The Real Story on Ergonomic Classroom Chairs

The word "ergonomic" is rapidly becoming a major buzzword in the classroom chair market.  The growing awareness of the need for classroom chairs that support proper sitting habits and good posture has led manufacturers to market more and more products that are, in their words, “ergonomic.”  Sounds good, right?  But consumers, be careful.  If all that glitters is not gold, then you can be sure that all the glittering “ergonomic” terminology doesn’t necessarily mean that all those classroom chairs are truly ergonomic.

What is an ergonomic classroom chair, anyway?

Good question.

Many innocent consumers think of “ergonomic” as a synonym for comfortable.  Not so.  Not all classroom chairs – or any other chair, for that matter – that are comfortable are by definition ergonomic.  According to Webster’s Medical Dictionary, ergonomics are defined as “an applied science concerned with the characteristics of people that need to be considered in designing things that they use in order that people and things will interact most effectively and safely.”  Taking that definition to its natural conclusion, ergonomic classroom chairs would refer to a classroom chair that enables students to sit in a manner that eliminates (or at least relieves) musculoskeletal stress, and therefore helps them to learn more effectively.

That might sound simple, but it is most definitely not.  Each and every student is built differently.  Even people of the same height have different needs – some have longer legs, some shorter, back structure differs, etc.  So in order for classroom chairs to be really and truly ergonomic, they would have to be not only ergonomically designed in terms of shape, but also completely adjustable – height, seat tilt, back tilt, armrests – the works. 

Such chairs do exist, of course.  You see them all the time in office settings.  Secretaries, receptionists, computer technicians and even CEO’s use them as a matter of course.  It has been obvious for a long time now that people in these capacities, who have to sit for long periods of time - much of it in front of a computer - absolutely must have chairs that will provide proper musculoskeletal support.  If not, they might suffer from chronic back pain, headaches, stiff necks, shoulder pain and a host of other problems.

And what about our students?

Students sit in classroom chairs for close to 80% of their time.  Much of that time is spent reading and writing, as well as in front of computers.  In addition, students age 18 and lower are even more susceptible to chronic musculoskeletal disorders than adults, since their bodies are still in the development stage.

Well, if that’s the case, why don’t we provide all our students with truly ergonomic classroom chairs? 

There are any number of honest answers to that question, many of which are beyond the scope of this article.  But two main factors are worth pointing out.

The first answer is – no surprise here – budget.  In order to provide each student with classroom chairs that are 100% ergonomic, schools would have to pay a minimum of around $125.00 per chair – and that’s with a minimum of adjustable features.  Compare that with a per student cost of about $21.00 for a good quality, standard classroom chair, and it’s not hard to see why schools simply cannot afford to invest in classroom chairs that are completely ergonomic.

The second answer, while perhaps less compelling than the first, is still a real concern.  It can be hard enough to hold students’ concentration while they’re sitting in standard classroom chairs.  Can you imagine what a teacher’s nightmare it could be if students were seated on classroom chairs with all those gizmos?  Up and down, back and forth, tilting forward, tilting backward – levers for height, armrests, seat tilt, back angle – and all this on casters?  Discipline is tough enough as it is.

So now that we’ve ruled out the utopian possibility of completely ergonomic classroom chairs in our schools, is there anything administrators can do to see that their students are provided with the utmost possible in ergonomic seating?

Yes, actually, there is.  And it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, either.

The first thing schools can do is supply classroom chairs of varying heights for each grade.  Studies have shown that a large percentage of students are sitting in chairs that are either too high or too low for their height.  This leads to feet dangling in the air – which increases back pressure – or, on the other hand, to a crunching of the knee area which enforces bad posture as well as a constricting of the leg muscles.  If schools have classroom chairs available in a number of different heights, then a major problem of student-chair mismatch will be solved. 

Once the height issue is resolved, schools can provide seat and/or back cushions.  Ideally, a physical education teacher – or anyone else with the requisite know-how – would go around the school during the first month or so of the year, and help each student adjust the cushioning to allow his or her classroom chair to provide the maximum leg and back support possible.  This would go a long way toward alleviating musculoskeletal pressure points.

Another contributing factor towards good classroom chairs is actually the school desk.  Even if students have height-appropriate classroom chairs with proper cushioning, it isn’t going to help them too much if their legs don’t clear the top of the desk and they have to either stretch them out or squish them to the side.  The solution, again, is height adjustability.  There is a wide variety of height-adjustable student desks to choose from, and they can fit into any school budget.  This is definitely worth the investment, as putting time and effort into the ergonomics of classroom chairs while ignoring the desks is something akin to purchasing a top-of-the-line computer and then not bothering to invest in a good quality anti-virus program.

Lastly, while the ideal of total classroom ergonomics might still be out of reach, there are ergonomic features schools can look for when purchasing standard classroom chairs.  While they may not seem significant, these features can make a big difference in helping students sit in as healthy a way as possible:
*Waterfall-front seats – These are seats that slope downwards (like the shape of a waterfall) at the edge of the seat, under the knee area.
*Lumbar support – Lumbar, or lower back support, is an important feature in ergonomic seating.  This usually presents itself as a curve in the back of the chair, just above the point where the back and seat come together.  It is designed to provide support where the lower back needs it most – at the bottom curve of the spine.
*Flexible back – Look for chairs that have some “give” in the back.  This enables students to lean back a bit when they feel the need, alleviating leg and back pressure.

Looking for classroom chairs that provide the greatest number of ergonomic features will benefit your students in more ways than one.  And it’s not as hard as you think.  There are classroom chairs out there, such as the Inspiration chair by Academia, that have all these features and then some.  Together with the rest of the suggestions offered here, your students will not only be sitting better – they’ll be concentrating and listening better, too.  

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