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Does seating impact behavior and learning?

The first day of school brings many changes – new clothes, new teachers, new classmates, new curriculum, and a new desk or seat assignment.  On the first day of school, students may be seated in alphabetical order, but over time, seating assignment may change as the teacher quickly learns who is friends with whom, which students tend to be disruptive, which may need extra motivation, and which may need to hone their concentration skills. Many teachers find that seating charts make it easier to manage a classroom and facilitate the learning process.

Studies have shown that seating assignment can have a direct impact on the student’s academic achievement. In 2007, Holly Heindselman, Rhemie Mentac, and Kristina Wesler at Hanover College found that classroom seating arrangement can effect the level of interaction between teacher and student which, in turn, may impact test scores and learning potential. In general, as students sit further away from the “action zone,” an area of the classroom that comprises the center and the front rows, participation declines and absenteeism increases.

According to Kathy Hill, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Accountability for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, students who sit in the “action zone” can experience many benefits.  Referring to a study of college-age seating by authors Cuseo, Fecas, and Thompson, Hill says sitting front and center of the room gives students advantages such as  “better vision of the blackboard, better hearing of what is said by the instructor, better attention to what is being said because there are fewer (or no) people between them and the instructor to distract them, and greater eye contact with the instructor which may increase their sense of personal responsibility to listen to and take notes.”

Researchers at Montana State University found seating charts to be effective in terms of the comfort, confidence, and effectiveness of the teacher.  Research showed that teachers were more likely to feel unhappy and uncomfortable in classrooms in which students chose their own seats.  Students who were not performing well in the classroom performed better on the Montana Criterion-Reference Test after they were carefully seated by teachers. The results showed that there was a huge attainment increase for those students with lower abilities. In addition, the arranged seating did not have an adverse effect on the higher-ability students, because they have honed their strategies for getting, processing, and retaining information.

“Assigned seating is really a matter of personal preference,” Hill says.  “It depends on many factors which can include the age of the students, their ability to be self-directed, and the format of the class; such as, emphasis on group work or individual work, for example.”

When picking their own seat assignments, some students prefer to sit where they feel most comfortable. Comfort may play a role in classroom performance and assist with the students’ ability to maintain their focus. But, students who choose their own seats to be close to chatty friends or stare out the window are doing themselves a disservice.  Teachers need to weigh the pros and cons of seating charts to determine which method produces the best results in terms of student performance and behavior.

“I personally liked allowing students to pick their own seats at the beginning, as they had more ownership of the classroom,” Hill says.  “But, if their choices proved not to be workable, then they would have to be moved.”

Sometimes students who have disabilities and/or behavioral issues will have an Individualized Educational Plan or 504 which mandates their classroom’s seat assignment.  “Each disability should be addressed as a unique case.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Hill says.  “Families tend to want their special needs children in the front with the intention of being closely monitored at all times.”  

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Tags: Education, Featured Story

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