Sitting Posture and Handwriting for Kids

We hear a lot about the importance of sitting posture and handwriting for kids.  But do we know the difference it can make?  Did you know that simply by improving seating position you can immediately improve the quality of your child’s written work?  And did you know that by allowing your child to be poorly seated, you can cause a handwriting problem so severe, that it can result in a Dysgraphia or “disorder of written expression” which is a medical diagnosis for poor handwriting?

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Yes, it is!  We need correct seating position!  Research has shown that the quality of seating position has a significant impact on typically developing, school-age children’s fine manipulation skills. Children seated in furniture more closely matched to their body size, achieved significantly higher scores on tests of fine motor proficiency than those seated in furniture that was too large.

“Children should be encouraged to sit in school chairs with their hips, knees and ankles at 90°; their feet fully supported on the floor; and with their arm being supported comfortably on the table that needs to be slightly inclined.”  (Amundson, 2005)

What Happens to Handwriting for Kids When the Table is too High?

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Let’s analyze this child’s writing position and how it compromises his written output abilities.  In order to achieve the flow that is necessary for speed and quality of handwriting, your arm needs to move freely across the page.  As your child is writing, and they progress along the page, they need to be able move their arm along to keep abreast of where they are writing.  This little guy is really going to struggle with that!  In order to keep moving across the page, he has to adopt awkward postures with his hand.  So, instead of freely sliding his forearm across the page, he is pivoting on his elbow, flexing or bending his wrist, and using that flexed wrist position to reach the different parts of his page.

Sitting Posture and Handwriting for Kids: Wrist Position

The position his wrist has assumed is a disaster for handwriting!  We have spoken before of the critical importance of wrist position for handwriting.  When the wrist assumes a “bent” or “hooked” position, the very anatomical make up of the hand, prevents the emergence and use of the finger movements.  These refined finger movements are critical for achieving speed and quality of handwriting.

And in this instance, it is the height of the table that is forcing the hand into this position.

If this little boy had a table at the correct height, he would be able to move his forearm freely and wouldn’t need use postural adjustments of his hand to reach the different parts of his page.

Sitting Posture and Handwriting for Kids: Forearm Position

For optimal handwriting, the forearm needs to be below the hand to facilitate and support the optimal wrist position. The height of the table forces the forearm into a side-on approach, simply because there isn’t the space with the table at neck height. And that side-on approach also forces the wrist into the flexed or bent position, so all in all the wrist is in a no win position,

How Handwriting can go so Very Wrong When the Table is too Tall

A number of years ago I saw a child in therapy.  The child may have been at risk handwriting challenges as he had muscle tone issues, and some gross and fine motor delays.  The child was small in stature and the school furniture was way to big for him.  He was just like our child in the picture – the desk height was around his neck, his feet swung freely, and his written work was at completely the wrong height.

The school was proactive and enlightened and allowed the occupational therapists to go into the classroom to do seating evaluations on every child.  Many children had seat cushions, foot blocks and some, like our child in question, also had a slant board on his desk.  With this positioning, along with the input of occupational therapy, the child developed good functional handwriting skills.  His handwriting was legible, it was fast enough, and there was a flow as he wrote.

But then he got older and moved up to Grade 4.  There the desks were even taller, while he continues to remain short in stature.  With Grade 4 came the social issues around seat cushions and foot blocks.  Our child was the only one left who was using them, and it became a social issue.  The other kids teased him and he became reluctant to use them.  And we know we can’t force a child to use adaptive equipment if they don’t feel comfortable with it.

And as the year progressed, the impact of the table height took its toll.  He assumed a hooked wrist position, his thumb was hyperextended or bent back like a banana, and he achieved the movement for handwriting primarily with arm movements.  His handwriting deteriorated rapidly and became illegible.  Handwriting speed also became an issue and he struggled to keep up with the classroom demands of the written work.  This was simply because the desk was too tall for him.  It was a practical issue that was resulting in a serious functional challenge when it came it writing.

In the end, we had to apply for handwriting accommodations for the child.  He ended up typing his content based exams, and had extra time for maths where he had to consciously focus on forming each numeral so it could be read.  Those accommodations followed him to his tertiary institution where his handwriting remained a problem for him.

And all that because of the height of the furniture!

So What is the Correct Sitting Posture for Handwriting with Kids?

Our school furniture comes in standard sizes, but our children do not.  We need to do the best we can to ensure each child is optimally seated.  It really doesn’t look great when you enter a classroom and all the tables are different heights and there are foot blocks all over the place.  It just doesn’t.  But that furniture stays behind as our children progress through school, and what a tragedy to sacrifice the life skill of handwriting, simply because the table was too tall.

Prolonged use of a bad sitting position frequently results in bad positions of the forearm, wrist and pencil which, once habitual, are difficult to change.

We need to ensure the table is at the natural height of the elbow and does not result in the child’s shoulders hunching up when working.  The chair should allow the hips, knees and ankles to be at approximately 90°.  And what if the table is too high?  Use a firm cushion that places the child at the correct height.  Then, place a small foot stool, foot block, or even an old telephone directly below their feet to ensure a stable position.

Occupational Therapy Helping Children also speak about the importance of sitting posture in children.

By paying attention to and implementing the basics – which we actually already know – can make a huge difference to our children, and help smooth the passage to fluid, legible and automatic handwriting.

©Bunty McDougall
Occupational Therapist

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