Don't let distance learning be a pain in the neck (or head, or wrist)
By AMANDA LONG | Special To The Washington Post | Published: September 10, 2020
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This spring, adults suddenly working from home full-time got a lesson in ergonomics the hard way. This fall, make sure your kids don't have to.
To ensure learning from home isn't a pain in the neck (or strain on the eyes), we turned to experts in ergonomics and children's health. They prioritize two conditions for healthy learning: frequent movement throughout the day and a screen at eye level.
"Movement and having the screen at eye level are the biggest things to reduce issues of lower back and neck pain," says Daren Molina, a sports medicine specialist at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, where he's starting to see an uptick in kids coming in with problems related to not moving and poor neck posture.
Laptop risers, tablet stands and a stack of books can all do the trick in getting screens where they need to be, preventing the dreaded "text neck," the painful result of being hunched over, Molina said.
Once the screen is at eye level, directly in front of the body, make sure the laptop (or tablet) is at arm's length, about 18 to 24 inches from where your child is sitting, said Aaron Miller, clinical spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. To encourage good "eye hygiene" for at-home learners, the AAO recommends positioning the light source behind the student, not behind the computer screen.
Adjust the brightness and contrast on the screen to a level comfortable for your child. They should avoid using the device outside or in brightly lit areas, as the glare can cause eye strain; but they also shouldn't use it in a dark room, as pupils expand to accommodate the darkness and the brightness of the screen can cause discomfort.
And about those blue-light blocking glasses? The AAO does not recommend them, as there is no evidence that blue light damages people's eyes. That stance hasn't kept mass retailers from selling them, school systems from recommending them or thousands of people from swearing by them. But the research isn't there.
Take a break, but don't just sit there
"Our bodies are designed to move," said Jennifer Hutton, a pediatric physical therapist in Nashville, Tenn. who remembers no fewer than three outdoor recesses when she was in kindergarten — and credits them for being part of an active, vibrant learning experience. "I also remember distinctly the first time I counted to 100 that year. The environment was set up for me to play and be stimulated."
And that's why one of the most important things you can do when it comes to your at-home learning station is to get kids away from it, often. Movement acts as a check-engine light, alerting the mind to which body parts have been overused or stuck in one spot when they're asked to do new things.
"The next position is the best position," says Lisa Schuiteboer, a certified ergonomic expert, echoing a common refrain of advice health practitioners who treat musculoskeletal pain. Schuiteboer advises for Kensington, a maker of desktop and mobile devices, and helped it create a stretch guide and lead its "Ergo 101" webinar for students, parents and teachers.
When there's time for a quick stretch, Hutton reaches for fun decks from Super Duper Publications; some of the cards are dedicated to particular movements or body parts, others to creativity and specific learning goals. They're perfect for when Mom and Dad know they'll be on a call (or having a moment to themselves), she says. Check out her Instagram for a post helping kids stretch the body and imagination.
One way to keep kids active is to lead by example. Micro-breaks are good for everyone, including parents. The trick is remembering to take them.
The golden rule, Schuiteboer says, is "20-20-20": Every 20 minutes, look away to something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Place a picture or something visually stimulating 20 feet away from the workstation for learners to focus on, Hutton suggests. Keep it interesting by changing visuals, include pictures with multiple images and ask them to count or find different items at each break. Set a timer and/or mark pages of textbooks with cues to look away.
When possible, have kids get up, go into a different room and do something that would give their brains and bodies what they'd get traveling from classroom to classroom, running into friends and just being somewhere other than home. "Take a family walk. Do a lap around the house. Move!" said Molina.
These breaks target eye fitness as well, as eyes need an escape from the screen as much as butts need a break from the seat.
"People don't blink as often while using computers and other digital devices, leaving eyes dry and irritated," said Miller, the ophthalmologist. Staring for too long at one thing can lead to headaches.
Beyond movement and a screen at eye level, Hutton says to consider the basics: a chair with optimal back support that allows the child's feet to touch the floor, a writing surface that doesn't require the child to hunch over and an engaging work area with limited distractions.
In a Seat? Plant your feet
Find a chair that is firm and allows your child to sit with knees at a comfortable 90-degree bend and feet flat on the floor, Molina said. An office chair with lumbar support is ideal, or use a kitchen table chair with a cushion or rolled towel supporting the lower back for lumbar support. Feet dangling? Try a shoe box, stack of books or step stool under the feet, Hutton suggests. A chair with arm rests is a bonus.
If the child demonstrates discomfort and fidgets constantly, try different sitting positions and surfaces, Hutton said. Some may be more productive sitting on the floor. Children who tend to be more hyperactive may benefit from sitting on an exercise ball or a balance disc that allows them variability in movement while they sit. Children who tend to be more hyper-mobile, or "loosey goosey," Hutton said, may need an option that provides maximum support because it is difficult for them to hold themselves upright against gravity.
Pillows and bolsters are your friend, especially for kids younger than 6, whose short attention spans and growing bodies make frequent position changes and locations a healthy reality. "An office chair won't work for the 4-year-old," Hutton said, noting that curves in the spine are still in development until age 6. "Ask them if they're comfortable, take cues from their movement," she said. "Do what's best for your child. You know them best."
Wrists are the Switzerland of the arm: They like to be neutral, neither in flexion (fingers lower than wrist) or an extension (fingers lifted, as in a "stop" motion). "All that flicking and scrolling motion on tablets and touch pads without an external mouse increases fatigue in the wrist muscles, and they hurt," Schuiteboer said.
Don't have a mouse or ergonomic keyboard? To keep her wrists neutral, Hutton slides a notebook the same thickness as her laptop under her forearm when she's working.
Don't forget writing (as opposed to typing) posture, Molina said. Have kids keep the page close to the edge of the table so elbows remain close to the body. And they shouldn't lean elbows on the table for too long.
A good pair of headphones is essential for student focus and family harmony, experts agree. "My daughter doesn't want to hear about ergonomics; I don't want to hear about multiplication tables," Schuiteboer said. The World Health Organization puts its "safe" noise level at no more than 85 decibels, and most products marketed as kid-friendly claim to set the limit there. But, beware: In researching its "best headphones for kids" column, Wirecutter found that one-third of those tested exceeded that volume.
Ask for what you need
Teachers know that outfitting a classroom for learning is no small feat or investment. If the right equipment is a financial or logistical challenge for you, you may be able to find help. DonorsChoose has partnered with Thrive Global, Arianna Huffington's wellness company, and other entities, including NextDoor (a social networking site that offers another avenue to find used desk chairs, laptop stands and more) to provide resources for at-home learning. Its Back to School Solutions campaign acts as clearinghouse online, with articles about virtual learning, crowd-sourced tips from parents and educators nationwide, and a deep directory of educational groups and companies providing tech support, equipment and other resources, including Respectability's comprehensive guide for virtual education for students with disability.
One Arlington, Va. parent has raised more than $25,000 through Project Headphones to outfit Arlington students with the expensive school supply. Cortney Weber started a GoFundMe page in early August, and she's now working with Arlington Public Schools, which is helping coordinate corporate donations. Many other school systems and PTAs are working to outfit kids with laptops and tablets.
Parents of special-needs students who depend on a variety of equipment at school should ask their school systems for an in-home equipment evaluation, Hutton said, so they can work together to source items. She encourages parents to check with nonprofits, which often collect and distribute donated equipment. "If your child has an [Individualized Education Plan], this needs to be included in it," she said.
Every expert said some version of this key piece of advice for parents: Don't forget to breathe, and know you're doing your best. This is new territory for everyone, and it just might teach us a few surprising new lessons.
"The fact that kids are able to move more, have more say in their surroundings and be stimulated more could be a good thing," Hutton said. "For those children who are not thriving in a typical school environment, you may see some amazing things come out of this."