Posture, Movement, and Sensory Modifications: Creating the Ideal Work and School Environment at Home
The transition to working and learning from home is a huge one for adults and kids alike. We all benefit from having a separate work environment to support our focus and productivity in a “just-right” environment. Just as many offices have office chairs that support posture and quiet spaces to support focus, schools and childcare facilities have child-sized chairs and tables and routines to support children’s needs for stimulation, rest, and physical activity. Because we always had these working and learning environments away from home, most of us didn’t set up these spaces in our homes. While working and learning from home will always have challenges, differences, and maybe even some advantages compared to working in an office or learning in school, these tips can help to foster an ideal work-from-home environment.
Proper ergonomics is crucial for both adults and kids to avoid discomfort from prolonged sitting, repetitive strain injuries, and even focus. The general rule for positioning is to strive for a 90-degree angle at the hip, knee, and ankle, with feet supported on the floor or on a footrest. This is particularly important for children, who will have better stability with their feet supported. This helps when completing fine motor skills that your child may still be working on. Many families don’t have chairs with built-in footrests or child-sized chairs at home, but you can improvise a perfect footrest with materials around the house to support this 90-90-90 posture. Try a cardboard box or stacks of newspapers duct-taped together to create a personalized footrest for your child. We also want to think about arm positioning when setting up a work-from-home space. Ideally, your elbows should be at a 90-degree angle with your upper arms next to your torso while working at a computer or writing. This is often a challenge at home for families, as children may be very low at a table when seated in an adult chair at an adult table. Booster seats can help to improve this positioning if a child-sized table isn’t an option. Standing desks are very popular and can be a great option, but neither adults nor kids should be standing in one place while they work all day. It gets uncomfortable fast! Work in standing 20-30% of the time and sit in the supported position described above at other times, going back and forth between sitting and standing throughout the day.
As many of us grown-ups have realized in the last 3 months (if we didn’t already know it!), we can’t sit all day and stay focused on our work. The same is true for kids, who may need even more movement to maintain their ability to focus and attend to learning activities. Adults and kids alike should set aside time every 20-30 minutes (at least) to get up and move for short periods of time. Movement might involve going to get a glass of water or a snack, going to look out a window, or even doing some jumping jacks or quick yoga poses. Even just changing the scenery for 3 minutes by sitting in a different room and chatting with family can go a long way. Can you do your work on the move? Taking a call while on a walk or doing a nature lesson out in nature are great options to promote movement and improved attention while working and learning. Set up stations in your house that remind you to keep your body moving - everyone in the family hops on one foot when going through the upstairs hallway or does 10 jumping jacks when they pass the couch. Make it automatic and easy by working it into your home routines.
While so much talk about sensory processing has to do with kids, people of all ages are processing their sensory environments all day long! Think about what you need to stay at that “just-right” arousal level to work and learn your best. Do you need to do your workout in the morning or shower to feel awake? Do you like to listen to music while you work? What kind of music? Can you tune out your family watching TV in the same room or do you need complete silence? If you have your phone and personal accounts right there, can you ignore them, or are they constant distractions? We all process and filter different types of sensory input in different ways. For some, a quiet room with few distractions and a white noise machine might be best. Others might listen to loud rock music while using social media limitation applications to stay focused. Your child will need your help to learn about their own needs and to set up space to support them. If they are having trouble focusing, remember that this transition is difficult for adults as well and think about what’s going on in the environment that may be challenging for your child. Is your other child watching TV? Are they trying to focus on a Zoom call while surrounded by their toys? Are they fully awake or do they need to move around to feel ready to work?
At the end of the day, remember that this isn’t forever, and be kind to yourself and your family. Some days, even the most perfect postural and sensory environment will be challenging for your child, just like grown-ups sometimes have tough days. Stay happy, healthy, and active to make working and learning from home a success!
Written by Lauren Mazel, OTD, OTR/L