COVID-19 · occupational therapy · remote learning · technology

Easy Ways to Create a Healthy Ergonomic Set Up for Your At-Home Learner

Are you a teacher having to manage at-home learning for your students? Does that learning include screen time for large portions of the day?

For years, therapists have known that body positioning to increase attention and upper extremity stability is important. But those strategies have focused on children that have been seen by therapists in classrooms and clinics to address decreased attention span, core stability, and handwriting concerns. These tips and tricks can be applicable to any child in a classroom, not just those with challenges. Now, educating parents and caregivers on the importance of positioning at home has become more relevant than ever.

Whether the child is in a hybrid or online learning situation, sitting position is important not only to increase attention span, but also to provide good ergonomic positioning, which is healthy for the head and neck (as well as the entire spine). But how do we accomplish this goal of good positioning in front of the required technology, increasing attention for the present as well as keeping their bodies healthy for the future? The answer is making sure that we follow the 90/90/90 rule. That is, making sure that the ankle, knee, and hip joints are all at a 90-degree angle when the child is sitting at a desk or in front of technology. We can help by providing them with the environment and tools to enable maximum attention. Placing a stool under dangling feet will offer stability so that little bodies don’t have to worry about staying up against gravity but can instead pay attention. Obviously, a foot stool is an option but may not get the leg joints at a 90-degree angle depending on the height of the stool. A simple box filled with books or cans can be placed on the floor as a “do it yourself” foot stool. Since boxes come in all different heights, find the one that gives the right angle. It will need to be filled to prevent it from collapsing. (Old phone books taped with duct tape make great foot stools, and what an awesome way to recycle!)

The following pictures (provided by AL-Inclusive Therapy Services) show various positions that might be typical in our home set ups. Our children may be sitting in a comfy office chair at a nice big desk or at a table that has plenty of room to spread out. But is his/her body positioned correctly? Take a look at these before and after pictures. Using foot supports and pillows can position the child for optimal attention and body alignment.

We have talked about positioning the child. But what about positioning the technology? A neutral neck is important to prevent neck and back issues down the line. There are a host of issues from headaches to neck, back, and shoulder pain that can develop in the future if we don’t take care of little bodies now. In the following pictures, again provided by AL-Inclusive Therapy Services, you can see the before and after positioning of the computer monitor, laptop, or tablet. It’s an easy fix by putting books or another household object like a box or container under the technology to raise it up so that the child has a neutral neck and is looking straight forward at the screen.

But are there positions that children can be in that don’t involve a chair? Absolutely! Lying on the stomach gets the child out of the flexed position into which we were all born. Extension is good for our spine! Many of us slump way too much, partly because of weak core/tummy muscles, but also because all of us naturally fall into a flexed, slumped position. Take a look at these pictures, provided by AL-Inclusive Therapy Services, that give some great alternatives to sitting upright in a chair. Lying on the belly, tall kneeling, and sitting on a ball or peanut give fun options to sitting. If working on a writing task, standing at a window or wall with a piece of paper taped on it gives proper alignment as long as the paper is placed so that the neck is in neutral. This position also encourages good hand positioning on a crayon, marker, or pencil.

So, let’s mix it up throughout the day. Maybe try starting the day at the desk keeping in mind good positioning and then watch a video or “attend” another class while belly lying on the floor. Or stand at the backdoor window with a paper taped to the window at eye level to complete a drawing or writing assignment. And in-between static positioning times, make sure your student is getting in movement. You might have a dance party in the middle of the school day or get in some natural movement by having your child walk across the room to get supplies. Giving the child a stable foundation while sitting is critical and so is movement throughout the day. Think about how much movement happens in traditional classrooms! But today, children are spending more time in front of technology than ever before. They are not playing outside as much as generations of the past, and we are seeing the results of inactivity, one of which is decreased core/tummy strength. If little bodies are paying too much attention to keeping up against gravity while sitting at a computer, it’s hard to pay attention to the work they are doing. In these days of so much screen time, getting out into the yard and onto play sets is more important than ever before. Kiddos need to increase core strength to help their bodies feel stable up against gravity.

In this unprecedented time, when there is so much to think about and so many decisions to be made, these are easy yet important positioning options that can be implemented using household items. If you are looking for more information about positioning, sensory input, hand writing, overall development, and more, check out AL-Inclusive Therapy Services and The Sensory Spectrum on Facebook. They both have great articles, pictures, and information for parents.

Karen Reale, OTR/L is an independent contractor practicing Occupational Therapy in Central Pennsylvania. An Elizabethtown College graduate, she has an eclectic background but has worked primarily with the pediatric population for the past 30 years. 

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