Face down on her English homework, Hattie snores through the chapters. Jerking awake, she speeds through a page, loses her place, turns around and veers back. Slowing down, she bumps over the big words, details scatter and comprehension falters. For Hattie, doing homework is like a cross-country road trip in a piston-impaired 1971 Ford Pinto.
Teacher Says: Help Hattie tune up her homework machine by improving her work environment. Consider her lighting, worktable and chair. Desk-working adults, take heed as well.
Kids like Hattie who read quickly but can't recall details, or those who read slowly in a monotone, or youngsters suffering the winter depression of seasonal affective disorder may be visually stressed.
"Visual stress and environmental factors often show up in the way a child behaves. Many children are excessively sensitive to the quality of the lighting and may overreact," says Robin Mumford, a researcher in vision ergonomics, the study of the work involved in visual activities.
"The type of light controls how much mental work students have to do. If the light is wrong, recall can be compromised because too much mental energy has gone into the task of reading the words," Mumford says.
In classroom trials with hundreds of elementary school students in New York City public schools, Mumford, of Highlands, N.J., found that "appropriate lighting benefits some children enormously. It makes them calmer, and they can improve academic scores."
Some kids respond best to specially designed lighting products tailored to their individual needs. Mumford diagnoses lighting needs with a simple number recognition test and then supplies lighting products to relieve visual stress.
What's the best lighting for doing homework? Even lighting, much like the light that occurs naturally in the hour just before dark. "Make sure lighting is uniformly distributed and casts no harsh shadows," Mumford says. He recommends standing floor lamps set on either side of the worktable rather than high-intensity lamps placed directly on the table or desk.
Optometrist Walter Kaplan agrees. "High-intensity lamps provide too much illumination, too much contrast, and are consequently quite fatiguing. We are heliotropic people--we are attracted to light. If there's a bright spot in our environment, we are drawn to look there," says Kaplan, who specializes in treating learning-related visual problems.
"To relieve some of the stress, the background must be almost as bright as the task so you're physiologically able to shift your gaze away from the task frequently," he says. Find the optimal amount of light by starting low and adjusting until comfortable.
The contrast can be further reduced by making sure the color of the work surface is "as close as possible to the color of the palm of the hand," Kaplan says. Tables that don't fit the bill can be covered with large blotters.
Select a work spot that allows kids to naturally shift their gaze from near to far. "Changing your gaze reduces tension and fatigue," Kaplan says. "A good work area faces an open space, not toward the wall. It gives you a chance to adjust to looking farther away so you aren't locked in on the task."
Environmental factors can also stymie kids. If the chair is too big or too small or the table is too flat, youngsters may exhaust themselves by constantly adjusting their bodies to accommodate their paperwork.
Encourage kids by making a few simple adjustments. First test the height of the worktable with a simple experiment. Have the child sit up straight in the chair, close to the table. Have him or her clasp his or her hands together, prayer-style, elbows pointing down. If the elbows "just clear the top of the table," it's the perfect height, Kaplan says.
Just as kids normally adjust a book in front of their faces to read comfortably, the angle of the desk surface should be adjusted for optimal reading and writing. "You don't want the head or body twisted relative to the task. Reduce it to a minimum," advises Kaplan. An inclined work stand helps achieve this.
"Inclined work surfaces are most helpful for reading, writing and drawing tasks," Kaplan says. For non-reclining tables, a separate stand can easily be constructed to fit the table top. An inclined work surface should be 2 feet deep by 3 feet wide, with a 20-degree angle. It should extend beyond the edge of the table by three to four inches to maintain proper table height. Build one, or rig one up with a large cutting board and a few old books. Kaplan provides a simple diagram for constructing one at home (see accompanying resources box.
The right chair can also reduce stressful body twist and torque. Conduct another simple test to see if the child's chair is conducive to working, not sleeping. "The position of the thigh is a critical factor in determining proper chair height," Kaplan says.
Test Hattie's chair when she's wearing her favorite homework shoes or no shoes at all if she prefers working barefoot. When she's seated, have her turn her hands palm up and try to slide her hands between her thighs and the chair. Her hands should slide through with "minor friction and difficulty," Kaplan says. Tough shoving means the chair is too high; if it's too low, her hands will slide with space to spare. "The weight of the body should be distributed over the buttocks and the thigh," he says.
Simple, straight-backed armless chairs are best for maintaining proper head and body position when doing desk work.
Making subtle, simple changes in a home study corner can make your child more productive. Proper lighting and the right table and chair won't guarantee A's, but they can make finishing homework more comfortable for the whole family.
Chevy Chase Elementary School teacher Jackie Moore was incorrectly identified in last month's column. Teacher Says regrets the error.
Contact Evelyn Vuko by writing to: Style Plus, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or by e-mail at email@example.com
* Robin Mumford's Home Lighting Test Kit and lighting products, 47 S. Bay Ave., Highlands, N.J. 07732. 732-291-1930.
* "Easier and More Productive Study and Desk Work," by Amiel W. Francke and Walter J. Kaplan. ($3) To order, call 301-652-2263.
* Simple plans for building an inclined work surface. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to: Walter J. Kaplan, 20 S. Summit Ave., Gaithersburg, Md. 20877.