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Seating and Behavior

Also see this main page on this subject:
   Desk Arrangements

How seating arrangements impact student behavior

    by Mary Damer
    July 6, 2000

    This morning, a parent wrote the following question:
    "An education column in the Washington Post discussed the question of whether the seat arrangement in elementary school had an effect on learning. Does anyone have information on this point?"
    There have been so many times when I've been called in as a behavior consultant and have substantially reduced disruptive behavior in a classroom simply by recommending that the teacher split up the pods of students into row configurations, that I wanted to make sure I thoroughly covered this point in the book that I wrote with Elaine McEwan ("Managing Unmanageable Students: Practical Solutions for Administrators"). Because I had been seeing more and more classrooms where the teachers took their "facilitator" role so seriously, that they put their desks BEHIND the students - out of eye view - I also had to address that issue. You might find what we wrote helpful:

    "Managing Unmanageable Students: Practical Solutions for Administrators" by Elaine McEwan and Mary Damer
    (click for more info from Amazon)

    Excerpt, pages 116 - 118:

    "There are many critical teaching behaviors that impact student behavior. We will consider five of the most important, namely, how a teacher does the following:
    1. plans the physical environment;
    2. establishes structure and routine to build a comfortable level of predictability;
    3. monitors student behavior when not directly teaching;
    4. "teaches" organizational skills, the nature of learning tasks, and the strategies needed to complete the learning task; and
    5. uses an animated teaching style to convey enthusiasm for learning.

    Planning the Physical Environment

    The effective teacher plans the physical environment to minimize disruptive behaviors. Solving an unmanageable student problem is sometimes as easy as helping a teacher rearrange his or her classroom! As principals, we were always secretly delighted when our room arrangement suggestions to a teacher resolved a student discipline problem within 24 hours. All of our problems should be solved so easily! Because this very basic solution will sometimes produce a dramatic reduction in a student's disruptive behaviors, we recommend starting with a survey of the physical classroom. For the more than five decades that we have collectively worked in schools, we've watched the educational pendulum swing several times between one best practice recommending that students sit at individual desks in rows to another best practice recommending that students sit clustered around tables or in pods of desks.

    What has never changed, however, is what well-designed research studies tell us about the relationship of seating arrangements and student behavior. Whether these studies are investigating disadvantaged or high-performing students, the results clearly show that an increase in physical space between students leads to increased on-task time and decreased disruptive behavior. In classrooms where students have more space between each other, teachers are even rated by their students as more sensitive and friendly (Paine "Structuing Your Classroom for Academic Success", 1983, 25). Because fewer behavior disruptions occur in classrooms where students are spaced with more distance between each other, the teacher has fewer behavior problems to correct and can focus more energy on teaching and giving students positive feedback.

    Because of the current emphasis on cooperative learning groups, many teachers find it preferable to have students permanently grouped around a table or with their desks pushed into small "pods." Teachers would rather not have the students move their individually spaced desks together every time a group learning activity is scheduled. You can help these teachers understand that group seating arrangements often lead to increased behavior problems and that teaching their students to move their desks together quickly and quietly for group activities would be time well spent.

    During the rest of the day, individual student desks can be spaced apart from each other, especially when students are working on independent seatwork. Although a highly motivated, high performing, non-distractible student will continue to excel in spite of sitting in a pod, most students do not fall into that category.

    In the workplace, desks are arranged into cubicles behind dividers for sound reasons. Any boss knows that employees will work more diligently when distractions are reduced. How many adults do their best work when seated in a group with some of their closest friends? The temptation to socialize is too strong for most adults, just as it is for students. A contemporary technology magazine described the ensuing chaos that erupted when advertising agencies experimented with unconventional workstations during the 90s. The experiments were cut short by the employees' need for personal workspace and "the cubicle survived" (Berger, "Wired" Feb. 1999, 81).

    Because every classroom has one or two students whose high level of distractibility triggers unmanageable behaviors during independent work times, we suggest that classrooms have one or two desks located in the quietest, most non-distracting location. A desk facing the wall between two filing cabinets or tucked in between the "L shape formed by the juncture of a bookcase and a wall can serve as an "I do my best work here" office area. These student "offices" should not be viewed as punishment areas, but rather as strategic places where a student can work undistracted. Before journal writing time, the teacher can say to the student who has a difficult time concentrating during writing and often disturbs other children, "Take your journal to your office area where you do your best work." Eventually, the teacher will want distractible students to recognize that they do their best work in a quiet area away from distractions and move there without prompting. When an easily distractible student independently chooses the office space without a reminder cue, the teacher has taught an important life time strategy for completing work.

    In classrooms with younger students, pay close attention to those times of the day when the teacher asks students to sit on a rug for story time, discussion of the calendar, or "show and tell." Many elementary classrooms are not physically large enough to allow for an ample rug area, and as a result the younger, wigglier children are crammed into an elbow-jostling space. Within minutes after moving to the cramped areas, the students' on-task rate plummets with the teacher's corrections of students' misbehavior concurrently increasing. For the student with unmanageable behaviors, the unpredictable environment can quickly trigger disruptive behavior. We explain to teachers in this situation, that although they want the nurturing ambiance resulting from the more informal "flop down on the rug" atmosphere, the environment is working against what they hope to achieve and more conventional seating is much to be preferred.

    If the rug area is large enough to space the children apart adequately, the teacher of younger children will typically have at least one very active child who cannot handle the loss of boundaries that an open rug presents. This wiggly child, who will invariably scoot over to invade another child's space or flop around on the rug like a beached dolphin, needs a separate carpet square or a small chair to sit in during the rug times. The chair or carpet square should not be viewed as a punishment, but rather as a strategic place that helps a child keep his or her body under control in order to listen to the story or participate in the discussion. The teacher can explain to the child, "You do your best sitting in group when you sit on the chair."

    The placement of the teacher's desk also affects student behavior. Whether students are in kindergarten or in high school, they will be on-task more consistently and will display fewer disruptive behaviors when they know they are closely monitored. The student who looks engaged in work when viewed from behind can be mouthing quiet insulting comments to another child or drawing gang symbols on a paper shielded from the teacher's view. Unless the teacher's desk is used only after school hours, it should be located in clear view of all of the students. Many students will decide whether to follow the classroom rules or engage in disruptive behavior depending on whether the teacher is watching. This teacher dynamic relates so highly to increased student on-task behavior that researchers have coined the term "withitness " referring to the teacher's perceived ability to have eyes in the back of the head (O'Shea, et al., 1998, 265). Teachers who pause at their desks momentarily to get materials needed for the lesson or to read the lunch menu present the "illusion" of awareness more effectively when their desks are in front of the classroom and in clear view. Their unobstructed views of students' faces enable them to monitor student activity more closely and nip disruptive behaviors at the onset.

Also see this main page on this subject:
   Desk Arrangements

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