First impressions mean a lot. As adults, we know it’s true. The same is true for students. That’s why I believe in assigned seats on the first day of school.
Middle school students are fickle. They develop through various emotional and physical stages during early adolescence. The “freedom” to choose their own seats may seem like a privilege or a nice perk, but for some, it can be stressful and damaging.
More popular students will rush to their seats with relative ease. They will then gather friends around them. This makes the seat-finding process look like it is going very well.
“Sit by me! Sit by me!” you might hear.
But for a handful, they are stuck. Do they dare sit next to a more outgoing student who is amassing a posse? Do they dare invade that space? Do they risk sitting in a less populated section—what if no one sits by them once they are seated? Timing is huge. Status is on the line. One wrong move and they could hear the dreaded, “This seat is saved” or “Not here!” Or even worse, they sit down and students move away to other available seats.
Imagine this is your experience on the first day of school. To us adults, it may seem relatively harmless. To a 12-year-old, it’s devastating. It sets the tone: I’m an invader, an outsider, an unwanted tagalong. I don’t really have a place here. I don’t belong.
Simple solution: Assign each seat a number before the school year starts. Tape the number on the corner of the desk. Hold a stack of the same numbers in your hand as kids arrive for class. Give each student a number and assure them they have a place, they belong, they matter.
“It’s nice to meet you. You have seat #12. It has been waiting all summer for you.” (And if you didn’t assign seats when school started, it’s not too late to consider a new system.)
At the seat, if possible, have a few handouts in various colors: some procedures, a syllabus, a half sheet for reflecting or writing to the teacher, etc. A new pencil is a nice touch, too (just in case some students didn’t bring one). Regardless, it’s a kind gesture.
Alleviate some of the stress of starting the school year by ensuring all students have a place of their own. If you’re noticing patterns of cliquing, unkind or distracting behavior, assigning seats is also a great way to hit the “reset button” any time during the year.
Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.