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    Is your child struggling at school?

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    Why is your bright child not coping at school?

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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?


Testimonials

  • Special needs children during Lockdown

    Acknowledging input from content of Conversation, written by psychology lecturers at the University of the Western Cape.

    The coronavirus pandemic has affected the education of hundreds of millions of children across the world.  In South Africa, schools were shut down but currently many children are once again at home for a month.  This places many children at risk of losing out on learning time.  Particularly at risk are children who have various learning and behaviour difficulties.

    These children require specialised education and support.  Their challenges may affect their ability to learn as well as to socialise.  For instance, a child who has been diagnosed with dyslexia will encounter difficulty in reading, writing and comprehension skills. A child who struggles to focus attention will lack concentration skills.

    More importantly, there are many children whose challenges have not been recognised or diagnosed.   Their parents may be slowly realising that they are not coping as well as expected with the home schooling tasks allocated or the behaviours needed to ensure progress with school learning.

    Children need individualised adjustments to their learning to help ensure that they are falling behind during the lockdown. For example, some may need ‘scaffolding’.  This is a process of modelling or demonstrating how to solve a problem, then stepping back and offering support to a child as needed.  Parents may need to adapt activities to make the work more user-friendly for their child. And they can work alongside the child to build confidence. 

    It is also vital for parents to try and maintain structure and routine in their homes in order to help children feel secure.  An example of this is a young autistic child who showed emotional insecurities during the lockdown. He struggled to wake in the mornings, refused to cooperate and resisted learning.  Things improved when his parents dressed him in his school uniform and reverted to following the usual morning and school routine.  The familiar structure and pacing in his daily life helped restore his sense of being safe.

    Before the pandemic, parents normally had the support of teachers and therapists to help them know how best to support a child in need.  They also served as a source of information. This was a lifeline for many and helped to facilitate learning and teaching. Many parents are finding that they don’t have the emotional resilience or the training to cope with children who show learning difficulties.

    In our present Alert Level 3 lockdown stage, it is possible to access ILT practitioners to help identify the cause of learning difficulties and to use the enforced time at home to perhaps help overcome the reasons for the learning difficulty.

    Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) is a home-based programme that is tailored to the individual needs of a child.  As such, it can be a valuable aid when parents and children have time to focus on crucial activities that have been shown to positively increase children’s learning abilities.  ILT practitioners can use safe protocols during an initial evaluation session and thereafter, families only need to revisit at six-weekly intervals. This ensures maximum social distancing as well as being cost-effective.

     

     

  • The value of school ‘breaks’

     ‘Breaks’ during the school day are more than an opportunity for children to fuel up with a snack.  This time offers opportunities that can impact positively on a child’s learning as well as their social and emotional development.

    Firstly, the physical activity and social interactions that children engage in during these times help lower stress levels, which may rise during class times.  Relieving stress helps to regulate their nervous systems  which in turn allows them to pay better attention and engage with learning events once back in class.

    When under stress, children are more prone to behave reactively (fight and flight responses) so find it difficult to pay attention, follow instructions, solve problems or incorporate new information into existing knowledge.  A calm child is better able to use the brain’s executive functions to regulate behaviour and emotions so perform better in school and feel better about themselves.

    William Massey, writing for The Conversation, says that his research shows that children get a large proportion of their outdoor and movement time during school breaks.  Their activities – running and chasing, swinging, playing games – helps to restore children’s access to higher-level brain functions.  They also use this time to form meaningful relationships and practice social skills which are important for social and emotional development.

    So regular breaks during the school day help children reduce stress, form friendships and get their brains more ready to learn.  They are definitely more than just a time to consume those sandwiches – and should never be denied a child.

     

  • The nose knows – using our senses to support learning

     

    Our sense of smell is one of the earliest to develop – being operational at about two months after conception.  We can’t actually use this sense in those early days because the forming nasal passages remain blocked until some 28 weeks into the pregnancy.  When this blockage clears, we can and do pick up smells in the environment – one of the most significant being the smell of the amniotic fluid in which we grow.  Incidentally, this is the reason why newborns are not instantly whisked away to be washed as in the past. They are put onto Mom’s chest, allowing amniotic fluid to be transferred to her body and thus giving the baby the comfort of having a very familiar smell to help overcome the traumatic birthing event and make the transition to a strange new world.

    We understand that the early developing senses (others include touch and taste) are crucial to our survival and well-being and even though we no longer have to rely on our sense of smell to warn us of danger or tell us what foods we can safely eat, it has implications for our functioning and even our learning.

    Smell (or more correctly, the olfactory system) is unique in the way it sends information from the sensory cells in the nose to the brain.  Firstly, it is the only sense that cannot be prevented from reaching the areas of the brain that interpret and give meaning to the incoming smell.  Most other senses rely on the Thalamus (the brain’s ‘gatekeeper’) to admit them to the higher cortex.  Not so with smell because the neurons carrying the information bypass the thalamus. This means that all smells that we have ever encountered travel to the brain and are registered there.  The area of the brain dedicated to processing smells is intertwined with the limbic system, which is responsible for our emotions. For this reason, smells last for ever in our memories and are connected to emotions.  Smells from the past can trigger feelings and memory, as well as impact on mood and behaviours.  This is why certain smells vividly bring back the past and the emotions that accompanied an old event.

    The fact that smell is the most significant trigger of memories may be a clue to how it can be used to support learning.  When we study, we try to store information, facts and figures in our memory. What if we use smell to help register and then nudge those stored memories back into our conscious mind in order to answer questions or solve problems? It’s worth trying.

    If a student finds a smell that she or he considers pleasant and soothing, having that smell present in the study area will form connections between the smell and memories being formed while studying.  If the same smell is taken into the test situation, it is theoretical possible that the smell will help access the memorised content

    To do this, using good quality essential oils may be the best way to go.  A cotton wool ball soaked in the chosen oil can be carried along to a venue in a closed container, and surreptitiously sniffed on occasion.

    Smell, being an important sense, has other implications for our functioning, which will be discussed in a following post.

  • Will closing schools affect children?

    I was alerted to an insightful article written by Ron Crawford of the Productivity Commission in New Zealand.  Here is a summary of the contents:

    As a social worker, Ron writes that the extended time spent at home might not be good for all children. This is especially true for those living in households where there is limited material and educational resources on hand, little motivation to encourage learning or few opportunities for uninterrupted study.

    For a proportion of children, the risks of mental and physical harm have increased. Lockdown gave at-risk children few or no opportunities to escape from the pressures of a damaging home environment. Schools typically provide their only haven – with caring teachers on hand to monitor their wellbeing.

    Are there harms to a wider group of children from school closures? While there is mixed evidence, the answer on balance seems to be yes.  There are grounds to believe that time lost during schools closing can be made up through support for learning at home and ‘catch-up’ once schools open again. But not all learners will fare well.  In the United States, studies show that typically learners’ skills and knowledge fall over the long, three month’s summer break and the losses are worse for children from poorer families.  In New Zealand, missing days at school is unsurprisingly associated with lower achievement. 

    The effects of school closures on children’s wellbeing was one of the things that the New Zealand Government looked at closely in deciding that schools would open fully as soon as possible.

    Also of importance is the ability of people to earn an income, which many mothers cannot do when forced to stay at home to care for and try to school their children. Being able to earn is pretty important for kids’ wellbeing too.

    So, to summarise his main points:

    • School closures heighten the risk of mental and physical harm to possibly the most vulnerable children
    • Closures (even of relatively short duration) increases the risk of educational failure for a wider group of children in less well-off communities
    • Many families are well-placed with the help of schools to support their children to keep learning during closures
    • While schools’ main role is to promote learning they also benefit families by freeing parents to work. This is an important benefit of reopening schools.

    Many children in South Africa may be struggling in this time of extended school shutdown. Learning difficulties may be going unrecognized and with no support to correct the causes of learning challenges, children will fall even further behind.  If you suspect your child is avoiding learning while at home (or at school) or struggling to keep up with the prescribed work, don’t delay in seeking help to address the possible reasons – at least the shutdown of schools gives you and your child time to work on overturning “I can’t” to “I can”, and “I won’t” to “I will”.

     

     

  • Want children to focus? Get them moving!

     

     

    There is a reason why some children are so restless in class.  They are showing a need to move.   While this need may be rooted in some irregularities in the functioning of their nervous systems, it may also be a sign that they need to move in order to focus better on their teacher and schoolwork.  What is this connection between moving and attention?

    There isn’t any single part of the brain that controls our attention. Instead, attention happens as a result of a web of neural connections that transports signals throughout the brain to wake it up and cue our attention.  This network includes areas such as the reward centre, the limbic (emotional) system, the cerebral cortex (the highest level of the brain where learning and thought takes place) and the cerebellum (the ‘small brain’ responsible for our coordinated movements, amongst other things).  It turns out that there is a lot of overlap between consciousness (i.e. being awake), attention and movement.

    The neural pathways that enable us to pay attention are regulated by two neurotransmitters: norephinephrine and dopamine.  These are the chemicals targeted by ADHD medications, which stimulate the release of more chemicals being released into the brain synapses.   According to Dr John Ratey[1] the problem for people with attentional challenges (‘ADHD’) is that their attention system is patchy, discontinuous, fragmented and uncoordinated.  The reason might be that the neurotransmitters responsible for efficient transport of impulses through the attention circuits are dysfunctional. Another reason is that there can be irregular functioning in any one of the brain areas that form part of the attention circuits.  The trouble with the medications is that they are mind-altering drugs with as yet unknown long-term effects and some serious side-effects.  Don’t we have an alternative?

    ILT tries to identify the problematic areas and work on enhancing their functionality but before this, it may help to understand why movement seems to help children.

    The attention system ties in with movement and thus exercise: the areas of the brain that control physical movement also coordinate the flow of information.  One important area of the brain that does this is the cerebellum.  This vital brain area regulates certain brain systems so they run smoothly, updating and managing the flow of information to keep it moving seamlessly.  In children who struggle to pay attention, parts of the cerebellum can be smaller or not functioning properly so it makes sense that this could cause disjointed attention. 

    Leading from the cerebellum are neural pathways conducting impulses to the higher level centres for thinking and movement.  Along the route, these pass through the basal ganglia, which acts like a gearbox, shifting attention resources as the higher brain demands. This brain area needs dopamine to function. If there isn’t enough dopamine, attention can’t easily be shifted (i.e. sluggish attention) or can only be shifted all the way into high gear (i.e. overfocus).

    We all know about Parkinson’s disease. This condition is caused by too little dopamine in this brain area and leads to the person’s inability to coordinate not only motor movements but also complex cognitive tasks. Significantly, neurologists are now recommending daily exercise in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease to stave off symptoms.

    In the same way, exercise can help to regulate the attention system and it does this by increasing the production of neurotransmitters.  With regular exercise, we can raise the baseline levels of dopamine and norephinephrine and the result is immediate.

    So let’s rethink the schools’ curriculum which demands long periods of sitting still in classrooms.  Some young children have only a single 15 minute break in their school day, which is hardly long enough to eat a snack and engage in sufficient exercise.  Teachers could benefit quite markedly if they were encouraged to allow children little episodes of movement during lessons.  I firmly believe that they would be able to get through more of the learning content as a result, without having to constantly call children to attention, repeat instructions and generally waste time through managing restless youngsters.

    At home make sure children have plenty of opportunity to move and engage in exercise that raises their heartrate.  Doing some really energetic movements before homework time, for example, might make it easier for them to focus when having to sit at a desk and work.

    Rather than giving children psychotropic drugs, just imagine if we could put exercise in capsules and hand these out during the day!

     

    [1] Dr John Ratey, author of ‘Spark – The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain’

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