How To Teach Your Child Good Posture Habits
A guide for identifying bad habits that lead to poor posture and learning how to overcome them
As parents, it sometimes seems like there is no end to the things we need to be concerned about to promote a healthy lifestyle for our children. Are they getting enough sleep? Exercising enough? Eating the right food? An aspect of health that hasn’t been discussed enough nor understood for its many health implications is posture.
As someone who has spent the past 18 years devoted to the study, research, and teaching of posture, I’ve taught parents how to first become aware of their own poor habits before frowning upon those of their children. By following the principles of the Alexander Technique, a clinically proven method used to recognize undesired habits that interfere with the body’s optimal functioning, my students have learned to stop repeating harmful habits and implement better choices instead. Then they are able to address these more successfully with their children.
A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that children spent most of their waking hours sitting down. This was confirmed in an empirical study I conducted on children and posture. My research also found that in addition to an average of 26.5 hours a week sitting in chairs at school, children then spend 40 hours a week after school engaged in electronic devices while sitting. That’s almost 70 hours a week spent sitting down! And it gets worse: a 2010 Pew study found that more than 4 of 5 teens sleep with their phones near or on their beds, with another study showed that 62% of teens send texts after lights go out.
If adults spend over half of their waking hours sitting down throughout the day, how can it be expected that children will behave any differently? The good news is that as an adult, you can help the children in your life develop better habits early that will prevent many of the physical problems that hamper the adults around them.
Poor posture is a bad side effect of sitting down for an excessive period of time. Moreover, being sedentary for many consecutive hours puts excessive tension on the musculoskeletal system. This leads to a plethora of health problems, including obesity, asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and coronary disease. Posture also impacts mood. It is easier to recall negative memories while hunched over in a chair than if upright. The inverse is also true: it is easier to access positive images while upright than if collapsed.
“Sit Up Straight!” Doesn’t Work
Now you may be thinking that you already have the answer to the posture conundrum. Why, “sit up straight,” of course! But it’s not that simple.
For starters, the notion of sitting or standing up straight is deeply flawed. The back is not meant to be straight because the spine has a natural curvature. Forcing the back to be straight just pushes it into a soldier pose: arched back, stiff neck, and shoulders and head pulled back. That position isn’t any better for the spine than rounding our back. Both put undue tension and pressure on the spine, forcing it to contract and eventually shrink. The arched back forces the spine to bend backwards, while the rounded back forces the spine to bend forward, both having a negative impact on posture.
Besides, some of you may even remember being told to “sit up straight!” as a child. Did that feel good? Of course not. Criticism never feels good, especially if you are already aware of some shortcomings. Therefore, it is important to approach posture as a lifestyle choice, in the same way that dental hygiene is a lifestyle choice. We tend to our teeth daily, and posture is no different.
Finally, our posture is something that we are typically unconscious of; a child who is told to stand or sit up straight may feel that they already are. Their mental picture of their posture doesn’t correspond to what the outside world sees. They have no frame of reference for what good posture feels like, so just telling them to improve only frustrates them.
What Does Work with Kids
So what can you do to help your child maintain and improve their posture? The first thing is becoming aware of your own habits. If you think your child has poor posture, take a look at yourself as you are sitting in a chair. You can’t tell your child to sit up straight if you are sitting hunched over while you eat, work, or peruse your phone.
Next, discuss posture from a scientific standpoint, rather than a superficial one. Look at anatomy books and illustrations of the skeletal system. Compare them with pictures or images of people and ask your child to identify the differences.
‘Body mapping’ is a practice that you can use with your child to understand how the body fits together. This helps raise awareness of posture and what they are really doing with their body, and helps one implement mindful improvements.
Body mapping was developed by Alexander Technique teachers Barbara and William Conable. A body “map” is the image you have of your own body. Namely, the perception of how your body looks and functions. For example, if you want to pick a pen up off the floor, you might bend your spine by rounding your back towards the floor with your arm reaching for the pen. Your body map is the way you carried out that movement.
However, repeatedly bending the spine is an inefficient way to move, because it leads to excessive tension in the neck and back. If you only move in this way, your body map is limited in options for better use and functioning. By bending over through the spine to pick up objects — or even tie your shoes — you perform each activity with strain, rather than ease. In this way, your body map is not in line with the best way for your body to move.
By using body mapping, you learn more efficient ways to carry out movements, and new choices can be introduced. For instance, imagine what it might be like to extend the knees outward and get into a squat in order to get to the pen on the floor. Through body mapping and adjusting your previous conception of how to bend down, you learn a new way to reach the floor with greater ease and coordination.
Some people already use their knees effectively to bend, but many do not. Perhaps you never thought about using your knees or you didn’t realize they could extend as far out to get into a squat. Body mapping is a vehicle to recognizing better choices for carrying out activities.
Most of my students find that their body map is faulty. Their body map might suggest they are sitting upright, but when they look in the mirror and I point to the arch in their back, they understand their body map was inaccurate. Once they recognize their perception differs from what they are actually doing, they begin thinking of other ways to use their body.
The notion of bending from the joints is foreign to a lot of people — yet this is how the body was designed to move. Instead, many people bend at the spine, which leads to strain. However, the body’s natural mechanics are to bend at the joints, which promotes ease and fluidity in movement.
When we sit in a chair, we bend our spine throughout the day by alternating between slouching or over-correcting with an arched back. While the spine can bend, it is not a joint. Therefore, repeatedly bending with the spine leads to pain and discomfort. If our body map of sitting consists of a spine that is bent, we unknowingly contribute to the wear and tear of our body.
Learning how to incorporate hip joints in activities is another way that body mapping is a useful tool in moving more effectively. When you envision getting out of a chair, you might picture your body moving up. However, what usually happens instead is leading with the chest to get out of the chair, which consequently pulls the back into an arch and brings the head back and down. Since we sit for many hours throughout the day, repeatedly getting out of the chair in this manner leads to tightness in the neck, shoulders, and back.
However, if hip joints were to be used to carry out this movement, we would think of the back as a flat door and the hip joints as a hinge that allows the back to move forward without bending at the spine. This is not only an efficient use of the body, but it also utilizes the appropriate muscles.
If you were to draw a picture of how you think you sit in a chair, you might be surprised at what you see your body doing when you compare your drawing with how you actually sit in front of a mirror. In this way, body mapping through the use of sketches is a great way to gain a more accurate perception of how you are really using your body.
You can start body mapping by experimenting. Draw a picture of yourself standing. Once you have drawn a full body map of how you envision yourself, look in the mirror or take a photo and search for any discrepancies. You might find that you lean more to one side and so one shoulder is lower than the other. Or if you draw the side of your body, you might notice that you arch your back when you stand.
Discerning what we are really doing with our body, as opposed to what we think we are doing, is the first step in body awareness. That is how we come to recognize undesired habits. Body mapping is a great tool to generate more awareness to unexplored parts of our body that can facilitate better use of our body leading to optimal functioning.
From body mapping, you can move on to specific techniques that have helped my students — both adults and children— improve their postural health.
Habits to Develop for Good Posture for Yourself and Your Kids
When most people hear the word “habit,” they think of something like smoking or nail-biting — a behavior that’s easy to spot, even if it’s not so easy to quit. But we all have habits that we’re unaware of, even as we carry them with us throughout the day. A habit could be as discreet as leaning more on one leg while walking or subconsciously holding tension in your jaw.
Develop mindfulness around your own posture
Pay attention to how you carry out activities. Do you shuffle your feet as you walk? Do your children? If you can hear the thud of each step that you take in your ears, then imagine how much less effort it would take to walk if you tiptoed instead. Apply that lightness to your regular step. Then take that principle and see how much exertion is really necessary to carry out activities.
Use mirrors for feedback. If you notice that you are standing with an arched back or are slouching, rather than try to over-correct, imagine that your head is going up instead. You can simply think ‘up’ — there is no need to try to use muscles to push yourself in any direction. By thinking up, you allow the head to balance more efficiently on the spine, and the body will follow in that direction as well.
Sit on stools or surfaces without back support
This is an important practice in strengthening the back and torso. For most adults, it is not comfortable to sit in any position for long periods of time without back support. While it is still possible to sit upright in chairs that have backs, the problem arises when the back of the chair becomes a stimulus for leaning back rather than using muscles to remain upright. Eliminating this trigger for your child will help strengthen and support muscles that would otherwise be neglected.
Sit on a stool for five minutes at a time, and build on that once this activity becomes easier. It is imperative that this is done with a lengthened back. Attempting to sit “straight” by arching the back and pushing the chest and shoulders out will only add unnecessary stress and tension to their developing bodies, and will cause more harm than good. Additionally, sitting slumped over in the stool is just as detrimental. Instead, think about your head being light and lifting up towards the sky like a balloon. The string of the balloon is the spine, and it too follows you upward.
This is a great exercise to do together with your child. Once they become more used to sitting on the stool, have them do so while in front of their laptops and TVs, or when they use tablets and phones (you can also do the same!). Make sure they are sitting at eye level and not bringing the head, neck, and back down to look at the electronic devices. Pulling the head down towards a device contorts the spine, further compromising the body’s alignment and adding more strain to the musculoskeletal system.
Squat to take a break
The squat is one of the easiest and most underused methods to lengthen the back and utilize knees to their full extent. It is no wonder why so many people from the Far East go into the squat position during their lunch break! Squatting allows the back to release tension while the knees to extend outward and to unlock the strain of standing and sitting all day. This is a great activity to do alongside your child.
While going into the squat, think up as you squat down, and keep both heels on the ground. Think of your neck as an open space that allows the head to go forward and up as your back is lengthening and widening. Now ask your child to do the same. Then, do it together.
Going into a squat while keeping both feet flat on the floor isn’t easy at first. In fact, it can be challenging to do while maintaining a flat back and extending the knees outward. Small children are physically closer to the ground than adults, and this activity may be easier for them. The next time you see a toddler, watch them as they play and go into a squat on the floor. It is effortless for them. Learning to balance the body on the feet sets the foundation for your child’s postural development, which the squat reinforces.
It is crucial not to confuse this activity with the squats you might do at the gym. That exercise is full of strain and tension, and when done repeatedly it can be harmful to the body. Rather than engaging in activities that increase tension, it is more beneficial to encourage activities that promote lightness, length, and space in the body.
Bring food towards you, not the other way around
Think about what you or your child usually does as you eat your meals. As I previously mentioned, are they bringing their heads down towards their food, or bringing the food up to their mouths? Now, what about you?
If you are leaning down toward your food to eat, then you are modeling this behavior to your child — and you are also slumping in your chair with a rounded back and shrinking your spine in the process. If your child also eats this way, imagine the impact it has on their developing spines.
Instead, sit at the table with space and length in your body — this will enhance your mood and productivity. Don’t you want this for your child, as well? You can ask your child to imagine that their head is a balloon as they sit down to eat. Then, have them use the space that they have between their food and their bodies. Show them how to extend their arms outward and bring their food up to their mouths. Sure, they might spill a bit in the beginning, but this process of re-learning how to eat will also promote balance and coordination. This is a win-win!
It can help to have some kind of trigger as a self-check reminder during meals. You might want to use a discrete alarm every few minutes or a visual cue on the table to help you remember to check in on your eating posture—and that of your child.
Use a pillow to prop up devices
Prop a pillow or two on your child’s lap if they are using laptop, tablet, or phone to ensure that their screens are at eye level.
The human head weighs 10–12 pounds when in a neutral state. Every time the head tilts forward to look at a screen, the spine is compromised and it experiences added pressure—up to 60 pounds at a 60-degree bend. This is a tremendous load for the spine to endure while looking at screens for hours throughout the day. Therefore, looking at a screen at eye-level will help prevent “text neck” or iPosture.
This can also be done by stacking a few books under your child’s computer to lift their screen up. If the screen is already high, getting them a stool that can be adjusted accordingly may help.
Maintaining eye level with devices is key to providing the best conditions for the head to be poised atop the body, and for the neck and back to be lengthened and upright.
Lie down in semi-supine
Lying down in semi-supine position is my favorite form of postural self-care. It is easy, effortless, and extremely effective. This is a great habit to implement for you and your child, especially at the end of the day to help wind down.
I recommend that my students lie down in semi-supine for 20 minutes at least once a day. To do this, you’ll need a hard surface to put a mat or towel to lie on, as well as some books to put under your head. You will want to use something hard under your head, like a book, instead of a pillow. This is because a pillow will allow the head to sink back and down, thus distorting the alignment of the head and spine. The idea of semi-supine is to provide the best conditions for the body to be aligned, lengthened and balanced.
Semi-supine is different than lying down on a bed. The hard surface of the floor allows the back to widen and release, while the knees are pointed upward and the feet are flat on the floor. The bed mattress, no matter how firm, does not provide the same support for this activity that a hard surface like the floor can.
Improvements Take Time
A sedentary lifestyle is the most challenging environment for the human spine—and it is how most people spend their days.
A US study found that children and adults spend at least 55% of their waking hours or 7.7 hours a day in sedentary behaviors and that children between the ages of 5 and 16 are likely to spend about 15,000 hours sitting down. Screen time (i.e. computer and phone usage, watching television, playing video games) has increased dramatically over then the past 20 years. In 2003, nearly 6 in 10 working adults used a computer in school (kindergarten through grade 12). Between 1989 and 2009, the number of households with a computer and Internet access increased from 15% to 69%.
In Western cultures where technology is so pervasive, the musculoskeletal system is often seriously aggravated as a result.
Because of the myriad of illnesses associated with a sedentary lifestyle, it is important to be aware of behaviors that lead to harmful habits, and then to stop repeating them and replace them with good ones. It takes time and patience.
Instead of instructing children (or yourself) to over-correct bad behaviors with activities that promote strain, such as “sitting up straight”, think about habits as a process. Poor posture doesn’t happen overnight. It is the accumulation of lifelong habits. It cannot be corrected by simply doing something else on top of an existing bad habit.
The first step towards improving posture is the recognition of what not to do that interferes with the body’s optimal functioning. A good rule of thumb is that if it hurts or leads to strain or tension, stop doing it — or do much less.
The next steps for self-care are improving your understanding of anatomy and the body’s functioning, using mirrors or photos for feedback, and developing the habits described above—with your kids—to combat the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
To go further, you may want to work with professional specializing in bodywork, like an Alexander Technique teacher in your area. They can assist you with specific needs or concerns you might have for your child, as well as to help improve your own postural health.