Teachers and school administrators can take inexpensive steps to improve classroom ergonomics and prevent health risks caused by heavy backpacks and frequent computer use, according to Strategies for Schools, a program released by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Sept. 19.

Placing computer monitors at eye level, having students take breaks every 30 minutes to stretch out, and putting course material online can ease muscle strain and reinforce good computing behavior, the group said.

Students tend to use computers sporadically at school and for longer periods at home, but AOTA hopes that by setting good examples, schools can instill in students proper computer habits that will last a lifetime.

“We are trying to change behaviors in children, and I think schools can be role models for correct computing behavior,” said Karen Jacobs, a school ergonomics expert and professor of occupational therapy at Boston University.

Jacobs, a former AOTA president who is in the middle of a school ergonomics research project, has surveyed 452 middle school students about their health and analyzed their computer workstations. She plans to compare each student’s survey results in relation to his or her workstation.

“[More than] 42 percent of kids are complaining of muscular skeletal problems from computer use,” Jacobs said. “The same kids complaining of muscular skeletal pain from computers said they had difficulty carrying their backpacks.”

She added, “We aren’t talking about complainers; we are talking about kids [who] are hurting.”

Working in ill-conceived and poorly designed classrooms can translate into a lifetime of problems for students, Jacobs said. She recommended that educators consult their schools’ occupational therapists for guidance, because they are trained in ergonomics. Nearly 10,000 occupational therapists already work in schools with special-needs students as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“As occupational therapists, we can make simple changes that really can reduce some of these hazards or eliminate them completely,” she said.

The release of these strategies coincides with the first National School Backpack Awareness Day, which takes place Sept. 25. School occupational therapists in more than 25 states will get students to weigh their backpacks and teach them proper ways to select, pack, and wear their bags.

Backpacks should weigh no more than 15 percent of a student’s weight, AOTA says.

But more than half of the 40 million students who wear backpacks carry too much weight, and this causes neck, shoulder, and back pain; posture and spine development problems; labored breathing; and fatigue.

Schools interested in participating in the Backpack Awareness Day can get free materials from the AOTA web site, including a printable weigh-in sheet, pamphlets, and permission forms. The site also has an eMail list for event planners.

To lighten backpacks, AOTA recommends the following steps for educators:

  • Examine what students carry and remove unnecessary items;
  • Supply lockers or cubicles to store books, supplies, and athletic equipment;
  • Rethink homework so students don’t have to carry multiple textbooks at once;
  • Consider making course materials and resources available online, providing two sets of books (one for home and one for school), or buying from companies that divide a large textbook into multiple volumes;
  • Ask students for suggestions.

In the classroom, AOTA suggests that school leaders do the following:

  • Provide a variety of chair and desk sizes to fit different-sized students, or adjustable furniture that can expand as children grow;
  • Place computer monitors at eye level to avoid neck and shoulder strain. If using a laptop, plug in a separate keyboard so the monitor can be raised to the appropriate level;
  • Make students take stretching breaks while using the computer to decrease continuous pressure on the spine. Jacobs offers free software, called Stretch Break for Kids, that educators can download from her web site. The software runs in the back ground, and every 30 minutes a two-minute stretching activity pop ups for kids to follow. The software is available for both PCs and Macs.
  • Give students a platform or phone book beneath their desk, so they can rest their feet instead of dangling them. For taller kids, raise the desk’s height with wooden blocks.

Links:

American Occupational Therapy Association
http://www.aota.org

National School Backpack Awareness Day 2002
http://www.aota.org/backpack/index.asp

“Stretch Break for Kids” software
http://people.bu.edu/kjacobs