In the Classroom

Creating a Student-Centered Learning Climate in the Wild 21st Century

Creating a student-centered learning climate isn’t difficult if you know where to start. Though there are many small aspects of this concept, there is one LARGE one that emerges, and that is flexible seating. If you are in search of the perfect flexible seating definition, what you find may surprise you.  There are many flexible seating titles, but they all allow students to place themselves where they will work best by giving them several options, not just the traditional desk and chair. 

The more flexible seating research that comes out (including flexible seating research for parents), the more it is showing that when implemented properly, our students are thriving in this environment and doing much better than they would have in traditional seating. Of all the classroom management styles, this one takes the cake.

Here’s why:

One of the biggest accomplishments in having student-centered learning flourish in your classroom is generating student buy-in. While this happens in a number of different ways, the first step in accomplishing this is setting up the classroom for a collaborative environment. How to do this? Flexible seating.

Think about what a traditional classroom looks like...

student-centered learning climate

With all those desks facing the same direction, it lends itself immediately to the concept that everyone in the room should be focusing on the same thing…..the sage on the stage.

How easy is it for a student to work on their 21st-century skills in that environment?

Simple…it’s not.

What if we designed classrooms that actually encouraged these skills? What if they could look more like this?

Creating a student-centered learning climate

This is what has been lovelily coined as The Starbucks Classroom. But realistically, not every teacher can manage to turn their classroom into a coffee shop setting. Most are not fortunate enough to have a budget that will allow for a complete classroom overhaul….however, it doesn’t take much to work with what you have. Creating an environment that is equipped with flexible seating is much easier than you would think and your budget can be small…or not at all!

How do you Manage Flexible Seating when creating a student-centered learning climate?

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I always set up my traditional desks in some pod-type formation when creating a student-centered learning climate. I have found that the best set-up (for starting, anyway) is in groups of 3. Two desks face one another and then one comes in from the side…this way, even though they are grouped together, they are not sitting right next to one another. Everyone has their own personal space. Though this isn’t necessarily the textbook definition of flexible seating, it is at least an arrangement that encourages interaction between the students and focuses less on the expectation that the teacher will be talking to them.

Want to have fun with this? On the first day of school when the students get settled, I tell them to point to the front of the classroom on the count of three. They legitimately all point in different directions (ultimately, one student finally gets it right because he or she will look up to see the direction the projector is pointed), but this is the POINT. With flexible seating, there is no “front” of the classroom. It is a classroom environment, not a cookie-cutter room.

I highly believe in flexible seating when creating a student-centered learning climate. In my own experience, I can attest that students will do better work if they are comfortable. Maybe they need to sit on something soft, or stretch out, or even stand. As educators, should we be more concerned that they are complying with what everyone else in the room is doing or that they are giving us their best possible work?

Putting these little accents in a classroom doesn’t have to be expensive. If you do have a small budget, you can really get creative with flexible seating. You can purchase a few yoga balls and large pillows (I have dog beds in my classroom….don’t tell my teenagers that’s actually what they are!) for $5 a pop at Five Below, which is exactly what I did last summer. You can also get fancier ones like this one:

Gaiam Kids Balance Ball Chair (Ad)

The difference in the classroom demeanor has been huge.

(as a side note, did you know you can get a 30-day trial of Amazon Prime with 2-day shipping??? Nothing is better than seeing something you want to swipe for your classroom and it arriving in the blink of an eye.) (ad)

boy laying on rug and pillows in classroom while working on assignment under caption, "flexible seating doesn't need to be complicated"

Of course, this is a process that takes some molding. Pillow fights and dodge-yoga-ball are strictly prohibited. I put it in a way that gets a bit of a giggle, but they get it:

If you wouldn’t throw a chair, you can’t throw a yoga ball.

(For the record, you would be shocked by the difference a yoga ball can make with a student who has ADHD. Just being able to sit on one and wiggle around a little bit helps them to focus on their work. It’s unbelievable. You can find some really nice ones that are actually chairs if that works in your classroom better and your budget is also a little flexible (ad). The possibilities are endless.)

When I explained the concept of flexible seating on Back to School Night, a parent chimed right in. “This makes complete sense,” she said. “When I get to work, I get myself situated, turn on my music, and can’t get started until I am comfortable and ready to go. Why wouldn’t that also work for the kids?”


Classroom Management Style: Flexible Seating

When people visualize the idea of flexible seating in creating a student-centered learning climate, they so often see pandemonium and students who are negatively in control of the classroom. Unfortunately, this is one of the incorrect stereotypes of flexible seating. As a matter of fact, flexible seating turns into the best classroom management strategy if implemented properly.

How? Flexible seating actually perpetuates a more cohesive learning environment where students are on task and performing at a higher level than they would in a more traditional setting. This seems almost backward, but that is because of the traditional views of the classroom.

When the concept of public education was first created, it was designed to complement the industrial model: students sitting quietly in rows, performing the same task in the same way. We are advancing in our society and the industrial model of education is no longer working for the current students in the classroom who are members of Generation Z. 

This group is passionate about a cause, but they also are growing up in the digital age. They are a post-9/11, “never-lived-without-the-internet” group of individuals who are legitimately wired differently than those who have gone through schooling before them. If it is our job to educate them, shouldn’t we be meeting them where they perform at their best and focusing on creating a student-centered learning climate for them?

What are the Benefits of Flexible Seating?

The first key piece of this is allowing movement in the classroom. Gone are the days when a person’s attention span is 20 minutes. Do you know what the average is now? 8 SECONDS. We need to allow our students the option to find their own groove of being able to refocus. Telling them to be quiet and sit still is NOT going to work.

This is where being extremely mindful when creating a student-centered learning climate comes into play.

We know children naturally “wiggle” more than adults, yet in an adult setting, it is appropriate to give breaks during long meetings, have the opportunity to use the bathroom, take a drink, etc. Why would we not accommodate children who have these needs at an even greater rate within a system that teaches them the appropriate way to do this? 

As adults, we know what we personally need to do to regain focus. Often it’s as simple as a quick brain break: some type of quick distraction that relaxes the mind and allows us to mentally regroup before going back to a task. Giving our students brain breaks extends them the same courtesy AND allows them to learn their own limitations and how to push them to be the best versions of themselves.

It is easy enough to set up someplace for them to doodle for a few minutes (or collectively, if they are younger, using a program such as GoNoodle to give them that break when creating a student-centered learning climate.

As adults, we also know where we are the most productive. For some it is standing, others sitting at a desk, and yet others may be sitting with their feet up on the couch. We are NOT one size fits all and neither are our students.

This is where flexible seating comes into play in terms of classroom management strategy. If you expect every student to be able to do their best while sitting for an extended period of time at a desk, you will have management issues. Besides the fact that this generation does not have the innate ability to do this, this is not how every student will perform at their best.

Setting up flexible seating is easy and it does NOT need to be expensive (though if you play around on Pinterest or Google Images, you will see some INCREDIBLE classrooms out there!). These 10 supplies can add to a flexible seating (and fidget-friendly) environment that allows your students to focus BETTER, not be more distracted.

It’s hard to wrap your head around because it goes against everything we have ever been taught about, or experienced, in the classroom. The reason why is because it hadn’t really been studied before; but now, all that is changing. This is why creating a student-centered learning climate is so vital. As backward as it seems, this article explains why fidgeting and moving actually allows the brain to pay attention better (especially in those who have ADHD). 

The key piece in this is to change your expectations for the classroom. When rolling out flexible seating, there need to be specific rules in place. Yes, you may have to police a little bit more in the beginning, but once the students really grasp the ground rules, it becomes second nature (just like any other classroom management strategy).

Yes, it might get loud, but that’s okay! I have had low-tiered high school students arguing with each other over CONTENT because they were in an environment where they were comfortable enough to do so. Guess what? They got more out of that argument than if I had them sitting quietly, listening to me discuss the same concepts.

This is the beauty of a student-centered environment and creating a student-centered learning climate. It gives the students the flexibility to be comfortable (literally and physically) to be able to perform at their best. It finds their individual interests in a topic and allows them to delve into it. Each student gets the same framework (we do have a curriculum to follow!), but it naturally differentiates so each student gets something else out of it.

Classroom Management Strategy: Student-Centered Learning

Have you ever had a classroom that does this consistently day in and day out? When executed properly, the learner-centered classroom and this type of classroom management strategy do just that.   The difficult part of making this transition is how to start. You hear it’s great, you look at the data and see how much better it is for achievement, but where do you start? There’s a lot of Googling and trial and error if you go at it alone.

Do you know how long it took me to finally find a system that worked consistently for all students? Five YEARS. It was excruciating, but I took all of that knowledge and bundled it up in our course: A Passion for Progress: Being a Rockstar Teacher in a Stressed-Out World. I always thought it was terrible that there was no real guidance about HOW to create a student-centered classroom and all the pieces that go along with it.

There is a LOT to learn in how to do it PROPERLY. Too many people think you can just throw some yoga balls in the classroom and ultimately give your students some busy work and call it a day.

This is NOT creating a student-centered learning climate.

It is SO MUCH MORE and everything you need to know from soup to nuts can be found in A Passion for Progress….plus it can be used immediately in the classroom. What’s better than that?  

A student-centered environment that incorporates flexible seating should not be avoided; rather, it will HELP with any classroom management issues you may have. It will help your students to focus more and engage in their work in a more profound way.

Another huge draw for buy-in to the student-centered classroom? Playing music. I am able to “cheat” in US History II class…I play music from whatever decade we are covering. In other classes where that’s not applicable, I usually select some genres that I know would have classroom-appropriate songs and have the students vote. I usually rotate through the top two choices.

It gets to the point where if there ISN’T music playing, it seems too quiet. On the flip side, if the students seem a bit rambunctious and I haven’t turned on the tunes yet, there is a sense of calm that takes over the room.

(This is why you need to know what is best for your specific students when creating a student-centered learning climate.)

Though this seems counterproductive, according to a great article by Terry Hurley (found here), she explains that “a large number of students feel they are able to concentrate better and feel more relaxed with their headsets on and music blasting.”

Does Flexible Seating Really Work?

Don’t just take my word for it! As part of our summer 2019 classroom showcase series, we spoke with two teachers who couldn’t say enough about their flexible seating classroom and creating a student-centered learning climate.

Below are their interviews:

Lauren Hoghe: Active Seating Classroom

Describe your classroom setup:

My classroom is set using flexible seating options in creating a student-centered learning climate.  You’ll notice the use of many tables and that is due to what was available in the building and to save on the pocketbook.  I create a large U-shape to allow for a large gathering space.  We gather here for minilessons and class meetings (and the occasional share-out depending on the type).  I have another large space which is our classroom library area that allows students to spread out as well. 

Active seating includes stability balls, IKEA stools, pillows, low-to-the-ground rockers, regular chairs, saucer chairs, lawn chairs, wave desks, and collapsible ottomans.  I keep my space limited and in the corner as the focus is on the students and their learning.

2. Why did you choose this particular layout?

I chose this set-up because more and more students have a hard time staying engaged for long periods of time and active seating helps with that.  The use of different seats throughout the day provides the structure of knowing what’s available with guidelines but allows for student choice as well.  I love that students can choose a new seat each day and sit where they are comfortable. 

They move around all day long, and switch seats depending on the subject and/or activity as well.  This movement keeps the focus on learning rather than stopping for so many brain breaks because they’re sort of built-in to our day with the movement and flexibility allowed.

3.  What is your favorite part of your design?

My favorite part of the design is the library area.  I love how cozy it is with the pom-poms hanging from the ceiling and the different active seating options.  It’s visually pleasing and brings in some color without being distracting. I loved creating a student-centered learning climate this way.

4.  Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

This was my third full year implementing active seating.  I’m never surprised by their reactions now as they love the change from a previous grade level that doesn’t allow much movement or change-up in traditional desk-seating.  Since I’ve used flexible seating for several years, I know to anticipate that the yoga balls will be a point of high contention at the beginning of the year but everything eventually works itself out nicely. 

Now when the year starts, we choose seats for the next day before leaving school for about the first 2 weeks.  This ensures everyone has a chance to “try out” the different seating options and allows students to learn a bit about themselves (and get over the “newness” of things). 

I typically have students try them out at BTSN and use sticky notes to create a graph before leaving.  This is a great visual for the first day when we go over flexible seating rules and have discussions about fairness.  After the first few weeks, we recreate the graph and notice changes–SCORE!  I LOVE when I can sneak some curriculum into every part of our day!

5.  What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of creating a student-centered learning climate?

Don’t be afraid to GO FOR IT!  I saw an article about flexible seating at the end of April one year.  I texted my principal about it on a Sunday night.  She approved, and my class started pilfering for tables in the building the next day! It was great to try it out with students for just a few weeks and that already knew the expectations of the classroom.  I would NEVER go back to traditional seating.  Anything new will be a challenge and adjustment, but you can reflect and make changes along the way.  Both students and parents appreciate a willingness to create a great, loving, safe, friendly space for the class!

For more inspiration from Lauren, make sure you check out her website, Teaching with Beauty.

Karen Krukowski: Open Concept Classroom

Karen Krukowski had a vision for what she wanted her classroom to do for her students…and she made the magic happen! Check out her design below:

1. Describe your classroom setup:

When I was planning my classroom design, my main focus was flexibility.  I was transitioning from a “table spot for everyone” to more of an open-concept classroom design with various seating options.  I planned spaces for those students who prefer to stand while they work as well as low seating options that incorporated movement and floor space.  

4 photos of children in different parts of the classroom participating in activites

2. Why did you choose this particular layout?

I chose this layout to better accommodate the various learning styles in my classroom when creating a student-centered learning climate.  I also wanted to address student behavior by creating more opportunities for student choice in the classroom.  When the students have a little more voice in their day, they tend to be more engaged and focused.  I also function better in a more flexible, open space so it has been a desire of mine for a while to open up the space by getting rid of the standard table and chair set-up with the open concept classroom.  The open floor space allows us plenty of room to do Yoga, Science experiments, and Grab and Go Centers. 

Four different pictures of children moving within the classroom and participating in activities

3.  What is your favorite part of your design?

I think my favorite part of creating a student-centered learning climate is that it’s very functional.  We can easily move the different seating options to create a new learning environment.  We created stadium-like seating one day on the fly to help facilitate a review activity that we were doing on the SmartBoard.  The students love that they can move seating to help create a unique learning space in their open-concept classroom.  

students on flexible seating watching another child at the SmartBoard

4.  Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

I think the biggest surprise was how many students like to work in their own space, away from the other students. It was about halfway through the year when some students started to identify that they did their best work when they were sitting in their own space and avoiding distractions from other students.  Allowing for student choice in their learning environment is helping them develop metacognitive skills. 

3 different pictures of children utilizing flexible work stations

5.  What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of creating a student-centered learning climate?

My biggest piece of design advice would be to make your space functional, and fluid.  The students should be able to choose from several different seating options (including the floor) and they should be able to move throughout their day, depending on their different activities, so the room needs to support that flexibility. 

Keeping more open space in the open concept classroom allows for more flexibility in creating a student-centered learning climate.  And invest in individual pencil boxes that students can take with them wherever they are working, so they will be always be prepared with the necessary tools to be successful!

These are just some little things that you can do to make your classroom a place where students will be more motivated to actively work on those 21st-century skills. This, BY FAR, is not the end-all-be-all of what can be done in a classroom (check out our series, “The Ultimate Guide to Brain Break Activities”), but it hopefully is sparking some creativity in your mind.

As I mentioned before, a student-centered learning climate is a lot easier to put together than you would think….just be creative with what you have already when creating your classroom design.

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After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a truly student-centered one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction to ignite intrinsic motivation in their students.  Read more about her journey with Student-Centered World at

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