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?
Last week we suggested some physical activities that are known to boost healthy development – mainly related to sensory motor systems.
‘Sensory-motor’ refers to the relationship between information coming in from our senses and movement. Sensory messages are picked up from our environment mainly through the ‘outer’ senses of vision, audition, touch, smell and taste but we also receive information from inside our bodies. These come from the ‘inner senses’ – in other words, those sensory organs we cannot see, for example, the proprioceptors (which tell us where our bodies are in space) and vestibular (which is responsible for our ability to maintain balance). We use all this information to make appropriate movement responses, to generate thought and feelings.
When children can move efficiently in response to sensory inputs, they find movement activities to be fun. Some children have greater problems integrating the sensory information with motor responses. It is possible that they don’t experience physical activities and challenges as ‘having fun’ and may try to avoid them. These are often children who show clumsiness, dislike climbing on jungle gyms or swinging off monkey bars, find bicycle riding difficult, and so on. They are amongst those who will benefit from planned and carefully chosen physical activities. Remember, though, that they might need encouragement to engage in these and persevere until they are able to master them.
The activities last week were aimed at the vestibular system. Here are a couple of examples to enhance sense of body position (or proprioception).
Fun with a hoop: For this activity, you’ll need one or two hula hoops and perhaps some cushions or a blow up mattress or lilo for introducing later changes.
The idea is to hold the hoop in different positions and ask the child to move through it without allowing any part of her body to touch the hoop. Start with the hoop in a vertical position with the lower edge at about knee height so that the child can step through it. It’s a good idea to tell the child that the hoop has a built-in alarm which will go off if it is touched (make loud alarm sounds when this happens and tell the child to begin again). The child is not allowed to dive through the hoop; the movement must be slow and careful.
Once the child has succeeded in climbing through the hoop, she returns through the hoop from the opposite direction. Then ask her to think of a different way of getting through. After this, change the position of the hoop – horizontal to the ground, tilted at different angles, etc.
You can add variations once the above becomes easy. For example, use two hoops, parallel and about two feet apart; perform the activity on an uneven surface, like cushions or an air mattress; add other items to get through without touching, like through the legs of a chair or table.
Fun with a rope: For these activities, you’ll need a fairly long rope – ideally about 6-8 metres.
- Have a tug of war. Hold tightly to your end of the rope and have the child try to pull you forward.
- Hold your end of the rope and have the child pull himself towards you, hand over hand or, even better, on a scooter board if you have one.
- Put a heavy object on one end of the rope and have the child try to pull it out. You can even park your car on one end of the rope if no heavy objects are at hand.
- Tie the rope to a post or anything else upright and swing it backwards and forwards. Have the child jump over the rope. Once this becomes easy, do it to a beat or to a rhythm.
Fun with a ball: For these activities, choose fairly large, plastic balls. Soccer and netballs will be too heavy and hard.
- Kick the ball up into the air. Try to repeat this action so that the ball is sent into the air with each kick.
- Play a gentle version of soccer with him. Kick the ball back and forth between you.
- Dribble the ball across an open space.
- Put a target at one end of an open space and try to kick the ball so that it hits the target. You can also make pretend soccer nets by placing two objects on the end of the space and aiming to get the ball between them; or use a hoop and try to kick the ball through the hoop.
Fun with tools: For this, the child will need a very sturdy chunk of wood (or ideally, a log lying in the garden), a hammer and some nails. Don’t think a toy hammer will suffice – he’ll need a real one to get the job done! The rest is simple. Let him enjoy hammering the nails into the wood. If you have no wood at hand at all, use a large, dense piece of polystyrene, like those that are used to pack appliances.
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.”
The question of whether sugar sparks hyperactivity and other behaviour problems has been in the news for a long time. More recently, opinions have been that the sugar link to ADHD type behaviours is a myth. But now, a new study, reported by Unsplash/Public Domain, suggests that conditions such as aggression, attentional deficits and even bipolar disorder may be linked to sugar intake, and that it may have an evolutionary basis.
The research, out today from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and published in Evolution and Human Behavior, presents a hypothesis supporting a role for fructose, a component of sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and uric acid (a fructose metabolite), in increasing the risk for these behavioural disorders.
“We present evidence that fructose, by lowering energy in cells, triggers a foraging response similar to what occurs in starvation,” said lead author Richard Johnson, MD, professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus.
Johnson outlines research that shows a foraging response stimulates risk taking, impulsivity, novelty seeking, rapid decision making, and aggressiveness to aid the securing of food as a survival response. Overactivation of this process from excess sugar intake may cause impulsive behavior that could range from ADHD, to bipolar disorder or even aggression.
“While the fructose pathway was meant to aid survival, fructose intake has skyrocketed during the last century and may be in overdrive due to the high amounts of sugar that are in the current Western diet,” Johnson adds.
The paper looks at how excessive intake of fructose present in refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup may have a contributory role in the pathogenesis of behavioural disorders that are associated with obesity and Western diet.
Johnson notes, “We do not blame aggressive behaviour on sugar, but rather note that it may be one contributor.”
Johnson recommends further studies to investigate the role of sugar and uric acid, especially with new inhibitors of fructose metabolism on the horizon.
“The identification of fructose as a risk factor does not negate the importance of genetic, familial, physical, emotional and environmental factors that shape mental health,” he adds.
Even though this study does not identify sugar as being a major cause of unwelcome behaviours, perhaps the wisest decision would be to continue to limit children’s intake of sugars, including those found in so many processed foods.
How do you know you’re hungry, or tired, or cold or spitting mad? These sensations are sent to the brain by your internal organs and other body parts – often accompanied by emotions. We refer to our sensing of things happening in our bodies as Interoception. Like sight, smell, sound and taste, interoception is a sensory experience, needed by us to control our wellbeing and respond adequately.
Children who might not have developed this sense often struggle to know when to go to the toilet or when they are hungry, or how (and why) they are feeling. We pick up on our emotions by sensing the body’s reaction to events. For example, feeling a tightness in our stomachs and a warm glow might indicate that we are angry. An increased heartbeat and tension in our muscles tell us we’re fearful. If we are not tuned in to these sensations, it becomes more difficult to tell when we are OK or not OK. Children might struggle to regulate their emotions because they can’t correctly interpret the signals from the body.
Children (and some adults) may be over-responsive (hypersensitive), under-responsive (hyposensitive) or a combination of both to their physical and emotional state. Some may not know how to verbally label the information their brains receive from the interoceptive sense. They may not be receiving enough data, which makes things confusing or if they are receiving too much information the sensations can become overwhelming.
Children with hypersensitivity to interoceptive input may find that everyday sensations like hunger or having to use the bathroom are distracting or painful. This may result in their becoming preoccupied with the internal sensations and distracted from whatever they are doing. They can easily show extreme reactions to certain sensations (for example, hunger, temperature, etc), are thought to be overly emotional, seemingly anxious for no good reason and tend to worry over small events. They may have frequent meltdowns or display other behaviours viewed as inappropriate. They also have difficulty focusing due to preoccupation with internal stimuli.
Other children may be less sensitive to interoceptive messages. This is when they seem to not be able to pick up on internal sensations. They may not be able to respond to the body’s sensation or feeling in a functional way. These include children who seem to have a very high pain threshold, act out without warning, struggle with potty training, constipation or bedwetting, cannot tell if they are hungry or full or cold or hot.
If a child appears to have these issues, it is understood to be a sensory processing concern and other sensory irregularities might accompany poorly developed interoception. For example, a child might be sensitive to touch or smell or bright lights or loud, shrill sounds. Because there are other senses in addition to the better known basic five, such a child might also struggle with balance and coordination (needing the senses of proprioception and vestibular).
Helping to develop this sense usually requires the assistance of a trained professional but activities like yoga, mindfulness, breathing exercises, deep pressure input (e.g. massage) and vestibular stimulating activities (slow rocking, rolling, swinging) might also be helpful. Heavy load activities are also helpful, such as carrying grocery bags from the car; mowing grass, vacuuming, jumping on a trampoline, wheelbarrow races etc.
A good way of helping all children develop an interoceptive sense is to let them practice recognising input as it happens. For example, ask your child how her body feels before eating or drinking, when the weather is hot or cold, before using the bathroom, after exercise and so on. Encourage him to explore and name internal feelings of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, a full bladder or bowel, an increased heartbeat and so on. The more your help your child feel and recognise these sensations, the better able he will be to act on them independently and appropriately.
Memory abilities vary in people but the sequence of memory work the same in everyone. Depending on how long you want to remember something, your brain stores information in three different ways or stages.
The first stage is called the ‘sensory register’. Usually you see or hear something and the brain holds onto that sensory input for only a fraction of a second before its replaced by another sensation.
Sensory memory fades quickly unless its transferred to the next stage, called ‘short-term memory’ (STM). When you get home and drop your car keys on the table, you see what you are doing but don’t think about it. This is why you have to search for those keys tomorrow morning! The image of the keys on the table never made it into your memory. STM is an active memory, the part of your mind that holds the contents of your attention. What you choose to keep in STM is a matter of personal interest. It usually fades within 15-20 seconds unless you consciously attend to it.
The third stage is called ‘long-term memory’ (LTM), which is practically limitless. The brain can hold gazillions of separate bits of information. The longer you think about something, the longer it stays in STM and the greater its chances of moving to LTM.
Here are some ways to test and strengthen your child’s memory abilities:
- Do this with your child – you can help! Try to draw from memory as many details as possible of what is on each side of a R5 coin (or any other common coin). Most people can only recall a few of the coin’s features, even though we handle coins nearly every day. Their details are not significant enough for us to commit them to memory.
- Fill a tray with ten to twenty small, common, related items – for example, kitchen utensils, assorted pieces of stationery or hardware. Show the tray to your child for one minute, then put it out of sight. Ask your child how many items she can recall. Most people don’t do very well with this activity but with practice and a few tricks (encourage the child to find her own ways of remembering the items), memory can be improved.
- Teach your child the ‘Method of Loci’, a way to commit a list of unrelated items to memory. Give your child a list of items to remember, e.g. glass, broom, book, etc. Basically, you link the items you want to remember with familiar locations, following a predetermined order (such as clockwise). For example: Imagine each items on a list as being in a particular spot within a room. The glass is on the shelf as you enter the room, the broom stands next to the shelf, the book is on the tv, and so on. Mentally take a trip around the room to visit each item. Once you’ve explained the Method of Loci, give your child different lists of unrelated household items to commit to memory each day.
- Teach your child how to make associations. For example, when you meet a new person and want to remember his or her name, think up something funny or bizarre to associate with it. Say your son wants to remember the name of his new soccer coach, Mr Ruder. He might make the association with the phrase, “He’s ruder than the old coach.” Practice by introducing yourself to your child using different names.
- Practice making use of mnemonics (from the Greek ‘mneme’, meaning to remember). This technique helps you to remember things better usually by forming a strong association. It could be anything from a rhyme (e.g. ‘Thirty days hath September ….’) to a strong visual image to putting a rubber band on your wrist.
- Tell your child about ‘déjà vu’. This is the feeling we all get sometimes that we’ve been in a particular place or situation before, even though we know that’s impossible. Scientists don’t know for sure thy this is such a common experience, but several theories have been suggested. Perhaps a situation feels familiar because it triggers memories of an experience that evoked similar feelings. Or maybe it has something to do with a slight lag time between the processing mechanisms of two parts of the brain. Has your child every experienced ‘déjà vu’?