Backpack Awareness: One of Many Ways That Occupational Therapists Serve Students
By Ashley Opp Hoffman
National School Backpack Awareness Day is held every September by occupational therapy practitioners across the nation, teaching students to “Pack It Light, and Wear It Right!” Occupational therapy practitioners work every day in virtually every school district, providing services ranging from behavioral help to proper posture for computer use.
National School Backpack Awareness Day focuses on just one area of occupational therapy expertise—ergonomics—but occupational therapy in schools is much more. Occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants help children, youth, and families with a broad range of health and wellness issues that affect the ability to participate in and enjoy everyday activities. In schools, they help students develop the skills they need to learn, play, and interact with others.
“The training occupational therapists have in body structure, body mechanics, and purposeful activity give us tools to help students with everyday problems like heavy backpacks,” says Karen Jacobs, EdD, OTR/L, CPE, FAOTA. “But that is not the only ergonomic issue we can help students with. Because occupational therapy practitioners understand how the body and mind work together, they often consult on ways to use technology and computers to compensate for or overcome learning disabilities. Therapists consult with teachers and evaluate children’s attention and fine motor skills to determine solutions to problems such as weak handwriting or lack of organizational skills.”
Occupational therapy practitioners also help students interact with others. “Behavioral problems often arise because of the way children respond in class or outside of class,” says Jacobs. “Occupational therapy has its roots in mental health and [therapists] can analyze the psychosocial issues that may be affecting behavior.” After evaluation, a therapist can institute a plan for interventions that will help control behavior problems.
Occupational therapy practitioners also work with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which affects about 3% of the school-aged population. Children with this disorder are unable to pay attention, control their activity, and restrain impulsive behavior. These problems may interfere with a child's ability to hear or read instructions, complete school assignments, participate in games, and perform tasks at home. An occupational therapist can recommend a program that addresses the physical, behavioral, and emotional effects of ADHD. “Occupational therapy takes a holistic view of the child and is focused on enabling accomplishment so an occupational therapist is not looking at what a child can’t do but rather what a child can be and do,” says Jacobs, noting that the therapist will identify individual goals for each child.
Of course, children with more significant disabilities also benefit from occupational therapy. Autism, an increasingly common diagnosis for children, can present challenges for teachers, school staff, families, and the students affected. Occupational therapy practitioners help children with autism find ways to adjust tasks and their environment to match their needs and abilities. Such help may include using adaptations to minimize external distractions or finding special computer software that can facilitate communication for children with autism or other disabilities.
“The occupational therapy approach helps children with mental and physical disabilities identify and improve skills that build capabilities. This enables them to succeed in their roles as students, as growing children, as participants in the school community,” Jacobs states. “Occupational therapy can help any student to improve and grow, I believe.”
So although Backpack Awareness Day brings occupational therapy practitioners, students, and families together to “keep it light and wear it right,” occupational therapy has many more roles in helping students succeed.
How Should You Wear a Backpack?
More than 40 million students in the United States carry backpacks. According to one study, six out of ten students 9 to 20 years of age reported chronic back pain related to backpacks.
The American Occupational Therapy Association has published ten tips to avoid backpack-related health problems:
- Never let a child carry more than 10% of his or her body weight. This means a child who weighs 100 pounds shouldn't wear a backpack heavier than 15 pounds.
- Load heaviest items closest to the child's back and arrange books and materials to prevent them from sliding.
- Always wear both shoulder straps. Wearing only one strap can cause a child to lean to one side, curving the spine and causing pain or discomfort.
- Select a pack with well-padded shoulder straps. Too much pressure on shoulders and necks can cause pain and tingling.
- Adjust the shoulder straps so that the pack fits snugly to the child's back. The bottom of the pack should rest in the curve of the lower back, never more than four inches below the child's waistline.
- Use the waist belt, if the backpack has one, to help distribute the pack's weight more evenly.
- Check what your child carries to school and brings home to make sure the items are necessary to the day's activities.
- If the backpack is too heavy, consider using a book bag on wheels if your child's school allows it.
- Choose the right size pack for your child's back as well as one with enough room for necessary school items.
- If a student is experiencing back pain or neck soreness, consult your physician or occupational therapist.