5 Simple Ways to Improve Your Child’s Posture
Tips for parents to offset their kids’ pandemic slouching (as well as their own)
Photo by McKaela Taylor on Unsplash
While it’s common practice to associate posture with the way a person sits or stands, good posture can actually be applied to every aspect of movement. Merely linking posture to a fixed position — such as “sitting up straight” — is limiting. Instead, thinking of posture as a fluid state of being brings attention to its presence in every activity.
To get a better sense of the ease and mobility inherent in good posture, look no further than the next toddler you encounter. Young children embody the balance that is inherent in a body that moves with ease. This is why their fluid state carries over to every activity they engage in.
The toddler’s head remains poised and upright and most notably, it guides their movement. Just as a tiger leads with its head, so does a baby when she crawls. The head moves first, then her arms and legs follow. In the same manner, the head is also designed to lead the body in other activities, such as while sitting upright in a chair.
Western countries are notoriously sedentary. The impact of excessive sitting on small children’s bodies warrants consideration and care. Expecting little children to sit in a school chairs for several hours is taxing on their young backs and often results in slouching.
When this happens, the head is no longer leading the body upright while seated. Instead, it’s being pulled down along with the back. This disrupts the child’s natural alignment and is often viewed as poor posture.
Yet, before children are even taught to sit in chairs, they play on the floor as toddlers. While on the ground they can sit for long periods of time without back support. They don’t need to lean on a chair because their young bodies intrinsically know how to support themselves upright.
Once chairs are introduced and become a regular daily habit, the child the no longer has to rely on themselves sit up on their own. Instead, the chair becomes a crutch. This inadvertently sends a message to their young body that certain muscles don’t need to support them anymore. Over time, they will continue to sit in chairs at school, home, and work —further compromising the musculoskeletal system.
The pandemic led to even more sitting
Sedentary lifestyle has become a habitual way of life for the majority of Western cultures. Over a decade ago, studies depicted American adults and children spending more than half of their waking hours sitting down. Between 2011–2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a nearly 50% decrease in physical activity among 9th through 12th grade students.
The restrictions surrounding the pandemic didn’t help. Screen time was one of the few indulgences available for socializing and entertainment. While sitting behind a screen seemed like a low-risk respite amid a global crisis, it took a significant toll on musculoskeletal health.
During the course of the pandemic, frantic parents contacted me with legitimate concerns about their children’s pandemic slouch which was exacerbated by all the extra sitting — particularly behind screens. They were worried about the way their kids rounded their backs as they sat visibly hunched over.
As an Alexander Technique teacher, my work is often associated with posture. However, the Alexander Technique encompasses much more than that. In addition to its efficacy in reducing back pain, this clinically proven method teaches individuals to recognize undesired habits that interfere with the body’s optimal functioning.
One of the first things I ask of my students — children and adults alike — is to try and identify the habits that are getting in their way. While a commonality of excessive sitting exists among all of them — thanks to Western culture — sitting is not a habit they deem harmful.
Sitting, in and of itself, isn’t harmful, but what happens to the body in the chair is a whole other story. Learning to remain upright without only relying on the chair for support (while sitting in it) is an excellent way to manage the body in activity. Because although sitting isn’t a sport-like activity, the muscles can still work to maintain balance and support.
Start by sitting in a different way
In today’s day and age it’s hard to evade the daily habit of sitting. However, the more aware you become of optimal ways to sit in a chair, the more likely your chances to are to prevent poor posture and pain.
One of the easiest ways to improve posture is to sit on surfaces without back support. This important practice strengthens the back and reminds people of all ages of how they sat as toddlers. Eliminating the option to rely on the back of a chair for support re-engages the muscles that used to hold the body upright on the floor.
In order to strengthen those muscles again, sit for 5 minutes at a time on a stool, coffee table, or the floor. Then increase the time once this activity becomes easier.
Ditch the idea of a straight back
There is no such thing as a straight back. The spine has a natural curvature so it is essentially impossible to “sit up straight”. Attempting to sit “straight” by arching the back and pushing the chest and shoulders out like a soldier will only add undue stress and tension. This is harmful to children’s developing bodies as well as your own.
Telling your child to “sit up straight” is also counterintuitive to their natural alignment and can create an association with tensing while sitting. Changing the language to “sitting up” as opposed to “straight” helps clarify the thought intentions in the body’s response. “Up” provides a clear direction, while “straight” connotes tension associated with a demand.
Use imagery to promote upright sitting
Replacing the notion of “straight” with mental images that promote upward movement can help children understand their body habits. The next time you see your child slouch in their chair, ask them to imagine their head lifting up towards the sky like a balloon and the string as their spine following upward. Taking their time to explore these images can generate thinking about their way of sitting.
Using imagery helps engage the mind and body in the same activity and at the same time. It’s also an easy and effective way to redirect the body up in the chair by allowing the head to lead, as it is meant to.
Teach them about their sit bones
Small children naturally sit on their sit bones, or ischial tuberosity. That’s the secret to how they can sit and play on the floor for hours without getting tired or needing back support. When the body is used as it was designed, it functions properly and that rings especially true for sitting.
Kids will likely enjoy learning about their sit bones. You can ask them to put their hands under their bum and feel around for some circle shaped pointy bones. Then ask them to sit on them without slouching or trying to over-correct by sitting like a soldier. They can use the balloon and string imagery to help them think of “up”.
If they get tired, have them stop. You can gently remind them about their sit bones the next time they sit and show them how you do it too. Creating new habits surrounding sitting is an optimal way to improve posture.
Get them moving
It is easy for children (and adults) to get locked into their screens. Movement is essential to offset the health risks associated with sitting. Outdoor play is ideal but there are indoor options as well.
Using screen time as a privilege that can be earned after engaging in physical activity is one way to get them going. Kids can also use their beloved screens for exercise purposes. There are plenty of apps for kids you can set up on their devices that encourage high energy movement. Additionally, YouTube offers a variety of free programs like GoNoodle and Cosmic Kids to get them to up and active as well.
It’s no secret that exercise is good for everyone’s health, but consistent movement is also crucial. Moving around every 30 minutes is a great way to foster health and mitigate the impact of excessive sitting.
When habits come to light
In reality, sedentary behavior permeated busy lifestyles long before the pandemic. However, the isolation and restrictions characterizing this unforeseen era brought habits surrounding sitting, slouching, and screen time to the surface.
Shifting schooling to online learning meant kids sat in front of screens for six to seven hours more than they did pre-pandemic. Limited options for outdoor leisure only intensified screen time usage. With little else to do, sitting with devices became a ubiquitous habit that led to pandemic slouching.
Despite valid concerns about posture, you can’t force anyone — child or adult — to change a habit if they don’t want to. The only thing you can do, is offer a new perspective.
You can begin by identifying what isn’t working for your child. Then you can ask yourself if you’re modeling the behavior you wish to see in them. If you’re sitting slumped over behind your screen for the majority of your day, it might be time to work on yourself first.
When you model the behavior you wish to see in others, your improvement will be the best teacher. While there are certainly ways to help improve your child’s posture, the most effective one is to lead by example.
Originally published at https://medium.com on June 24, 2021.