Kayla Delzer on the Impact of Flexible Seating & Classroom Redesign
Kayla Delzer, is a CEO, third-grade teacher and the innovator behind Flexible Seating, which was featured in HundrED’s 2019 Global Collection as one of the leading education innovations in the world. Flexible Seating is a student-centered classroom design, inspired by Starbucks, seeking to give students ownership of their learning and revitalize classroom environments. Flexible Seating has been shown to be particularly beneficial for students with additional support needs, with research suggesting that moving and fidgeting helps students with ADHD to concentrate.
What’s wrong with traditional classroom set-ups?
With traditional classroom setups, the last time that we redesigned classrooms was when we, in the united states at least, were preparing kids for the industrial revolution. We were getting them ready to work in factories, so our classroom design was designed to match that, and to get them ready for that. So that was in the late 1800s and now here we are in 2018 and many classrooms still look like that, and yet we are not preparing kids for the industrial revolution anymore. In fact, we are preparing them for the unknown; we don't know what kind of jobs these kids are going to have but we know what kind of skills they are going to need. So I started thinking about how can I make my classroom more open, collaborative, safe, comfortable, feel more like home, and less like I'm preparing kids for an industrial revolution.
I think that traditional classroom setups do not allow for as much collaboration or cooperation as I would hope, simply because of how they are set up, which really aims more for kids working in isolation. They are prepared only for themselves. I think there is a lot that goes into it, but I think that is sort of the basis.
Why are different environments important for learning?
I think just giving them environments first of all where they feel safe, loved, and comfortable; if you can get them to feel those things then they are going to be willing to take risks in your classroom and learn how to grow through failure. They also learn to work with people because when they leave me they are going to have to work with people. They are going to have to be able to collaborate and get along with other people, so setting up my classroom in a way that is designed exactly to do that has been really important. And I think just giving them lots of choices because once they go into the world, all the choices are not made for them, they need to be able to make choices for example and learn how to problem solve with other people. I think many times in our traditional classrooms, we are always solving the problems for them, lots of times just for ease of time because we need to keep going and we are busy and our schedules are full. But what I’ve done is taken a step back and particularly set up my classroom with a certain number of types of seats and letting them problem solve. If someone is already sitting there, what would they do? if they were in the world, how would they solve that problem? Of course, as adults we know, we offer the other the seat to the other person no matter what, but kids don’t innately know that; we need to teach them that. So it’s really been a catalyst for problem-solving as well as just really preparing them for what exists outside of the classroom.
How can learning environment design help children with special needs?
That’s exactly the type of kids I see the biggest benefit for, with choice and flexible seating, they continue to surprise me. Even this year I knew I would have a little boy coming in who, I had heard he needs his own space, he needs his own things, he likes to be separate from other kids. And right away I was thinking ‘well I want him to have social skills and I want him to be able to work with other kids really well’ but I still designed an area that was just going to be for him but he is not using that area, he is preferring to work with other kids at the movers table or the standing table and every once in a while he will go to that area but far more often other kids are sitting at that table. So I think again just giving them choice has been really powerful for him. His whole life he has been told, ‘you learn by sitting in this desk, facing this direction; these kids can be around you, these kids cannot be around you for your best learning.’ When he came to me I said, ‘I have so many options in here for you and I want you to sit where you sit best and where you learn best and where you can be most on task. There are so many choices for you.’ He’s been great and the motivation has increased. His test scores have gone up. Most importantly for me, his love of school has gone up. He talked tones last year about how he would have anxiety in the classroom. He came up to me this year and said, ‘I don’t have any anxiety, I feel comfortable and I feel safe and I said ‘that’s exactly what I’m going for.’ I think it comes down to having relationships with kids and also trusting my kids to make good choices in the classroom with the seats that they have. Those are exactly the type of kids that actually have been benefiting the most according to the research, which is really exciting.
What impact has ‘flexible seating’ had on your students?
The list is long! In the book that I’m writing which will come out early 2019; It’s called ‘FlexED: Flexible Seating for Flexible Learners.’ There is a whole chapter about the research behind it and the benefits of it. We are seeing increased test scores for example, I teach 3rd grade and this last year my kids' scores were at about 5th-grade level by the end of the year. So we are scoring about 2-grade levels ahead and a lot of it has to do with kids liking coming to school and feeling like they have choices in where they learn. As soon as you can get kids liking coming to school, all the learning is going to happen, you just have to get them there and get them hooked. Flexible seating has been a big part of that. There is over 100 health benefits of course with increased metabolism and burning more calories and better posture and all of these things which are of course really important as well, but probably the biggest thing is increased motivation and engagement so not only do kids want to be at school they are super engaged when they are there. And I think a lot of it has to do with just giving them the choice of where they work, where they work best and once you get that perfect pair of where they work best and when they love what they are learning, that’s when you really start to see the engagement go up. And you start to see the increased test scores and the love of learning and the engagement and I hate to keep pressing the ‘increased test scores’ because that’s a whole other talk and product that I want to do about test scores and how that doesn’t necessarily mean that the teacher is the best teacher or needs to work on different things, but it is directly correlated with Flexible Seating, so that’s been sort of a bonus that I do like to touch on.
What advice do you have for educators who’d like to do something similar?
Jump in, just do it, just try it. I always say best practice starts now, as in this minute. I think a lot of times teachers are waiting for Christmas break to redo their classroom or spring break or summer, or until they feel ready. Honestly in your life, if you’re always waiting to feel ready, you will never make progress, you will never be moving forward, so just jump in and just try it. For me, it looked like just raising a table as high as it could go to offer an area for kids who liked to stand and work, or taking the legs off of a table and allowing kids to just sit on a floor and work. So it doesn’t have to be this huge fancy, redesign, it can be something as simple as letting your kids sit on the floor and work, right? So I would just encourage them to just try something, try anything, like today, tomorrow. Don’t wait, and especially don’t wait for next year’s teacher to get on board. That’s the number one question I get on my social media network. ‘I want to try it but next year’s teacher isn’t into it or isn’t going to be doing it so should I be doing it?’ Am I’m always yelling through the screen, 'YES, you should do this', because if you don’t and you’re always waiting for next year’s teacher to get on board, you could honestly be waiting for your whole career. Do what you want to do in your classroom this year. Just jump into it, just try something. Check out my blog: topdogteaching.com, check out the hundrED website. I think they’ve uploaded every interview I have ever done on my profile. So go there and start looking and try something
What problems can people face with flexible seating & how to overcome them?
One thing, I kind of have two-fold with this, is one, ask your students what they need. And maybe its something different than what you have been offering. I know the first time I did flexible seating, I had this plan in mind where if a kid, say they chose a seat in the morning, they were going to have that seat for the whole day. I wasn’t going to allow them to switch because it was going to be too much management for me. Then I realized, maybe that child does really well in that spot but they don’t thrive in the afternoon in that spot, so why am I making them stay. So for me, it came down to being more flexible with myself, but also asking my kids, what do they need different? Have them help you create classroom norms. So instead of just having my flexible seating rules, ‘these are things you will do, you will follow’, what I actually do is develop student norms so I have them say the things they need to do or need to have, to make flexible seating work for them in the classroom, and then on the bottom they sign it like a contract. So if they break a norm, they know that there will be some kind of logical consequence. Asking for input from your kids ‘what do they need?’ recording it as norms and signing it has been important. And I think so often as teachers we forget to ask the kids. I think there is this pressure on teachers that we need to know all the things and we need to be in charge of all the things and really, my classroom is highly student lead. If they want to rearrange the classroom, I let them rearrange the classroom. If they come up with a new norm, we add it to the list. But really letting them sort of be in charge with that, and I really found that the more power I give up in my classroom, the more power I get back. It seems counter-intuitive but it is really productive and really amazing.
To learn more about Flexible Seating visit their Innovation Page