Deanna Macioce, MS, OTR/L
School bells are beginning to ring again! It is always amazing how fast the summer goes by, and with the start of the school year comes a newness that we see every Fall. We spend many hours putting together all the new school supplies, shopping for new clothes, and getting ready for that "First Day" of school. A common new item bought each year is a backpack. Children get excited to find just the right one that will express their style. However, the backpack has a bigger job than just making a fashion statement. It is the way books, supplies, and correspondences make it from home to school and back home again. However, it has been found year after year that many children are toting too much in their backpacks which can lead to both short and long term health problems. In 2007, more than 23,000 injuries were treated due to children lugging around excessively heavy backpacks. In addition, it has been found that more than 55% of students are carrying backpacks that are too heavy. This is not a new problem. It is something that has been investigated for many years and for that reason in 2002, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) created National School Backpack Awareness Day. This is a national event coordinated by occupational therapists across the nation to help raise the awareness of this common problem. This year the event will be held on Wednesday, September 16th.
Carrying excessively heavy backpacks can lead to a laundry list of problems, including back and shoulder pain, as well as overall fatigue. This can also be very serious for children who present with decreased muscle tone. It has been found that the weight of a backpack being carried should be no more than 15% of a child's weight.
One strategy to assist in lightening a student's load is to place the heavier items closer to the child's back. In addition, making sure that your child has a properly fitting backpack will help. The height of the backpack should be placed about 2 inches below the shoulder blades down to the waist or even slightly above the waist. Children are advised to keep the weight evenly distributed by wearing the bag over both shoulders. To help lessen this problem, backpack manufacturers have worked on designing more ergonomic-friendly bags. As a result, many backpacks are now available with wheels and elongated handle, as well as straps for around the waist to provide additional support.
It is also recommended that parents and teachers work together by ensuring that too many text books are not being carried home at the same time or that your child is not carrying home un-necessary items. In addition, when shopping for school supplies it is advisable to choose accessories that are on the slim side and not awkwardly shaped. Pay attention to your child's body mechanics as they walk on and off the bus. Is he or she hunched over or able to walk freely in an upright position? This will be a good indicator of how heavy the backpack may be.
For our children with sensory dysfunction, therapists will often recommend carrying a weighted backpack. Just like weighted vests, we need to be conscious of how much weight is being applied, as well as making sure the child is not carrying it around for a prolonged amount of time. In addition, a variety of equipment to optimize sensory regulation and attention is often suggested. Southpaw offers a convenient Sensory Backpack Kit
that includes many of these items. As therapists, we still feel these items are needed, but do not need to be added to a child's load and should remain in the classroom.
So, even if you have already purchased the backpacks for the school year, take some time to evaluate your child's needs. Check with your school or other community resources to find out if there is a public event taking place to celebrate National Backpack Awareness Day. If not, contact your occupational therapist with questions or for recommendations.