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OT Corner: Body and Head Positioning Play a Key Role in Learning

by Katherine Collmer, OTR/L
bodyheadElementary school children spend 30-60% of their classroom time working at their desks on fine motor skills,  predominantly on tasks involving handwriting.   A visual sweep of the classroom scene will uncover as many seated body postures as there are students.  For the most part, an upright position will not be the one most utilized.  Slouching, leaning forward; resting heads on the desk, arm or hand; and legs curled up on the chair seat will most likely be the writing positions that would be observed. 
Unfortunately, these positions are not beneficial for the brain, back, neck or fine motor skills.  These are not the children’s preferred seated positions, however.  They are simply the ones that work best for them in order to save all of their energy for their school tasks.  They may not be aware of it but they have chosen these seating positions because they find it difficult to maintain an upright body position.  This could be the result of weak muscles and diminished visual skills.  Or it could be the product of an inadequate seating arrangement.  Muscles strength and vision skills can be evaluated and remediated.  However, regardless of the reason,  seating  always requires assessment and adjustment in order to provide students with the best opportunity to maintain their bodies in a healthy position that will assist in their learning.  Posture affects the way that they learn and can enhance their educational experience.  Their brains and their eyes demand better posture.
The brain comprises only 2 percent of the body’s weight.  However, it uses more than 20 percent of the body’s energy.  It requires a steady blood flow to sustain its supply of glucose and oxygen.   These are the elements that prevent the brain from becoming “foggy” and robbing us of the level of attention needed to complete our cognitive tasks.  That’s why a walk in the fresh air can raise alertness and even assist in creative thinking.  The exchange of “old” air for fresh air recharges the brain for mental tasks.  It has been reported that dolphins exchange nearly 90 percent of their lung capacity each time they surface, letting go of the majority of their “stale air” to make room for fresh oxygen.  In comparison, humans are able to exchange only about 25 percent of their lung’s capacity even while standing up straight and taking a deep breath.  The ability to exchange air is severely diminished when we are seated in a slouching position, allowing us only a 5 percent exchange with each breath.  Sitting up straight can increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain by up to 40 percent. 
Learning requires the ability to concentrate and to store new and adapted information into memory.  Diminished oxygen to the brain decreases a student’s ability to concentrate – settling him into a state of “fogginess.”  Equally as important for learning is the positioning of our eyes.  Seeing is our dominant sense and our primary source for gathering information in learning.   Between 75 and 80 percent of what we learn is accomplished through the use of our eyes.  Learning and memory skills can only be as efficient as vision skills.  They depend upon the two eyes working together efficiently:  the accurate fusion of the information from each eye, smooth eye movements in every direction, the ability to focus both near and far, and the ease of scanning and fixating on objects of interest.  Students from the age of 5 place continual demands on their eyes to gather information and learn.  Virtually every moment of their day is devoted to this task – at their desk, in the lunchroom and on the playground.  Close eye work, such as reading and writing, pose increased visual demands on the 17 essential skills required for efficient vision.  Postural imbalance, such as slouching or resting our head on the desk, increase those demands and can result in distress to our vision and body.  
Myopia, or nearsightedness, could be developed as a result of how a person uses his eyes.  Although the tendency for myopia is based upon heredity, visual stress has been determined to be a cause as well.   Visual perceptual processing, the skills we use to determine spatial relationships, to recognize likenesses and differences and to derive meaning from what we see, are also developed through the use of our eyes.  The information we “learn” is only as accurate, however, as the information we gather.  Poor posture, whether in a standing or sitting position, affects the accuracy of that gathering process.  A student who reads and writes with his head resting on his left arm causes a shift in his eye alignment (fusion), diminishes the eyes’ ability to move smoothly across the page (scanning and fixation) and places an increased strain on the eyes for near vision (focusing).  Slouching stresses the eyes by positioning them in an downward direction; crouching in the seat moves them into an upward position.  Only an upright position can provide the eyes with the best possible advantage for learning.
Posture is an important player in a child’s educational success.  It deserves attention.
About the Author and Contributing Blog
Katherine Collmer, M.Ed., OTR/L, is a pediatric occupational therapist who is hopelessly in love with handwriting! She owns and operates a small clinic that specializes in just that, where she brings fun, movement, and play into the mix. She currently lives on Cape Cod, in Sandwich, MA, USA, and is kooky when it comes to walking her Welsh Pembroke Corgi, Ron, along the beach. Of course, she is even kookier when it comes to her husband, John, as they travel across the US looking for adventure! She enjoys reading mystery novels (especially the British ones) and writing her long-winded blogs. Cross-stitch is high on her list of relaxing activities, right before playing games on her iPad!
Find out more about Katherine and her passion for handwriting at

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