What is ILT?
If you are reading this, the chances are that you have a child who is struggling at school. Maybe he or she is finding it difficult to master skills such as reading, writing, maths or spelling. Maybe he or she can do all these things but comes home with reports about unfinished work, or work left at home.
The teacher complains about her being disorganised, untidy or even aggressive towards other children. Or maybe she is described as being unfocused and a daydreamer who never seems to listen. And maybe you agree with the teacher because you see the same behaviour at home.
Labels such as ADHD, Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Problems, Sensory Processing Disorder are mentioned. What’s going on?
You all know how frustrating it is when you’re trying to get an important message across to your child and you notice that he or she is not listening. At other times, the end of the teaching time looms and children are tired. It becomes increasingly more difficult for them to maintain their level of focus. There is something you can do to help in these situations.
It’s all about one of the most primitive of reflexes human beings share. It’s crucial to our survival and without it, we would die. I’m talking about sucking. If a baby is born unable to latch and suckle, very rapid steps will be taken to ensure that the infant is tube-fed. But apart from the importance of taking in nutrition, sucking and swallowing have very significant effects on brain function. Infants can self-sooth by sucking on their fists or thumbs and sucking and swallowing also help them to breathe deeply. This early reliance on sucking and stimulation of areas around the mouth doesn’t leave us either. Watch how young children move their mouths in rhythm with their hand movements when they are learning how to cut with a scissors. How many of us turn to chewing or sucking sweets when we are tired but still have admin work to do! Do some of you bite the end of a pen, your nails or even your bottom lip when listening closely to something?
Sucking and swallowing, which are controlled by tongue actions, are our very first brain organisers. When babies suck, swallow and breathe, they are laying the foundations for arousal, attending and focus. By helping to organise the communication between different neural pathways, sucking can reenergise us when we’re tired or calm us down when we’re excited.
In addition, tired eyes might not be focusing on you or on a task requiring reading or writing. Sucking with eyes closed helps the eyes to maintain focus. Try this yourself: Wash your hands thoroughly!!! Then close your eyes and put your index finger between your lips on the midline of your face. Suck hard and feel how the eyes pull in together.
Because the eyes and ears work together (through the mechanism of a part of the brain called the colliculus) the ears follow the eyes to focus on the sound coming from whatever the eyes are looking at. This means that what we look at directly affects what we listen to. Grandparents were quite correct when they insisted on us looking at them when they spoke to us! In this way, vision that is focused on something specific in the environment produces focused auditory input as well. This lessens the distracting effect of extraneous sounds in a home or classroom environment.
So what can you do? ILT doesn’t recommend that you have children sucking on their fingers, unless they are very young children and you have nothing else for them to suck on!
Indeed, in the time of the corona virus, we are trying hard to teach children not to touch their faces. Instead, try to find some ‘crazy’ or ‘loopy’ straws. These are often available in the party section of several of the supermarkets. Insert these straws through a small hole in the top of a small bottle of water (or plastic cups or glasses). When you feel the attention of the children is waning, ask them to close their eyes, place the straw in the middle of their lips and have them suck – swallow – and breathe. Or have this as a routine part of your lessons. Before beginning a task, have the learners drink some water through their straws. Their concentration will improve – and the water will do them good too!
Remember that plastic straws are harmful to the environment. Reuse them by washing with hot soapy water and finally dispose of them correctly.
Adapted from content in ‘Playing Smart’, by Susan Perry.
During this lockdown period, most parents will have spent some time playing games with their children. When two people of unequal ability (parent and child, older sibling and younger) play games requiring skill, the one who always loses feels frustrated. The better playing doesn’t have much fun either, since there’s no challenge when you expect to win all the time. And sometimes both winner and loser simply tire of the same old game.
To meet the needs of those who are playing the game, you might change the rules. Flexibility and creativity are the key words here. As long as all the players agree, anything goes (except making mistakes or losing on purpose, since children realise you’re doing it).
Here are some suggestions for the types of creative game-changing that will help to even the odds in some games.
Board games: When playing Monopoly, give the weaker (younger?) player more money when landing on GO. If one player goes bankrupt, keep playing anyway for a predetermined length of time.
When playing Scrabble or similar word games, look up words before placing them on the board. This will help to emphasise learning too.
If you like playing Checkers or Chess, play one game as a ‘test game.’ The winner counts how many checkers are left on the board, then starts the second game with that many fewer than the normal number. For example, if the winner ends up with five checkers on the board, next time he starts with only seven instead of the usual twelve. Continue this in subsequent games. For Chess, eliminate competition altogether by having both players talk over each move, looking for and agreeing on the best ones.
If you enjoy card games like poker, you can let your child exchange four or all five cards but limit yourself to one or two. Or let him exchange one card at a time, up to five, so he can build the best possible hand.
Solitaire is a fun card game to play as well. You can play a game together, alternating turns playing the cards. If the game ‘comes out,’ you’re both winners.
Outdoor games can also be tweaked to make them more fun for younger players. If you have a Frisbee, before play begins, players state which hand they will use for throwing and which for catching (or the same hand for both). You can play catch games with balls and other toys too. If the catcher can’t possibly reach the Frisbee at any time during its flight, the catcher gets a point. If she might have caught it, the thrower gets a point (the catcher is the one who decides). Two points are awarded to the thrower if the catcher touches the Frisbee but drops it. Two points also go to the thrower if the catcher uses the wrong hand or catches it against the body. Play to 11 or 21 points, switching sides when one player reaches 6 or 11 points.
Most adults respond more strongly to visual stimuli rather than auditory or tactile input. In fact, we rely so much on what we see that we might ignore other sources of information coming from our senses of hearing and touch altogether. This means that we are alert to the body language and facial expressions of those around us.
Not so with children. Researchers at Durham University in the UK found that children up to the age of 11 years focus more on auditory stimuli when trying to grasp emotional aspects of their experience. During an experiment, children tended to ignore visual images of people depicting various emotions (joy, sadness, anger and fear) and rather drew conclusions from the emotional voice tones used, even if these contradicted the visual image.
This study suggests that when an adult is communicating with a child and trying to hide anger or frustration with a smile, it might not matter. In other words, putting on a positive front when one is sad, for example, is unlikely to convince a child unless your voice sounds happy too.
According to the researchers, these new findings could also have implications for teaching and education. In fact, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many children are currently studying from home, where they might be more exposed to auditory distractions. The observations reported in the study hint to the possibility that emotion-related stimuli in a child’s home (e.g., programs about COVID-19 on TV, family members arguing, etc.) could influence how a child engages with or perceives his/her schoolwork.
“We have several studies lined up to see how far we can push the effect we observed,” Dr. Ross, one of the researchers, commented. “For example, we will be adding emotional faces into the mix and running another version of the experiment using emotional music instead of vocalizations. It could be the case that any emotional stimuli could be sufficient to influence a child’s visual perception, it might not even need to be human.”
Too many families continue to disregard the guidelines to healthy eating, considering them to be from those on the fringe, or tree-hugging fanatics. They consider all the contents of supermarket food isles as being appropriate foods for growing children – and feel that denying children the foods they prefer is unfair.
Yet the evidence is clear, and those of us who work with young learners have proved over and over again that children who struggle at school improve when their diets are altered.
We know that children need appropriate foods to support their growth and development – but there is a huge body of research showing conclusively that what children eat also affects their mood and learning. A truly healthy diet can enhance concentration and memory, improve moods, moderate behaviours, increase energy and generally lead to improved academic performance.
All children deserve the opportunity to be successful, happy, healthy and resilient.
Providing and promoting healthy foods is a first step towards this goal.
A healthy diet means that families should be eating plenty of nutritious, minimally processed foods from the five food groups:
- vegetables and legumes/beans
- whole grains (no refined flours, or cereal products)
- lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds
- milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives
Foods and drinks to avoid are those that are nutritionally poor, like sweets, chips, fried foods, white flours, baked goods and processed meats. These have been linked to emotional and behavioural problems in children and adolescents.
What have schools to do with this?
Schools can play a key role in influencing healthy eating habits by enforcing healthy choices being available in tuck shops and giving clear guidelines as to what learners should have in their school lunch-boxes. Teachers should also be role models and be seen to drink water often and enjoy wholesome foods themselves. Rewarding children with lollipops or other sweets should not happen either.
In short, homes and schools should work together to encourage healthier eating habits. Childhood and adolescence is a key time to build lifelong habits and learn how to enjoy healthy eating.
Most pre-school children amaze us with their ability. Little Hanlie, at aged two, can name all the animals in her favourite picture book. Hansie names most of the cars on the road before his third birthday and many four year olds are fascinated by dinosaurs and know their long, difficult names.
Then they begin school and the wheels come off. This can be devastating, especially if they have been encouraged to start school early because of their demonstrated intelligence. It is so important for families to know that even if their child has learned to read at a very early age, they may not be ready to learn. Things may go well in the first year or so but slowly progress falls behind. Very often parents come along (wisely) for a neurodevelopment evaluation and tell us that the child will be repeating Grade R because of emotional immaturity. This is not entirely accurate. Failing to cope with school has far more to do with brain maturity – what we call a state of learning readiness at school-going age.
Brain age vs chronological age
The trouble is that children are sent to school at an age determined by their birthday rather than by their stage of brain development. We are not robots, programmed to behave predictably. We are human beings who have a very personal timetable of development. Our brains are not ready to learn at a prescribed date but are subject to growth spurts that determine its level of functioning. Strategies for teaching reading, for example, will be different for children who have not yet fully developed the connections between the two brain hemispheres. Children may seem to be learning to read well but after Grade 3, begin to fail because they have relied on the look and see methods which is basically aimed at the right brain hemisphere. This is too limiting and they may have to be taught all over again.
Teachers are very well aware that boys are slower in brain development than girls. We also know that there are more boys who experience learning and school-related behavior problems (e.g. hyperactivity) than girls. The theory goes that, since boys’ brains develop more slowly, their brains remain longer in the very early brain stages, making them more vulnerable to viral damage or any slight accidents.
A maturity lag can cause all kinds of problems. If, for example, a child’s visual system is not fully developed, he might not be able to clearly differentiate letters. This means that he may learn the word ‘d-o-g’ by recognizing the shape of the whole word, reinforced by having the word accompanied by many pictures. But using pictures to remember individual words won’t help him when he has to do more advanced reading. They don’t help him use letters to read other words. These are ‘splinter skills’ that children develop that work well for a while but not in the higher grades.
And in the higher grades, few realise that the child is having problems because he was never ready to read in the first place.
It’s important to know a child’s stage of brain development
It is so important to consider an assessment of brain development before deciding on school entry. Far more important than school readiness is the knowledge that the child’s brain is ready to learn.
For neurodevelopmental reasons, it is disturbing to consider the consequences for certain children following the government’s suggestion that no child will be held back in Grade R. Sometimes it is necessary to do so. To counter this, give careful thought to arranging to have your child assessed before school entry. By assessment, we mean NOT school readiness, but learning readiness – which is not the same thing.