Sit up straight to start the year right!!!

By: Stephanie M. Foster  MS, OTR/L


School is back in session!!  And students are once again adjusting to sitting still in their desks for long periods of time.  Many students have trouble sitting in their chairs after an active summer.  But a few simple adjustments may help ease this transition. 


A recent study published by Smith-Zuzovsky and Exner (2004), examined how proper seat positioning affected typical 6 & 7 year old childrenís object manipulation.  They compared children who sat in too large standard classroom furniture to those in individually fitted furniture.  The latter group sat in chairs that allowed the childís hips to flex to 90 degrees, their feet to rest flat on the floor, and with the table allowing for flexed elbows. Both groups were given a standardized test of object manipulation, in which the child plays games with the examiner that involve picking up small objects, using a pencil to write, turning the pencil over to erase, cutting with scissors, handling papers, constructing projects, and manipulating coins.  Children who were optimally seated performed significantly better in all tasks.  The studyís results suggest that the fit of furniture relative to the childís size has a large impact on studentís manipulation skills.  Complex hand skills, (like moving objects around in your hand, using both hands at the same time, and stabilizing paper with the non-dominant hand) appear to be easier when the child sits in a correctly fitted chair. 


There are several easy methods to ensure your child fits into their new school desk. First, start with your childís chair.  Make sure the student sits back comfortably with their back just touching the back-rest. His/her feet should rest with their ankles and knees bent to ninety degrees.  If their feet swing or their knees are bent over 90 degrees, then they should use a chair that is shorter.  Consider using last yearís chairs until the child grows.  If there are not any new chairs available, then put a sturdy box or large book under their feet, so that their ankles rest comfortable at the required ninety degrees.  In addition, you can have the child trace their feet onto poster board, cut these out, and color them in bright colors.  Secure the paper feet under the desk in the correct position.  This serves as a reminder for the student to keep his/her feet in the proper place.  It is harder to slouch when a studentís feet lay flat on the floor.  In addition, teachers may need to remind students to use good posture throughout the day.


Adjusting a desk takes a little more work.  Ask the school custodian to bring their wrenches to your classroom to help with this task.  The desk should hit the student mid-chest height, so that their elbows are loosely flexed. 


As children grow throughout the school year, their desks and chairs will need to change.  As many teachers can testify, students typically start the school year off in desks and chairs that are too big, enjoy about 2 months of proper positioning around December and January, and then outgrow this again at the end of the year.  Later in the year when students no longer fit, the desks can be raised up, and seats exchanged to optimally match the studentsí bodies.  See Figure 1 below for correct positioning guidelines.


Teachers work very hard all year long to ensure each student learns all that they are capable of learning.  They use a variety of senses and lots of hands-on activities to demonstrate new concepts.  Proper seating not only ensures students have an easier time manipulating their paper and pencils, but also improves attention to learning. 


For more information on promoting good student desk & chair positioning, contact your schoolís occupational therapist.  Stephanie Foster has been practicing OT for 16 years and has worked in schools for the last 13 years.  She can be reached at 805-264-1553 or by visiting




Smith-Zuzovsky, N., & Exner, C>E. (2004).  The effect of seated positioning quality on typical 6- and 7- year old childrenís object manipulation skills. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 58, 380-388.