Distractible, Tired & Slouching: The Wondrous Effects of Sitting All Day at School

I’ve been writing this week about how music teachers can help their students find poise without resorting to nagging them about their posture. Music teachers often bring a great deal of ingenuity to teaching technique and musicianship, but then resort to simple exhortations like “sit up straight” or “stand tall” when teaching poise. From my work as an Alexander Technique teacher, I’ve learned that poise is a subject just as worthy of creative study as, say, vibrato in string technique.

As much as I enjoy giving this advice, it's a little unfair. After all, music teachers don’t teach in a vacuum. If their students show up distractible, tired and slouching to their lessons, it’s not the fault of their music teacher. Their students could just be sitting all day in school.

Two recent posts brought home to me the extent of the challenge. The first was a piece in the Washington Post by Angela Hanson, a pediatric occupational therapist. She wrote about her work with children with attentional issues in school. She argues that children require a minimum of outdoor play—unencumbered movement—in order to develop attentional control.

She describes working with a 6 year-old boy who was struggling to connect with his peers and pay attention in school. He attended her TimberNook camp over the summer, which gives children a week of immersion in the woods.

In the beginning of the week, he consistently pursued total control over his play experiences with peers. He was also very anxious about trying new things, had trouble playing independently, and had multiple sensory issues.

Amazingly, by the end of the week, he started to let go of this need to control all social situations. He also started tolerating and asking to go barefoot, made new friends, and became less anxious with new experiences. The changes were really quite remarkable. All he needed was time and practice to play with peers in the woods—in order to foster his emotional, physical, and social development.

When Hanson met with the boy’s teachers at the start of the fall, she told them that he needed an hour of recess a day at minimum. The teachers were sympathetic, but they told her that the maximum they could do was 15 minutes a day. Curricular demands—especially preparing for standardized tests—made that amount of recess time impossible. For a 6 year-old.

The second piece was published on Grant Wiggins’ blog. An anonymous teacher wrote about her experience shadowing two students at her high school—first a 10th grade student and then a 12th grade student. This was her first takeaway after two days of being a student at her high school:

Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

I could not believe how tired I was after the first day... In every class for four long blocks, the expectation was for us to come in, take our seats, and sit down for the duration of the time. By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch. I couldn’t believe how alert my host student was, because it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.

I was drained, and not in a good, long, productive-day kind of way. No, it was that icky, lethargic tired feeling. I had planned to go back to my office and jot down some initial notes on the day, but I was so drained I couldn’t do anything that involved mental effort (so instead I watched TV) and I was in bed by 8:30.

Of course, we know that students sit all day and that sitting is tiring, but after years of standing in front of a class—lecturing, able to move around—this teacher had forgotten. And lest we put all the blame on American public schools, this teacher taught at a private school overseas.

In case these two pieces don’t depress you enough, what does sitting all day do to the back? The old adage, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” applies to the coordination of the back as much as anything. Sitting weakens the back. The c-curve slump that chairs and desks encourage becomes locked into place, as connective tissue hardens to support the collapsed posture. Many students appear to grow into their chairs: you can still see the shape of the chair in their back when they stand up. After years of sitting, they can’t “sit up straight,” even if saying “sit up straight” was good advice. Their backs are no longer responsive to the command.

Yesterday, I wrote about Kyra teaching a cello lesson to a five year-old. She found a creative way to help her student find poise without saying, “sit up straight!” As I wrote at the end of the post, one of the reasons that her strategy worked was that she was teaching a very young child, who still retained a lot of mobility. She might not have had the same luck teaching an older student. In my Alexander practice, I find that it takes several lessons before teenage and college students—as young as they are—start to rediscover the coordination of their backs.

The regimented sedentariness of many schools is a huge problem. It impacts student learning, creativity and health. Because of this, Alexander Technique and music teachers are natural allies. They can team up to bring more rhyme and reason—not to mention movement and poise—to how we teach our children, both in school and out.