Evaluating the use of flexible seating to create inclusive classrooms
At the time of writing this article, I have just returned from a wonderful conference called ‘It Takes All Kinds of Minds’, where I met and learned from many wonderful people, including autistic and non-autistic researchers, parents and others with lived experience of autism.
"Through my work with autistic children and families, I have learnt that flexibility and compassion are perhaps the two most important factors in moving towards a world where autism and autistic people are truly valued as they deserve to be."
I know that many autistic people feel uncomfortable, or perhaps even outrightly reject, the idea of holding an autism awareness/acceptance week or month and this is understandable.
Autistic people face more challenges than most and are often treated unfairly across their lifespans in many sectors including education, health, employment and the criminal justice system. So, it should be no wonder that what the autistic community really strives for and deserves is societal reform. Where the actions of society match their promises - and this extends far beyond awareness. Endeavours to improve the lives of autistic people must continue through collaborative approaches in which their participation is integral.
Being involved in autism research and working with autistic children and their families made me think about my role in affecting positive changes for the autistic community - starting in my own school. An area I was interested in was making adaptations, where possible, to meet the differing sensory needs of more pupils, including those who are autistic. A possible way to do this was to introduce different kinds of seats in each classroom that enabled movement or different ways of seating. We refer to this as ‘flexible seating’ which includes options such as rocking chairs, wobble stools and standing desks.
Introducing this adaptation which involves having multiple seats available for all pupils on a whole school scale, hadn’t been evaluated before and I approached Dr. Laura Crane from the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), UCL, about the possibility of her department supporting us with this project. Once this was agreed, I applied for a Churchill Fellowship Activate Fund to turn our idea into a reality! We were absolutely delighted to be successful in receiving an Activate grant which covered the costs of the furniture as well as the involvement of CRAE researchers and autistic advocate Sarah O’Brien, a PHD candidate at King's College London, who supported in an advisory capacity.
Our study ran for an academic year and, to the best of our knowledge, is the biggest of its kind to be conducted globally in a mainstream school with a total of 348 participants (315 children and 33 staff). Whilst we continue to work on analysing the data from the study, our initial findings show that pupils and staff are overwhelmingly positive about the use of flexible seating arrangements as a whole school adaptation.
"Endeavours to improve the lives of autistic people must continue through collaborative approaches in which their participation is integral."
The pupils reported that in choosing their seat the biggest factors that shaped their decisions were the effects the seat might have on their concentration, productivity, and comfort. Most pupils reported the importance of being able to move when learning too. Staff reported that the use of flexible seating as a whole school strategy is one they would keep, and they would also recommend it to other schools. They reported observing pupils showing a higher motivation for learning, peer to peer collaboration and improved engagement. Essentially, they didn’t report the use of the seats to be problematic in any major way.
At the time of our study, the number of autistic pupils taking part was estimated to be 26. These pupils were part of a group of 57 children reported to be neurodivergent, with either an existing or awaiting diagnoses of dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia and developmental language delay amongst those in this group. The really pertinent finding from the study is that the use of flexible seating didn’t just seem to benefit autistic pupils only, but indeed it had a hugely positive approach for meeting the needs of all pupils in the school. This is important because the use of interventions that sometimes single out certain groups of children can be stigmatising. So, in summary, the seats are here to stay!
Through my work with autistic children and families and the friendships I have made with autistic people, I have learnt that flexibility and compassion are perhaps the two most important factors in moving towards a world where autism and autistic people are truly valued as they deserve to be.
The use of flexible seating is a feasible way for many schools to meet the needs of more children, including autistic children. And whilst we acknowledge much more needs to be done to ensure equity for autistic people, we hope that our study provides an example of how schools can make a meaningful change for their autistic pupils and others.
In the very wise words of some autistic teachers I had the pleasure of meeting recently, ‘a small move in the right direction matters’ and we are so grateful to the Churchill Fellowship for having helped us make that small move.
With thanks to Aaron Giulianio & Thayla-May Bradley, CRAE, UCL, Dr. Spencer Hayes, UCL, Dr. Katy Unwin, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University, and Nicole Conradie, NC. Therapy Services.
Heba is Assistant Head (Inclusion and Research Leader) at Mayflower Primary School, London and PHD candidate at CRAE, UCL.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.