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?
In summary, less is more when it comes to helping young children learn new vocabulary.
Most books today are flooded with colourful pictures. The reason for this is to entice adults to buy the books. However, a recent study by psychologists at the University of Sussex shows that having more than one illustration per page results in poorer word learning among pre-schoolers.
The findings, published in Infant and Child Development, present a simple solution to parents and nursery teachers for some of the challenges of pre-school education and could help in the development of learning materials for young children.
Researcher Zoe Flack said: “Luckily, children like hearing stories, and adults like reading them to children. But children who are too young to read themselves don’t know where to look because they are not following the text. This has a dramatic impact on how well they learn new words from stories.”
The researchers read storybooks to three-year-olds with one illustration at a time (the right-hand page was illustrated, the left-hand page was blank) or with two illustrations at a time (both pages had illustrations), with illustrations introducing the child to new objects that were named on the page.
They found that children who were read stories with only one illustration at a time learned twice as many words as children who were read stories with two or more illustrations.
In a follow-up experiment, researchers added a simple hand swipe gesture to guide the children to look at the correct illustration before the page was read to them. They found this gesture was effective in helping children to learn words when they saw two illustrations across the page.
Zoe, who has written a blog post about the research, said: “This suggests that simply guiding children’s attention to the correct page helps them focus on the right illustrations, and this in turn might help them concentrate on the new words.
“Our findings fit well with Cognitive Load Theory, which suggests that learning rates are affected by how complicated a task is. In this case, by giving children less information at once, or guiding them to the correct information, we can help children learn more words.”
Co-author Dr Jessica Horst, said: “Other studies have shown that adding ‘bells and whistles’ to storybooks like flaps to lift and anthropomorphic animals decreases learning. But this is the first study to examine how decreasing the number of illustrations increases children’s word learning from storybooks.”
She added: “This study also has important implications for the e-Book industry. Studies on the usefulness of teaching vocabulary from e-Books are mixed, but our study suggests one explanation is that many studies with e-Books are only presenting one illustration at a time.”
The study is one of many being carried out at Sussex in The WORD Lab, a research group that focuses on how children learn and acquire language. Previous research has shown children learn more words from hearing the same stories repeated and from hearing stories at nap time.
In spite of living restrictions having been lifted to a more bearable level during Covid-19, life continues to be more than usually stressful for many of us – including our children. As a result, we are seeing youngsters with various symptoms of stress.
Stress, with accompanying anxiety, is one of the causes underlying the development of tics and twitches. These include eye-blinking, throat clearing, small, repetitive movements of arms and legs, face pulling and sniffing. Some children may also make sounds. Other causes for the appearance of tics include the presence of toxins in the body and allergies.
While these signs can be alarming, remember that about 20% of children develop tics and show twitches at some point during the primary school years. Most of them will disappear as the child grows older.
Most children are not bothered by their tics and in these cases, parents shouldn’t bother either. It is important to remember that the child cannot easily control the tics and twitches so it doesn’t help to tell them to do so. The best is to ignore the tics and while waiting and watching, try no interventions. It will, however, be necessary to support the child if you suspect that stress brought about by the pandemic may be a reason. Anxieties and the symptoms of stress can be helped through counselling or play therapy – and always, a parent on hand to listen carefully to fears and help talk through them.
On the other hand, if the tics become severe, persist longer than a year, threaten to disrupt the child’s social relationships or perhaps invoke self-injury, then you need to look for appropriate treatment.
The most severe form of a tic disorder is known as Tourette’s Syndrome. This is possibly (but not always necessarily) a genetic condition and is often accompanied by co-occurring problems, such as difficulties paying attention, obsessive behaviours and anxiety.
Tourette’s Syndrome needs treatment which takes the form of either or both medications to reduce tics and also behavioural therapy. Care needs to be taken that the child is not diagnosed and treated simply on the presence of motor and/or vocal tics. There are some neurodevelopmental issues that can present as an underlying cause and that need to be addressed along with the tics. For this, it might be wise to consult a professional who will take an holistic view of the child and his or her development.
Way, way back in 1996, a writer in an edition of Newsweekfocusing on Your Child’s Brainwrote “…. There is new evidence that certain kinds of intervention can reach even the older brain and like a microscopic screwdriver rewire broken circuits.” This was exciting news to those of us researching ways of helping children.
The brain has neurons – that we call ‘wires’ – and these neurons need to communicate with each other so that we can function. This means that there are umpteen billions of connections in the brain. It is rather remarkable that most of us manage to form these neurons and their connections without faults but we need to remember that there are many things that can go wrong with this process, known as ‘neurodevelopment.’
Thanks to research, we’ve had confirmation that things suspected through observation and experience are facts. We now know that by carefully watching how a child moves and what a child needs to do to meet an expectation from school or his home, we can get an idea of where in the brain the problem lies. Then, by giving the child’s brain a chance to repair itself, we can bring about positive changes.
Let’s have a look at an example of how we apply neurodevelopmental insights to solve a child’s learning problem.
An important reflex movement
It’s significant that many children with learning difficulties have no Headrighting Reflex (HRR). This reflex shows when the angle of the body in relation to the ground shifts – in other words, the body tilts to either side, backwards or forwards. The reflex automatically adjusts the head to remain in a nearly vertical position. In a less well coordinated child, the head does not remain or immediately return to the vertical position but stays in line with the body. In other words, the child’s head moves in line with his spine.
If the head rights itself, there is very little shift in the background compared to when the head tilts in line with the spine. (Try this yourself by swaying to each side, alternately keeping your head still in a vertical position and allowing it to align with the spine.) Such a child will find himself in a constant state of visual strain because one of the reasons for this reflex is to stablise visual images on the retina of the eye. There is little wonder that children who don’t have this reflex may have reading problems.
Giving a child the HRR
This is where a knowledge of neurodevelopment can help. We need to give children a HRR if they haven’t developed one themselves. How do we do this?
Different parts of our bodies are controlled by different nerves but it is wise to remember that nothing stands alone. No function of the brain operates in isolation. For example, when your vestibular system (in your inner ear) is stressed (perhaps by movement), you get seasick. You feel this in your tummy and it happens because of the intimate interconnectedness of different nerves. The vagus, one of the ten cranial nerves, is responsible for causing your stomach to revolt against the movement registered by an overwhelmed vestibular system.
The HRR is influenced by another cranial nerve that controls the trapezoid muscle. This muscle controls the movements of the head and neck. If a child hasn’t developed the HRR, it is likely that there is a poor connection between the trapezoid muscle and the cranial nerve that controls it. Our job would be to connect this muscle and we use a seemingly simple movement activity to do so.
The original movement came from Carl Delacato, who worked for many years with learning disabled children. He found that having children lie on the floor and moving their arms, legs and head in a way that resembled the movement of a ghecko or lizard, caused significant and positive changes in the brain.
The Flip Flop movement
The benefits of the Flip Flops are many. Information goes into both sides of the brain as the muscles move equally on both sides. At the same time the brain gets sensory information from the weight of the body moving across the surface on which the child is lying. This is very important because during later development the brain is constantly having to coordinate information received from the two brain hemispheres to allow for stereophonic hearing, posture and vision. So with our Flip Flops, we are not only stimulating the cranial nerve to connect to the trapezoid muscle but also influencing vision, hearing and balance. Through this, information is communicated to many other brain areas, especially to the cerebellum, the midbrain and the thalamus. The thalamus is an area of the brain that acts as a gate-keeper – either allowing sensory information to pass through to higher brain (cortical) areas or not. If it fails to allow certain information through, the important messages will not arrive at the proper destination.
So in short, by giving a child a (seemingly) simple activity, we are effecting profound changes in brain function. We can’t control what comes out of the brain but we certainly can control what goes in. This helps the brain receive the information it needs to correct faulty wiring.
Other reflex movements are significant too
Giving the child a head-righting reflex is good but we need to test for later developing movements as well. Once we’ve made connections in the lower brain regions, we have to persevere to encourage connections needed for more sophisticated functions.
When you bring about better neurological organization, you are addressing basic problems in the various areas of the brain. This enables the child to function independently and with improved abilities in many different spheres of life. Such children seem to ‘get it together’ and with this, their self-esteem and confidence soars.
Content adapted from ‘Playing Smart’ by Susan Perry.
We have precious little time allocated to exercise away from our homes during this lockdown period. Walking is one of the best forms of exercise for all ages, and certainly families should be making sure everyone spends the morning hours profitably.
It is true that walking the same route every day can get a bit boring, so here are some ways of making it more appealing. Brainstorm other ways with your children.
- Change the time of your walk. Yes, we have to be home by 09:00 but try a sunrise walk – watching the sun come up can be wonderful.
- Have a bird-watching or nature walk. Hunt for pine cones or dried pods to use for some craft activities later in the day. Look for animal tracks. Spot the birds and try to identify them. Children may enjoy starting a ‘bird list’.
- Go on a ‘what’s wrong’ walk. Invite children to notice everything in the neighbourhood that needs fixing or changing. For example, a lawn might need mowing; a house needs a coat of paint; a roof needs fixing before the rain; flower beds need weeding ….
- Go on a ‘what’s good’ walk, and encourage children to notice things that are pretty and pleasing. This is a good way of increasing a child’s observation powers and sense of aesthetics.
- Try a ‘never-seen-before’ walk. As you traverse a very familiar route, look for ten things you’ve never seen before. This could be anything, from cracks in the pavements to the way potted plants are arranged on a stoep.
- If it has recently rained, try a ‘puddle walk’. Look at different puddles and make predictions about which will dry up first. Why? Measure the depth of puddles with a stick. Check your predictions the following day.
- Play ‘who lives here?’. Try to guess what the different homeowners do for a living. Use clues such as the car in the driveway, or whatever is clearly visible through the windows (but don’t stare too much!)
- Draw a map of the neighbourhood as you walk, noting the street names and the number of houses in the streets. See how accurate the maps are by following them.
- Seek out the cats! Look sharply to count all the cats in the neighbourhood, sitting on roofs and sleeping on stoeps.
Children aren’t born with fully developed personalities. They do show an emerging personality by the age of 4 years and this continues to develop throughout their growing years. At birth, however, they possess the raw material of personality, called a temperament. This will become moulded by their experiences in their families and the larger world (school and friends) into their eventual personality.
Most of us feel that children’s personalities can be shaped by either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parenting. There are studies that show this to be only partly true. Not all children are affected in the same way by good or bad parenting. Some seem to be immune to bad parenting styles and behaviours, while others can be seriously harmed or helped by actions of their parents (or caregivers).
A study by a team at the University of Utrecht, published in Psychology Bulletinin August 2016 and written by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest, looked to see how temperament was affected by parenting style and subsequently influenced personality development.
The idea was to see how ‘bad’ or ‘good’ parenting styles resulted in positive or negative behaviours in children, depending on four different aspects of temperament. The four temperament characteristics were: impulsivity; signs of early conscientiousness; negative emotionality (the tendency to experience predominantly unpleasant emotions – something displayed by AA Milne’s Eeyore character); and a hard to define combination of all three which could be called a ‘difficult temperament’ and shows up in behaviours like screaming in a shopping mall or other inappropriate place.
The study found that the children rated during their infancy with negative emotionality were the most affected by parenting style. These children are most susceptible to bad parenting and can be easily hurt by it. Good parenting, defined by warmth, how much parents made their children feel comfortable, accepted and approved of and loving control (guiding behaviour by helping children think through things and teaching them to behave responsibly rather than autocratic, harsh discipline) helped these children hugely.
Children with negative emotionality who are exposed to bad parenting can internalise behaviours in the form of anxiety, depression and self-harm, or externalise in the form of aggression, delinquency, drug abuse and so on. In contrast, susceptible children exposed to good parenting would externally show empathy, community involvement and positive feelings about other people. Internal effects would be succeeding at school, good language, reasoning, memory and other forms of intellectual development.
The researchers found that impulsivity and effortful control didn’t have much effect on whether children were negatively or positively affected by parenting styles. Interestingly, the negative emotionality that made children most susceptible to hurt by wrathful, neglectful parenting also allowed them to really be helped by kind, consistent parenting. The vulnerability cuts both ways. “The very quality that appears to be a frailty in children may also be their strength, given a supportive parenting context,” the authors write.
This study was based on a relatively small sample size so cannot be taken as absolute fact. It is nevertheless an interesting glimpse into the way in which parenting helps shape personality and certainly carries a valuable message into the best ways of helping children who during their infancy seem to have been born ‘difficult.’