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?
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.’
Parents and teachers alike will agree that children who struggle at school usually feel bad about their academic abilities. Most of them will certainly have some emotional problem related to the learning difficulty.
While this is probably considered to be a ‘known fact’ amongst educators, another fact, gleaned from practical experience, is that the priority seems to be on the diagnosis and remediation of the learning difficulty or disability. The need to address the emotional aspects takes a backseat.
The way emotions and learning difficulties or disabilities interact is a complex subject and not always easy to unravel. Essentially, there are some guidelines to keep in mind:
- Emotional distress may be caused by learning difficulties.Learners who fail to thrive at school may suffer from anxiety, depression, loneliness and low self-esteem – especially regarding their academic abilities
- Learning difficulties may aggravate social and emotional functioning.If a child struggles with mental processing that is severe enough to cause a learning problem, they may experience problems in nonacademic areas as well. This typically shows itself in behaviours that don’t conform to the child’s social environment. The result is escalating emotional concerns such as feelings of being misunderstood, sadness and anxiety – all on which may already be present because of the learning problem.
- Emotional issues can disguise a child’s learning disability. This may happen if the child resorts to defiant behaviours such as ‘acting-out,’ distracting behaviours such as being the ‘class clown’ or complaints about physical ailments.Adults’ focus might be on the undesired actions and the learning difficulty could be overlooked.
- Emotional issues may aggravate learning difficulties.Constant failure to succeed at school may lead to stress or feelings of inferiority which can intensify the learning problem. A child who, for example, consistently struggles with certain academic tasks may decrease the child’s ability to pay attention and concentrate on the work.
- On the other hand, a child with learning difficulties who enjoys good emotional health may find it easier to cope with challenges. This can enhance school performance.
This last finding emphasises the importance of ensuring that children with a learning difficulty or disability are well supported emotionally and socially. On the positive side, parents and teachers usually do try to understand the complexities of the interaction between emotional functioning and learning difficulties. Most do try to ensure that the help the child receives is not limited to academic remediation.
Content for this post was based on an article entitled ‘Understanding children’s hearts and minds: Emotional functioning and learning disabilities’ written by Jean Cheng Gormon and available at: www.idonline.org/article/626292/?theme=print.
The media has been focusing for quite some time on the benefits of fats and oils in our diets. It seems that finally the world is realizing that saturated fats are not the killers we once thought they were and we are becoming aware that not all oils available in supermarkets are as healthy as marketers would have us believe.
Standing out from this muddle of misinformation over the decades has been the fact that Omega-3 oil is a key nutrient for brain help.
None of us would disagree that learning takes place largely in the brain. It follows that if the brain is deprived of the nutrients that it needs to be healthy, it won’t be able to fulfil its learning function.
We can all be labelled as ‘fat heads’ because our brains are predominantly made of fat. Almost all of its structures and functions are crucially dependent on essential fatty acids. These cannot be made by our bodies but come directly from our food. Pause then, for a moment, and consider the impact of the last thirty years or so during which we were sternly told that fat was bad for us and we should consume low-fat or fat-free products. We now know without doubt that if a child’s brain is deficient in the important fatty acids (mainly Omega-3) it will still function but will process information far slower than otherwise. Imagine an outdated computer that works but processes slowly, compared to an up-to-date version, which processes at the blink of an eye
Researchers in the UK have found that a child’s blood levels of Omega-3 (specifically a component known as DHA) can significantly predict how well he or she is able to concentrate and learn. From sampling nearly 500 schoolchildren, they found that higher levels were associated with better reading and memory, as well as with fewer behaviour problems, as rated by parents and teachers
Many of the children identified as having below-average reading skills showed levels of Omega-3 that were way below the level considered optimal. Their parents also revealed that almost nine out of ten children in the sample ate fish less than twice a week, and nearly one in ten never ate fish at all. This is significant because fish is the only really practical source of Omega-3 in our diets. If a child is sensitive to fish, flaxseed (or flax oil), pumpkin seeds and walnuts provide the most commonly available alternatives.
In the light of this knowledge, it makes sense to encourage children to eat fish from an early age. We have good sources of cold water fatty fish (which are the best sources of Omega-3). Snoek, hake, trout, pilchards and herrings will all feed our hungry brains – but not battered and deep-fried – learn to grill, bake or lightly braai!
The question naturally arises about Omega-3 supplements – particularly in children who are picky eaters. I’ll be addressing this in next week’s post.
In last week’s post, I wrote that a baby’s brain is very undeveloped at birth, owing to the relatively small size of a newborn’s head. In fact, the newly born child has all the brain cells (neurons) he will ever need but they aren’t able to communicate with each other very efficiently.
One of the most important developmental stages in these early days is for the infant to do what is necessary for these neurons to connect to each other. Eventually, he’ll end up with neural networks that are needed for learning and living. These networks provide us with the ability to learn language, interpret sound and vision, control emotions, think and remember. The quality of the brain cells themselves and the way they connect to each other will determine whether that individual grows up with an average or a really smart brain.
Some of this will depend on the child’s genes but a great deal will depend on the environment you provide and in which the child will develop. It’s not true that clever parents will automatically have clever children. Academic success and intelligence are hugely reliant on a growing environment that is characterized by lots of love, little stress, mental stimulation and a good diet.
Mental stimulation is not provided by mindless facts. Many children can learn to count, recite the alphabet, give correct answers to learned questions and so on, but these don’t indicate a good brain. Essentially, as Dr David Perlmutter points out in his book (see reference below), the goal of parent’s interactions with their young children should not be whatthe children learn but howthey learn it. Stay away from activities that dull their brains, deaden their senses and put them at risk for later learning difficulties.
It’s better for a developing brain to learn what letters and numbers represent rather than being able to spell or count. In order for this to happen, they need to learn their shapes and understand that letters and numbers are symbols that carry meaning according to their shapes.
It’s also important that the connections being made by the neurons are firmly cemented in place. For this to happen, children need repetition of incoming mental stimulation. Most seek this out automatically by insisting that parents reinforce learning. Most of us know how a child will demand the same story over and over again, or be happy to watch the same film again and again. This is a good example of how children learn and how they strengthen the connections in their neural networks.
Here’s one example of a brain-building activity given by Dr Perlmutter that will help the child to learn the meaning of numbers:
For a child beginning at around age 12 months: Find a puzzle containing pieces shaped from numbers 1 to 10. Fitting the numbers into their correct places allows the child to experience the ‘feel’ qualities of numbers, which helps to ingrain the picture of the number into their brains. You can enhance her experience by showing her what a particular number represents. For example, when she puts the number 2 into the correct place on the puzzle board, hand her two small balls and say “Two.” Every time she puts back another puzzle piece, add balls to her collection until the puzzle is completed. This paves the way for early recognition of the symbolic nature of numbers. This is far more beneficial than simply teaching the child to memorise counting from one to ten.
Acknowledgement is given to Dr David Perlmutter who wrote the informative book Raise a smarter child by kindergarten: Build a better brain and increase IQ up to 30 points.Available from Amazon books.
Our sense of identity – meaning the knowledge of who we are – and liking who we are comes from all the people in our world. We get to know ourselves at first from what others tell us. If we sense we are liked and hear others say positive things about us, we start believing that we are worthy and feel good about ourselves. The opposite, of course, is true too. If we hear time and again that we are not good or not coming up to expectations, we can’t develop positive opinions about ourselves and will feel bad about who we are.
This all starts very early in life. You might think a baby is too young to be taking anything in but it might surprise you to know how much an infant picks up from our behaviours and words. All this is stored on an unconscious level and forms the foundation of a child’s belief about him or herself. It also affects the child’s perception of the people in the world and whether or not the world itself is a good or bad place to be.
Clearly the most important people are those on whom the child relies for nurturance. These are usually the parents but can obviously also be caregivers, grandparents, child-minders, babysitters and older siblings.
Sometimes parents believe they should behave towards their children in the same manner their parents did and tend to revert to less than positive parenting. It isn’t true that we have to repeat the mistakes of the past. Many of us might have faced negativity and lack of caring during our early childhood but we need to try to make changes to our thinking to ensure that our own children meet with a positive, loving approach. A good self-esteem is truly a gift that we receive from others and can lay the foundation for later success in life.
Essentially, there are three easy steps to follow that will help provide a positive environment for your child:
- Practice being able to maintain positive facial expressions and body language. Children can read your face and will do so when they are looking at you.Make sure you smile a lot; make sure your expression is one of approval and love rather than censure. Body language counts as well. Hug your children; put an arm around your child; pat his or her head or shoulder, or physically draw the child towards you. Negative body language consists of gestures that push your child away from you, or suggest withdrawal, like crossing your arms when facing the child, taking an angry, defiant stance, and pointing a finger. Shaking your fist at a child, tapping angrily on a table top or baring your teeth in anger will be perceived by a child as unloving and threatening. Such a child will feel unloved and threatened.
- Use a positive and loving tone of voice.We sometimes forget that rather than the content of our verbal message to a child, the tone of our voice conveys important messages too. Harsh, irritated tones are negative and can often be accompanied by sarcasm and criticism. If you aren’t sure, think of the tone of voice you use when speaking to your boss. This is the same tone that you should use when speaking to your child. You shouldn’t be speaking in nicer tones to people you don’t know – your family needs the same courtesy.
- Make positive statements or affirmations.Have you heard about a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’? It’s well known in education where children who are aware that their teachers approve of them tend to do better than their potential might suggest. On the other hand, bright children do less well than they should due to their lack of belief in themselves, mirrored in the attitudes of their educators. So our children will become that which we expect of him or her; our child will achieve what we believe he or she is capable of doing or achieving. In order for this to happen, we need to convey positive beliefs in the child. “I know you can do it!” “You are wonderful!” “You are capable and smart!” “You can be anything you want to be!” “You are a winner” are examples of affirming language.
Too often, when a child presents with a learning difficulty, we focus on prior teaching and send them for remedial help to catch up on missed steps in the learning process. This is not often successful – or only partially. Another factor that plays a huge role in preventing or causing learning problems is self-esteem. A negative self-esteem plays havoc with a child’s ability to perform in school because he won’t have the confidence to do well and the belief that he is capable of doing well. A good self-esteem makes us proud of ourselves and our achievements and develops a belief in our capacity to succeed.
Content summarized from the book “Solving your child’s reading problems” by Ricki Linksman. Published by MJF Books.