Classroom Seating Arrangements and Ideas for Student Desk Organization

After you have your class meeting area, a small-group instruction area, your classroom library, any technology requiring outlets, and your workspace in place, you can begin to determine where you will have your students sit. Typically, an elementary classroom comes furnished with all desks, all tables, or a combination of both. Teachers now are showing interest in flexible, or alternative, seating as well. This section will address all three of those options.
Tables
Pros
In my experience, I have found tables, even in the upper elementary grades, to have many benefits.
  • They take up less space. 
  • They provide a community feel. 
  • They don't shift and drift apart from one another. 
  • Children don't waste time looking for books, folders, and other materials. 
  • They give you flexible seating options because students can easily relocate to a new table. 
  • They provide a space for inquiry-based, hands-on learning. 
  • You'll never find a moldy snack "in" a table. 
  • You can't say the same for desks. 
  • They support cooperative learning. 
  • They provide spaces for aides / volunteers to work with small groups. 
  • They are easy to clean. 
  • Not all students are naturally organized and the need to house student books and supplies differently eliminates the need for them to utilize their executive function skills as individuals.

Cons
  • To be fair, tables also have a few challenges. 
  • They limit classroom configurations. 
  • Without consistent expectations, they do tend to make for a louder noise level in the classroom.
  • You will need to get creative during assessments.
  • You must find alternative ways to house the student books, journals, notebooks, and supplies.
How do I organize student supplies if they sit at tables?

Assign table numbers.

Use plastic drawers or containers on shelves to hold like items for the tablemates.

Color-coding each table and then using bins that coordinate with each table’s color is helpful.

Assign a table captain to be responsible for making sure everything is put away correctly and for getting the materials as needed.

Some teachers like to use chair pockets that slide over the back of each student’s chair. These can be used for holding individual supplies and books.

Plastic shower caddies work well for making student supplies available at the table when needed, but off to the side on a shelf when not in use.

If you opt to use table caddies, you could use them to hold individual ”community supplies.” However, in my experience, I have found that children take much better care of the supplies when they are their own. Also, I noticed a dramatic increase in illnesses (cold and stomach viruses) during the years when I used community supplies.

Here is what worked in my classroom:

  • I placed a plastic cup on each table for the students to keep their pencils in. 
  • I wrote their student numbers on the top of the pencils to eliminate conflict over who each pencil belonged to, and to make it easy for lost pencils to be returned to the proper cup when found. 
  • I purchased a sturdy plastic pencil case for each child and used those to store their scissors, glue sticks, markers, colored pencils, and a hand-sharpener. These were called “the art boxes” and each table had a basket that would hold all of the art boxes for that table. Students could easily get their own box for individual projects or the entire basket could be brought to the table if we were working on a whole-class activity that required those supplies.
  • Journals, notebooks, and text books were all housed together. If I had a class of 25, I would instruct 5 children to “take 5.” Those 5 students would take the top 5 journals from the container and pass them out to their owners. This process took less than a minute.
  • I have also organized the books, journals, and art boxes for each table by placing everything into plastic milk crates and storing them near their table. This system worked overall, but I did find that over time things would become damaged as students would quickly toss them into the crate. 

Can I use these organization strategies if I only have desks?
Absolutely! In fact, I didn’t always have tables. I began with a classroom full of desks and one table. Over time I accumulated more tables by writing grants, trading with colleagues, and scavenging around the building.


Even when I didn’t have mostly tables in my classroom, I always treated the desks as if they were tables. I clustered them in groups of either 4 or 6. The only thing the students kept inside the desks were their independent book bags. This made it possible for flexible groupings. Although each student had a “home base” to start the day, they would then move around the room for guided reading, guided math, and center work.


No class time was ever wasted looking for assignments, books, or supplies in a messy desk. No child ever felt embarrassed because he or she may not have the developed executive function skills necessary to manage a desk full of materials.  It worked out very well.


Individual Desks
Many classrooms are equipped with an individual desk for each student. If you are working with desks instead of tables, you will have several things to consider when setting up your classroom and planning how they will be used.


How much ownership should the students have over the desks?


You can allow the students to keep all of their supplies inside their desks or you can limit what goes in them. As mentioned on the previous page, you do have the option of treating the desks as if they were tables and implementing the tips and ideas for organizing student supplies that way.


How can I help my students stay organized with desks?


There are several ways you can teach and encourage organizational strategies.
  • Use small containers within the desks to compartmentalize items. 
  • Slide flat cardboard boxes into desks that open from the front to create a drawer and make sorting and organizing easier.
  • Schedule regular times for desk cleanouts.
  • Create a poster showing how an organized should be arranged.
  • Draw a diagram of an aerial view, a cross section, or both. Label the contents. Instead of a drawing, you could take an actual photo of a neatly arranged desk. Project this image when the students are doing a desk clean-out or print a large version to display as a reference.
If you have students who require extra support, try one (or more) of these strategies:
  • Print an individual photo  showing how the desk should be arranged and allow the student  to keep it in his or her desk to reference regularly.
  • Create a written checklist for the student to use when organizing.
  • Assign a peer to help keep the child on track. Not all students are comfortable accepting help from classmates, so always check with the student first.
How should I arrange the student desks?

It is highly likely you will rearrange your students desks throughout the year. The key is to find an arrangement that works well for the cohort or students you are working with. Some classes do best when spread out a bit, while others work well in multiple combinations.


By the way, if you are not already subscribed to The Clutter-Free Classroom newsletter I encourage you sign up. Subscribers receive weekly tips for organizing and managing a classroom as well as exclusive free printables. You can sign up here.