Seating study draws attention

The Youngstown teacher has been asked to come up with a new seating design.
YOUNGSTOWN -- Dr. Maureen Donofrio's doctoral dissertation last summer on what's wrong with chairs and desks in American classrooms could be leading her to a new career.
She's already been asked by a classroom furniture manufacturer to come up with a new ergonomic design.
"I'm in the process of designing my chair and desk," she said.
Donofrio said a story in The Vindicator on her school furniture study has drawn considerable attention, including a proposal from a Grand Rapids, Mich., company that she come with a chair/desk design that is both comfortable and economical.
Once a design is done, the company will make a prototype and refine it until it has a product to put on the market, Donofrio said.
"I've literally been on a mission [since the original story appeared in November]," she said, noting that several schools in the region have called her asking about chair/desk designs, including her alma mater, Ursuline High School.
Most have asked to see what she has in mind but the problem is she's had no model to show them, at least so far, Donofrio said.
"Change is really tough, I've found," she said, adding that ergonomic school seating can be found in Denmark and other European countries but it has yet to make inroads into the American classroom.
A Danish physician, A.C. Mandel, has tried for years to get more ergonomic furniture in American schools but without success, Donofrio said. Cost is a big issue, she said.
Uncomfortable angle
Donofrio is critical of the traditional 90-degree-angled chairs in the classroom, arguing that they are both uncomfortable and cause lower-back problems.
Studies have shown that 60 percent of adult chronic back pain is attributable to sitting in chairs that hold the body at a 90-degree angle. Necrosis (deadening of tissue) begins to set in after just 30 minutes in that position, she said. That's the burning sensation one might feel after sitting in the same position for too long, she said.
Donofrio believes that children learn better when they are comfortable and suggests that a chair/desk arrangement be designed to alter that angle.
"You want to get rid of the 90 degrees altogether," she said.
Her recommendation is an angle that is "similar to sitting on horseback." The knees need to be lower than the hips to provide the proper angle for the spine, she said.
Even slouching in a traditional seat can ease the pressure on the spine, though teachers generally see slouching in class as a sign of disrespect or disinterest and it is discouraged, she said.
Donofrio, who received a doctorate in educational leadership from Youngstown State University last summer, is an auxiliary teacher for the Youngstown City Schools. Much of her research was done in the city schools.
Neglected issue
"We spend a lot of money on textbooks and on this program and that program, but we pay little attention to the students' comfort level in the classroom and how that impacts their learning," she said.
Her doctoral dissertation, "Traditional and Non-Traditional Seating in American Classrooms," concludes that teachers believe that improving the quality of chairs and desks in the classroom will mean fewer distractions, fewer behavioral problems and better academic achievement.
She has presented her research at both the national and international conferences of the School Science and Mathematics Association.

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