The first thing one notices walking into Elizabeth McGrath’s first grade classroom at Daniels Farm School is the noise level. It’s quiet, but not the rigid-with-fear-of-getting- a-text-message-sent-home type of quiet. It’s more like a library reading room, with a low, unintrusive hum of conversation providing background noise.

The next thing one notices is students sitting on floor cushions, high stools, inflatable balance balls, and even a few traditional metal-framed school chairs while McGrath moves from group to group, sometimes (but not always) offering suggestions.

The beauty of this is that the students form themselves into groups, and help each other solve problems, she said.

McGrath’s class this year is piloting an alternative seating arrangement program, where students are given freedom to sit where they please. When it comes time for independent work, the students are called by group to pick a work location.

McGrath said the results in the first few months of school have been so positive that several other teachers have started considering a similar arrangement next year. The biggest changes, she said, have been better focus among the students and a better collaborative work environment.

“I can’t be at every table all the time, so when a student has a question, sometimes I can just leave it up to the other kids in the group to problem-solve, and it has been working great,” she said.

McGrath said alternative classroom seating arrangements have been around for some time and had gained some popularity in other parts of the country. She discussed the idea with Principal Gary Kunschaft, and after getting the go-ahead, spent the summer reading up on various education-oriented websites.

Getting the school staff on board was easy. The real key was getting the support of the parents.

“It’s different, and so there were some questions,” she said. “For some parents, it was like, ‘What do you mean they’ll be allowed to move around the room?’ But the results have been so positive that at parent-teacher nights, parents of students in other classes come in and want to talk about it.”

Still, McGrath admitted there were some butterflies in her stomach the first week of school.

“We sort of adopted it in stages,” she said. “Like the first week the balance balls weren’t out because I had to make sure they could sit on them without falling.”

But within weeks, the balance balls, high stools, lap desks, and floor mats were just a normal part of the school day, as was the improved academic performance and student behavior.

“They gradually earned more and more freedom,”McGrath said. “And I think next year there will be some more classes looking like this.”