Adaptive Seating: Things to Consider

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

SE Today-blog badgeThroughout my travels here in the US, I am constantly being asked questions about adaptive seating. There are so many questions and almost as many assumptions being made about these various types of seating. In the blog written by Andrea Simpson, she speaks of how an SLP can use a “Bitty Bottom” to assist in language activities. She adeptly discusses that as one of the manners in which to include the sensory and movement pieces into speech therapy.

In that idea, she hits upon the key point for any type of sensory feedback or, in this case, adaptive seating, there is no one-size-fits-all! That is the foundation from which I suggest we all operate. I recently was called by a principal who was absolutely frustrated. He had ordered chairs with moving seats for all of his third through fifth grade classrooms. He explained to me that he had read the stories and heard from colleagues as well as the manufacturer how wonderful these seats were for students with attention issues. Yet, after the implementation at the beginning of the school year, he found those classes were the least focused on studies and the hardest to control. We had a great talk and he came to better understand that while those seats may have been working well for some of the students with attention issues, they are not going to work for all students in the same way. Plus, for those students who were not demonstrating any attention issues, those seats became an excellent distraction. I simply gave him this analogy; imagine the seats being fidget spinners. Students who need the spinner and have been properly trained how to use it for their own benefit will use it well. However, it becomes a toy and distraction for all of the students who do not need it.  He understood that immediately.

So, what do recommend to schools? First, I suggest that they analyze specific student needs. You will have some students who need specific types of seating. There is plenty of research out there which supports how some students can actually increase their activity engagement when they are properly supported and comfortable; thereby deceasing environmental factors which limit engagement. If you are looking for specific research, you may want to involve your OT or PT as much of the research comes out of their realm. I remember the first article I used was Rigby et al in 1995 looking for ways to help those with CP and other physical health issues. The one point which is fairly consistent is that adaptive seating can be effective, but it must be geared toward the individual and cannot simply be assigned to everyone.

Special Tomato Extended Small MPSBy knowing the needs of the students, schools can then begin to look at what they have and what they might wish to have available. We will see products like Tumbleforms and Special Tomato seating which have their roots in assisting those with CP as well as being able to be applied to many more individuals. We also see Rifton chairs and other types of chairs which are meant to be a support as well as allow individuals to interact with classroom materials and others. Those are the types of adaptive seating which are recommended for specific individuals through the work of therapists. These are some of the easier decisions to make when it comes to seating.

The more difficult decisions come when the seating enhances focus and attention and does not carry with it ways to analyze exactly what a student might need. For these cases, I recommend a variety of tools for classrooms and therapy rooms to offer choice. Let’s face it, in our inclusive classrooms, students with differing abilities do not want to stand out from their neuro-typical peers. So, we need to think about these classrooms as an ability-friendly way of approaching education.

Those who have heard me speak know that I am a big proponent of using inflatable cushions as a support for a variety of students. It is ironic that Ms. Simpson referred to “Bitty Bottoms” as many realize I love this product and see it as a benefit for students who need it at the middle school and high school levels. These cushions are small, easily customizable, and can be carried in a backpack from location to location. I am always amazed too at the number of classrooms which use CoreDisk cushions with the teacher having one for herself, providing a wonderful model for the students, while sitting more comfortably at the desk.

Exercise balls are another common manner of adaptive seating. Please remember the following guidelines though if they are being used in a classroom. First, have a stand in which the exercise ball can be placed. It helps to limit the rolling that may not be easily controlled by some students. Second, make sure the exercise ball is the appropriate size for the students. If the students cannot place their feet flat on the floor while using the exercise ball, it is too large. Balance plays an essential role in using the exercise ball. Thus, being able to place one’s feet on the floor while sitting on the ball is important to the effects of the ball on learning. Third, make sure that the students have enough of a sense of balance and core strength to maintain a position on the ball. I have heard stories of students sitting down and going right over on to their heads because they did not have enough core strength to use the ball properly.

Specialty types of seating for sensory feedback like Beanbag Chairs and Scallop Seats may be quite appropriate for students too. Those of us who lived through the 1970s have had experience with Beanbag Chairs. The irony is the flexibility within those chairs is perfect for some of our students who need feedback at multiple points throughout the body. Although associated with being a calming and relaxing method of seating, these chairs have also proven themselves to give enough proprioceptive feedback to the body allowing the students to read or review information with limited distractibility. Scallop Seats are great for positioning students, whether on a floor or on a chair. Although some might look at them as a modified booster seat, they are actually an excellent way to add some texture, upper body parameters, and posture support for students.

There are many more types of adaptive seating out there, so the process of determining what is best can be overwhelming. By starting with a review of the school’s students and a cataloguing of what is already at the school, one can begin to piece together a plan for seating support in all classrooms. Remember that there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all. Speak to your vendors and see who is willing to let you try products before you buy. That way, you get a better sense of what will work along with having a great return on your investment.

As always, if you have any further questions, please feel free to reach out to me at We are all in this to help individuals with differing abilities, so I am here for you. We know that everyone has a voice and sometimes that voice is stronger when we do not have the distraction of an uncomfortable seating arrangement!


Posted in Special Education and SH Special Education Today Newsletter