Preferential Seating:
What Does it Mean?

By Jeannene Evenstad, CO Families for H&V

I remember walking into my son Brian’s second grade class five years ago to observe group writing. The kids all sat on the floor and the teacher wrote on an easel using the students input. Brian was in the front row because that’s where the Deaf/hh students sat.  I observed him trying to watch three things at once - the teacher, the board she was writing on, and the interpreter when he missed what the teacher or another student said.  His head was in constant motion moving back and forth. It took me no more than a minute to realize that sitting in the front row was not preferential seating in this circumstance. The resource teacher happened to walk into the room while I was observing. I mentioned that if Brian was able to sit back a few rows and possibly sit in a chair he would be able to see the teacher, interpreter, classmates, and the easel without straining his neck. He tried sitting a few rows back on the floor, and agreed seeing all he needed to see was much easier.

Fast Forward

Fast forward to his sixth grade orientation. When he came home from school, the first thing he said was “the interpreter made me leave the group of kids I was sitting with to sit in the front row during the assembly.” I encourage Brian to advocate for himself but also understood why he wouldn’t want to tell the interpreter “no” on the first day of school.  I spoke with his new resource teacher who told the interpreters that Brian does not have to sit in the front row and should be able to make choices about where he sits. During his IEP in May, he brought this up, noting that he was always asked to sit in the front row in all of his classes except his Intro to Spanish class. His resource teacher encouraged him to discuss this with the teachers and interpreters, and if it continued to be a problem to let her know. It was almost the end of the year so he just sat in his assigned seat. On a side note he did advocate that his locker be with the other seventh graders next year and not by the Deaf/HH classroom---his resource teacher absolutely agreed. 

Jump ahead one more year.  Seventh grade has begun. He came home and was happy to tell me that his locker was with the seventh grade lockers.  However, he was not happy that he was assigned a seat in the front row in every class. I told him to be patient. After he is comfortable in his classes, and knows his teachers, he could explain he doesn’t need to sit in the front row all the time and why. Of course, all I could think is why is “preferential seating” translated to mean “front row seating?”  I think it is assumed that if a student is deaf or hard of hearing that they just automatically need to sit in the front—even if the teacher has never seen the term “preferential seating.”

What is the Preferred Position?

Preferential seating means something different for every student and every circumstance.  For example, in the car, preferential seating for my son is behind the driver because his implant is on the right side, but for my daughter preferential seating is behind the passenger seat because her implant is on her left side. (Thank goodness their implants are in opposite ears.) In a classroom with the door to the front of the room, sitting in the front row may not be the best choice due to noise from the hall. If a student is in the front row should they be seated away from the door...? Maybe. It depends. If a fan is blowing in the room, care should be taken that the student isn’t seated where the noise will interfere with listening. Is there a window in the room?  Exterior lighting should be at the student’s back s it illuminates (not silhouettes) the teacher and other kids. One parent I know thinks that her child can participate better in the second or third row, and to the side in her middle school classes. There is more classroom discussion than in elementary school, and it is easier for this student to see the faces of more of her classmates as they talk and see both the teacher and the interpreter at the same time from further back.

There are so many variables, and there probably is never a perfect seat, but a Deaf/hh student should not automatically be assigned a front row seat. I’m not saying that the front row is never OK but it should not be a given. The Hands & Voices motto “What works for your child is what makes the choice right” most certainly applies to seating – what works for the student is what makes the seat right!

Understanding the Issue 

The other night I posted on Facebook: “I wish the phrase ‘preferential seating’ wasn’t  translated to mean front row seating only.  Sitting in the front row is not always preferential.”

I immediately received two replies:

“I try to explain to teachers that it’s like sitting in the front row of the movies.  It hurts your eyes and limits your sight range,” posted by a parent of a mainstreamed student with a cochlear implant

“I remember that in elementary school.  Couldn’t really see what the other kids were saying during discussions. In high school, I sat in the back, and it was actually better.  I could better monitor the whole class and know when someone was raising their hand,” posted by a hard of hearing adult who was mainstreamed while growing up.

I’m not placing blame on classroom teachers.  My guess is that no one has given teachers information on what preferential seating means. Students, parents, and former Deaf/HH students need to educate teachers and interpreters.  A good resource from Hands & Voices is the DVD, “A is for Access:  Full & Effective Communication Access for Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing” and you can order it under the products section right on our website.

What are your thoughts?  If you’re willing, please send a short quote “What preferential seating means to me……” to me at   ~

Editor’s note: The author is an administrative assistant and Parent Guide at Colorado Families for Hands & Voices and is the parent of three, including two children who are hard of hearing.

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