Feeling Their Pain: Addressing Heavy-Backpack Syndrome

My son’s school held an event last week where parents were invited for coffee and conversation with the school principal.  Some of the discussions were specific to the school, though many were more-universal topics: dress codes, athletics, standardized tests… for all of these there were clear next step for action.

Heavy-backpack syndrome was also brought up. There were a few soft recommendations, but no action items.

I entered parenthood a little later than most people do, but I’d been reading about backpack burden for many years.  Until my son entered 6th grade last year, this wasn’t a proximate issue.  In 7th grade now, he is a strapping young man, bigger and taller than most of the kids his age.  His backpack, replete with books for 6 classes, change of clothes for sports, a water bottle, and homework projects, causes him pain in his neck, back and arms.

Not severe pain, but daily pain. If you’ve suffered carpal-tunnel, or other repetitive-stress injuries, minor stress on a regular  basis can become a debilitating condition.

His current daily load, weighs in at 30+ lbs. To read that term (30+ lbs) that might not sound like a significant burden. So think of this it way, imagine yourself hauling around two of these all day:

Shot put

(Source ehow.com)

When the backpack burden  comes up in conversations with schools, some talk about the future:  when all the materials will be digital and the kids will just need to lug around a tablet.

Some teachers and many parents, prefer to talk about the distant past. Back when they lugged a heavy backpack. I always grit my teeth during  the “in my day”  rants, which soon  decay into tales  of a  15-mile walk to school: barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways and they “didn’t complain!” Sounds to me like they’re complaining now, about events that years, or decades in the past.

The fact is that is students’  backpack burden is a problem that has been discussed for generations with seemingly little effort to provide solutions. Because it doesn’t directly effect those in positions of power, the adults.

It’s not enough for adults to talk about, or hear about the problem.  Change will only happen if there is first-hand experience with the burden.

Thus I propose this  empathy-building exercise:

  • For one month, school staff, and parents would be asked to lug around 25+ lbs of dead weight in a backpack and walk with it for at least 5 minutes, every hour. This should be repeated 5 days each week.
  • Provide a mechanism for participants to provide feedback and solution proposals, and establish deadline by which the feedback will be published.
  • Escalate the challenge to district leadership and establish deadlines for the superintendent to evaluate and propose solution scenarios.

If solutions involve significant policy changes, or costs, then the challenge should be made to state and federal lawmakers. Change will follow.

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