Posture Miseducation in our Schools

by Robert Rickover

The other day I happened to see a half-hour video on posture designed to be shown in the public schools. It appeared to be aimed at middle-school students.

I was quite impressed by the first twenty minutes or so of the video. The narrator covered a number of reasons why students might develop poor posture, with emphasis on the psychological and social pressures faced by children in our society. He also did an excellent job of explaining the harmful physical effects of poor posture - shallow breathing, restricted circulation, back and shoulder pain etc.

The narrator was a man of about thirty who had very good posture himself. As he alternated between sitting on a high stool and standing he demonstrated - without specifically talking about it - what good posture looks like.

But then, in the final minutes of the video, he addressed the question of how students could improve their posture. His basic message? “Stand (or sit) up straight.” In other words, pretty much what parents and teachers sometimes tell their kids and what passes for posture advice in most magazine and newspaper articles on the subject.

Interestingly enough, when the narrator illustrated “standing up straight” he stiffened himself a bit, thereby losing his natural easy upright stance.

Admonishing someone to “stand up straight” is at best useless advice. When children are told to do this, they typically do what they need to get the parent or teacher off their case. Usually they stiffen themselves up, lifting their chest and pulling their shoulders back. More often than not they will also arch their lower back a bit.

This semi-military stance typically lasts for a minute or so and then they’re back in their usual slump. Which is just as well because all they’ve done to “stand up straght” is rearrange the pattern of tensions in their body. And perhaps develop some antagonism to the person who told them to do this - and to the whole notion of posture improvement.

Professor John Dewey, the American philosopher, public education reformer and longtime student of F. M. Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique, had a very clear understanding of the problem:

“It is,” he wrote, “as reasonable to expect a fire to go out when it is ordered to stop burning as to suppose that a man can stand straight in consequence of a direct action of thought and desire. The fire can be put out only by changing objective conditions; it is the same with rectification of bad posture.

“Of course, something happens when a man acts upon his idea of standing straight. For a little while, he stands differently, but only a different kind of badly. He then takes the unaccustomed feeling which accompanies his unusual stance as evidence that he is now standing straight. But there are many ways of standing badly, and he has simply shifted his usual way to to a compensatory bad way at some opposite extreme."

The posture training video I saw was clearly useless. But beyond that lies the sad irony that the students forced to view it were almost certainly sitting in chairs and at desks pretty much guaranteed to promote poor posture. Most schools today use standardized furniture that makes no allowance for students’ different sizes and shapes, furniture chosen to save a few dollars and make them easy for the custodial staff to stack and move.

Moreover, they likely were forced, because of heavier and heavier textbooks, to carry overloaded backpacks to and from school - backpacks that distort their young spines in ways that may well cause them serious physical problems later in life. Amazingly enough, some new schools are being build with no storage lockers - presumably to prevent drugs being stored - so these packs have to be carried from class to class as well.

Neither the dreadful school furniture or the way to heavy loads would ever be tolerated in the workplace. Government regulations, union pressure and the compelling threat of lawsuits insure that adult workers are not subjected to the harmful conditions our school kids are faced with.

If you are a parent, I urge you to take a close look at those conditions. Try carrying a backpack that weighs as much, relative to your own body weight, as the one your kid carries. You may need to use two packs to get enough weight. Take a look at the school furniture your child has to use. If at all possible do so during an actual class so you can observe how students deal with it. Be sure to sit at a desk yourself for at least one class period.

You may be amazed - and appalled - at what you discover. Hopefully you will be motivated to bring pressure on your local school board to issue spare textbooks that can stay at home and to make desks and chairs of different sizes available in classroom.

Your kids will thank you!


For more on this subject, see “ABCs of Good Posture by the Father of American Education”

More about John Dewey and posture can be found at The John Dewey and F. Matthias Alexander Homepage

The Posture Page contains information about a wide variety of proven approaches to achieving good posture

The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique is a comprehensive guide to this method


Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique Website