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.’
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.
Food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances can play havoc with a child’s ability to benefit from teaching. Before we go into this, let’s clarify what causes food (and environmental) allergies and sensitivities.
Genetics seems to be an important factor in the risk of developing allergies. It seems that children with (true) ADHD who have food allergies are also likely to have parents with similar problems.
Nutritional factors are also significant for the development and severity of all forms of allergy. When a child has less than adequate nutrition, his immune system cannot function as it should and is more likely to misfire when faced with various stressful elements in the digestive system. For example, children with deficiencies of omega-3 are more likely to suffer allergies; deficiencies in magnesium and zinc are also know to promote allergic responses. The overall quality of the diet may also play an important role. Too much processed, stale, chemically altered or nutritionally depleted foods may well promote an allergy.
Another factor is toxicological stress. Children who are regularly exposed to pesticides that are toxic to the immune system, heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium), plastic residues and solvents may be more prone to allergies.
Developmental markers may also play a role. Breastfeeding may significantly reduce the risk of later developing food allergies. Ideally, babies should be breast fed exclusively until at least six months of age – longer if possible. The reason for this is that a young infant’s gut is naturally leaky and for a good reason. Large molecules, for example the antibodies in the mother’s milk, can cross through the gaps to enter the baby’s bloodstream to protect her from infection while her immune system is still immature. This is a vulnerable time and if other molecules enter the blood, the developing immune system may see them as threatening and becomes non-tolerant of them. This is exactly why mothers are encouraged to not only breastfeed but to carefully and slowly introduce solid foods one food at a time, starting with foods least likely to generate an allergic response. This ‘educates’ the baby’s immune system and helps the body develop a tolerance towards each food as it is introduced.
Intestinal parasites are worth a mention as well as they may also cause upsets in the digestive system and underlie the emergence of allergies. For this reason, regular treatment is advised for the whole family and not just for the fur children!
Non-food allergies such as hay fever can raise the severity of food allergies. If these types of allergies are particularly active in some months of the year, such as Spring, pre-existing food allergies may become more predominate at the same time.
When the immune system is not involved in a child’s reaction to foods, we refer to them as having a food intolerance. Knowing the difference is important because it will impact on the success of treatment. The most frequent reason behind food intolerance is inadequate digestion of particular nutrients. Lactose, or milk sugar, is probably the most common example of an intolerance due to digestive difficulties.
Take a long, serious look at your child. Sometimes allergies and food intolerances show up in his or her physical appearance. Some children can show a characteristic ‘spaced out’ or even an almost ‘demonic’ look when they suddenly become impossible. These looks can sometimes be accompanied by sounds such as throat clearing or clucking. This last noise is typical of a dairy or milk sensitivity. Some slur their words or begin to speak very rapidly. A few children whine or repeat the same phrase over and over. In addition, they may develop a hoarse voice or red ears or cheeks after exposure to a certain food or chemical.
Other signs include dark rings under the eyes, which can be grey, black, blue and even reddish. Nose rubbing, skin-scratching, wriggly lets, small horizontal wrinkles under the eyes and facial twitches and tics are very common in some children.
Abnormally rosy cheeks are particularly characteristic of allergic children between the ages of two and four years (and of adult women who have multiple food or chemical allergies).
Some children show hives, which look like mosquito bites or more generalized rashes.
And lastly, a bloated or abnormally large abdomen may also be a sign of problems – not always of a food allergy or intolerance but possibly of a yeast infection or parasites in the gut.
Next week we’ll continue this theme and describe the behaviours that so often accompany food intolerances – and are mistakenly thought to be ADHD, oppositional or even defiant behaviour caused by mental disorders.
Some people use the terms ‘food allergy’ and ‘food intolerance’ as synonyms but this is incorrect. Some of the signs of food intolerance and allergy are similar but the difference between the two are very important. Eating a food to which you are intolerant can leave you feeling miserable. A true food allergy, however, could be life-threatening. Either way, a child whose body reacts negatively to something in her diet will find it more difficult to focus on schoolwork and do her best. It’s worth considering whether or not she has a food intolerance.
Let’s first consider the differences between the two conditions. If you’re allergic to a food, your immune system will consider the food as an enemy invader and defend the body with antibodies. These antibodies produce symptoms that can cover a range of conditions like hives, eczema, indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, excessive winds and vomiting. More severe symptoms are termed anaphylactic and may include difficulty breathing, dizziness or loss of consciousness. Without immediate treatment – an injection of adrenalin – anaphylactic can be fatal.
A food intolerance, on the other hand, doesn’t involve the immune system. It takes place in the digestive system and is usually due to an inability to properly break down a particular food. This could be due to enzyme deficiencies, sensitivity to food additives (colourants and flavourants) or reactions to naturally occurring chemicals in foods. The symptoms are sometimes vague and can include a combination of gastrointestinal problems such as bloating and wind, diarrhea, nausea and indigestion and aggravation of eczema and asthma. These symptoms often take long to emerge, often several hours or days so it is difficult to pinpoint what foods may be causing the symptoms. The symptoms too may take a couple of days to go away.
Almost any food can cause an intolerance but there are some types that occur more than others. Common culprits are dairy, gluten and foods that can lead to gas buildup, such as cabbage and beans. A specific type of intolerance can develop to the protein in wheat and other grains called gluten. This condition is called Coeliac disease.
The tricky thing about intolerances is that they are dose-dependent. This means that a certain amount of the offending substance has to be consumed before symptoms appear. Small quantities of the food may be handled by the body, unlike people with allergies, who must stay away from even the tiniest trace of the trigger food. Everyone is different, so the amount tolerated will vary from person to person.
If you suspect that your child has a food intolerance, you can try an elimination diet to decipher what food is causing problems. Keeping a food diary is useful because you need to be able to look back to see what might have been eaten a few days before.
What you need to remember is that while a food allergy will probably make itself conspicuous with the more severe symptoms, many food intolerances go unnoticed and ignored. Try to remember that these can negatively affect learning and behaviour – and if your child shows puzzling challenges, keep in mind that food might be the reason. Next week, we’ll list some behaviours that may indicate an intolerance to one or more foods.
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.