The Psychology of Seating Plans

There's no magic bullet in a seating plan and no such thing as a perfect arrangement - but it is all too easy to get it wrong. Clinical psychologist Dr Asha Patel, CEO of Innovating Minds, offers some advice to schools...
Seating plans for a classroom are even more complicated than organising who sits where at a wedding reception. Like so much else in education you need to define your objectives. It is not just about making sure sworn enemies are not seated side by side. Instead, you have to think about the individual needs - is the child with ADHD better sitting right in front of you where you can keep an eye on them, or by a wall where they only have a child on one side of them?

Is it best to have a child who experiences sensory overload in a quiet area on a separate single table or put them with a small sympathetic group who may be able to provide support? Seating plans should not just be about dealing with incipient discipline problems but about making sure every pupil is going to get the best out of the lesson.

If students are allowed to choose their own seats you will find that after one or two lessons the seating plan is pretty fixed. It also gives you an insight into many aspects of pupils' relationships. Is there one child who is regularly 'homeless' who never seems to have a regular spot or a someone to sit with? Who sits at the back all the time? Are they doing this to because that is where the most popular children sit or because they want to hide and think that if they sit far back they will not be subject to the same scrutiny?

Do you ask questions of everyone in your class or tend to pick on the same few? We all like to think that we have mastered classroom management but in fact recent work by a commercial company that puts cameras in classrooms tracked teachers' eye gaze and revealed that some children literally never get a look in. It is easy to see how this happens. There are some children with autism or ADHD who need to be checked regularly to make sure they understand, are on task, calm and not about to go off track. There are the dominant personalities who attract attention, probably because they are vocal and keen to answer questions. But it is your job as a teacher to make sure everyone is included.

Here are some key considerations:

  • Girl-boy-girl-boy seating plans are popular but if boys are surrounded by girls who are more able, they risk becoming more introverted and will achieve less. This is partly because during the secondary years girls are more vocal and have a wider range of language registers than boys
  • Mix up different ethnic groups. Often at the beginning of the year, especially when children are in year 7, like is drawn to like so in many classrooms there is one area where the big loud lads sit or an Asian girls' group or an all white table. It is your job to mix it up so they work together and learn from one another
  • The 'naughty table' or grouping together children who are inattentive or, setting a class into ability groups is not good practice. Many young people who have behaviour issues have been lumped together as the 'problem group' and it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as they feel labelled and judged from the beginning
  • If you are worried about where to seat a child, especially one with recognised mental health problems, ask them where they would feel most comfortable. This is not about allowing the child to take control. It is about working together so the child can access the learning

Flexibility is the key to successful seating plans. Many teachers will be constrained by the physical position of the furniture in a classroom but see if you can accommodate quiet purposeful individual work and easily move students around for small group exercises. Is everything geared to a front of the classroom approach, or is there a clear corner which can be used for role play or for a child who needs a time-out in a small space?

There is no single recipe for success and many a teacher has had to change their seating plan during the year. This is where technology comes to the rescue. Once, teachers spent hours laboriously moving bits of paper round a grid, but as well as being time-consuming it was not possible to share the information with a wider group so the effort and results often went unrecognised.

Now we are beginning to realise the complexities of human relationships in the classroom, and like planning the seating for a wedding reception, who sits where is far too important to be left to chance.

Dr Asha Patel (
CEO, Clinical Psychologist, Innovating Minds