities require additional attention and accommodations

Use your medical expertise to suggest seating that would act as a facilitator, rather than a barrier to learning. Here are a few examples to illustrate the point:

  • Minimize distractions for students with ADHD by ensuring that they don’t face the door,  windows or visually-stimulating decor. Experiment! Is a peer in front or beside this student distracting or beneficial? Who would be the ideal seatmate?
  • Allow sufficient space around a student who require assistive devices such as a walker or a wheelchair. Create paths within the classroom so that all students can reach different areas with ease. Assign one of the classroom ‘chores’ to a student to clear classroom paths 2-3 times during the day.
  • Take into consideration space needed to use and store any communication, reading, or note-taking device or equipment the student needs. Explore various options for positioning augmentative communication devices. Is a tray or table/desk-top always best? Can it be secured with a heavy velcro belt around the thigh or on a lapboard to optimize utilization and peer access? Is the student able to access it on the left side or above the work space?
  • Note diagnoses in which specific movement may trigger a counterproductive reaction. For example, a student with Cerebral Palsy who has retained ATNR may best be seated facing the blackboard to avoid triggering this reflex when copying notes from the board.
  • Check to see if all students feet are flat on the floor when seated, knees are level with the seat and s/he is not ‘reaching up’ to the work surface. Adding a footstool or adjusting chair and workstation/desk heights can make a big difference. Heights and sizes of a kindergartener have wide variance!

Note that for many students, finding the best seat is trial-and-error. Find an “ideal” seat, try it out for a couple of weeks, and monitor the student’s behavior and/or classroom productivity. If it works, great! If not, try a different seat. There may not be a “perfect seat” that addresses all their needs, but select the one that produced the most benefits to their learning.

3. Facilitating access versus building opportunities for daily practice

Facilitating access (suggestion #2) helps a student move about their daily routine with ease. However, we all know that motor learning comes from repeated practice overcoming challenges. Looking through this lens, you can facilitate less and build into the environment opportunities for learning  via negotiation of well-thought-out obstacles. Here are some examples to illustrate this idea:

  • Instead of a straight path from the chair or desk of a student who uses a wheelchair or walker to the front of the room, you may want to design a few turns to make it challenging yet still achievable within a permissible amount of time. The student can then master turns, while also practicing communication and self-advocacy skills by learning to say “excuse me” and directions to peers who may be along the more challenging path.
  • Movement and heavy work can help with focus and alertness. With this in mind, you can place books or other relatively weighty materials at the edges of the room to introduce movement and heavy work in between classroom activities.
  • While placing materials within easy reach facilitates access, you may want to introduce some challenges by placing relatively light classroom materials above shoulder height and below knee level to practice reaching and retrieving items from various heights.
  • Assign the student a locker or a cubby that will require the student to practice some reaching and lifting

*SeekFreaks, If I were you, I would be thinking right now…aren’t suggestions #2 and #3 contradictory? Well, they can be. But I see them more like a continuum with complete facilitation on one end, and very challenging on the other end. What you need is to figure out the right balance between the two for each student or each situation. This is why YOU are the expert!

4. Ensure ample space for movement breaks

In anticipation of the classroom movement breaks that you will create in collaboration with the teacher, ensure that there will be ample space. This may mean at least an arm’s length space in between students when standing by their seats, or a separate open space for movement activities, such as a circle time rug. 

Want ideas for movement breaks that teachers can easily implement? Read our Top 6 Resources for Classroom Movement Activities.

5. Create a movement corner or wall  

Suggest a movement corner where any student can perform some exercises any time, from the student who needs to improve alertness, to the student who needs to use up excess energy. This can be a corner within the classroom or a wall just outside the classroom. If within the classroom, separate it visually from the rest of the class using bookshelves to minimize distraction. Here are some items you can include in the movement corner:

  • jogging spot – if the movement corner is within the classroom, you can place a non-slip rug for jogging in place to minimize noise
  • stretch or exercise cards either taped to the wall or held together by a metal ring – a student can choose 2-3 exercises to perform
  • wall push-up handprints – outline of handprints taped to the wall to guide hand-placement
  • optional – resistance equipment, such as theraband for arm exercises or weighted belt for squats

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Finally, do not forget to ask the student and peers for solutions and ideas; they can be much more creative than our typical remedy!

I’m sure you have other great ideas for the classroom – do share them with other SeekFreaks by commenting below! We can all learn from each other, and I’ll be sure to include it in the future, when we revisit our classroom seating suggestions. Enjoy the start of the year!

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Readers of this article also read:

Article Review: Child-focused vs. Context-focused Intervention

2 Tools to Promote Movement in the Classroom

Recognizing ICF Domain Words…Amusing Musings

Response to Intervention, Multiple Tier Systems of Support and PT

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