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    Is your child struggling 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?


  • Helping babies build their brains


    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.

  • Can I help my child develop emotionally?


    These days, many parents are concerned that children seem to be emotionally immature.  They want instant gratification, they demand entertainment rather than managing ‘own time’, they find it difficult to sustain attention, they are easily frustrated and act out their emotions rather than controlling them.  Can you help change this?

    Remember that your child was born with the desire to be the best person possible, to grow up and do what she is best fitted to do, to be healthy and happy.  For this to happen, she needs to develop physically, mentally but also emotionally. Your job is to give her the opportunity to meet her desires.

    Parents play an important role here.  In the first place, you should be aware of the different factors that can affect her during the growing years.  You also need to realise that she will meet obstacles along the way – either stemming from herself or from her environment. For example, she may show a reluctance to try new things which could be the result of criticism or being compared with others.  You’ll need to know how to act to help minimize negative things and maximize the positive.

    Let’s start with the most basic factors that a child needs in order to develop to full potential.

    Physical needs

    Obviously children need shelter, food and clothing in order to thrive.  After these, health is an important factor.  Being healthy helps a child face problems more vigorously while ill-health can have negative effects.  During illness, children become less active and muscles may lose some tone leading to fatigue and even arrested development.  Illness makes children irritable and anxious and they may show this with temper tantrums.  Being frequently ill may be the starting point for problems such as picky eating and behavioural difficulties.  Chronic diseases (epilepsy, diabetes) may cause emotional instability by having to be heavily dependent on family members. More minor conditions such as eczema or allergies cause physical discomfort, affecting emotional control, concentration and the lack of will to persevere with something or complete a task.

    Malnutrition and lack of a balanced diet can also lead to low energy levels which in turn will limit curiosity, a will to explore and be independent. 

    Side-effects of these conditions may include shyness, depression and anti-social behaviour which will impact on her emotional development.

    Emotional needs

    A happy childhood isn’t necessary a guarantee of success in later life but it certainly provides a good foundation for success.  Happy children are normally healthy and energetic.  Happiness in itself is a strong motivation to do things and it seems to help children face obstacles with calmness and a lack of fear.  It is also a habit, so happy children very often grow up to be happy, optimistic adults.  Being happy and projecting cheerfulness also helps social relationships, which is a huge boon as children need to interact with others for good social-emotional development.

    Unhappiness, on the other hand, drains a child’s strength and energy and can also affect general health. It stifles motivation, leads to withdrawal and self-occupation which in turn prevents children from learning from experience.  Temper tantrums and difficult behaviors are more common in unhappy children.  Generally, happy parents tend to foster happiness in their children so your attitude plays a role as well.

    Parent attitudes

    Your feelings about being a parent and the role you adopt as a parent are important.  Here are some ways to ensure your attitude is positive:

    • Build confidence and self-acceptance in your child by being confident and accepting of her.Don’t have unrealistic expectations of her and hold idealized wishes for a ‘dream’ child.
    • Set realistic goals to try to avoid failure and keep self-esteem high.This means helping your child know her own strengths and weaknesses – without harping too much on the weaknesses – so that she develops self-understanding.  It is important that she knows about possible limitations.
    • Help her develop her individuality by providing opportunities for learning and experiencing different things.Watch that you don’t overdo this as children need time out from activities to play and interact with their families.  Also watch your timing.  Don’t expect her to enjoy, master or learn an activity if she is not developmentally ready for it.
    • Often a child reaches a temporary plateau in her development.Don’t be misled into believing that she has reached her limit.  It may be that with a little encouragement from you, she could advance further.
    • Teach your child to relate to and be aware of others.She needs to learn to make friends.  Model empathy for others as well so that she can learn compassion too.  Happy, healthy children show empathy quite early on in their lives.  And if unsocial behaviours are noted, don’t ignore them. Try to correct these before they become habits and possible lead her to being excluded from her peer group.
    • Be careful not to stereotype male and female roles.These are found to stunt personal development – especially if they include beliefs about superior male and inferior female roles. Each child, regardless of gender, has to be encouraged to reach his or her own potential, without guilt or apology.


    There are three main components of personality: emotionality, which is a tendency to become upset or distressed easily; levels of activity, which children show in terms of amount of movement, speed of talking or amount of energy put into any activities and restlessness; and sociability, the searching out for social contact and preference to be with others and sharing activities.

    Your child will show a mix of these three components in varying amounts.  It will be possible to note that your child has a bias in one or more direction, being more emotional, more active or more sociable.  Emotional babies cry a lot and are hard to sooth; active babies don’t sleep very much and are restless; sociable babies respond to cuddles and being easily quietened.

    Your job is to accept any of these traits shown in excess but also to encourage your child to move in the direction of the other two.  Emotional children need reassurance, support, guidance and help in dealing with strong emotions so that they can feel secure and less emotional.  A child who is always on the move can be helped to slow down by you showing lots of attention and gentle restraint.  Playing games with an active child can encourage her to concentrate and increase attention span.

    So are you doing your best?  Here’s a list of things that characterize a good parent[1]

    A good parent

    • Supports the child at all times but does not indulge or allow over-dependency
    • Can be depended on by the child; you need to be consistent and predictable
    • Is reasonably permissive and giving within firm boundaries; use your own sense of values and don’t simply follow the herd if you disagree with society’s current practices
    • Is fair in discipline; be sure the child knows the boundaries and consequences for challenging them
    • Respects the child’s individuality
    • Inspires love not fear
    • Sets a good example and models expected behaviours
    • Is companionable and does things with the child; sets time aside for this
    • Is good natured most of the time;
    • Shows the child affection and expresses affection as well; let the child know what her most loveable qualities are
    • Is sympathetic when the child is hurt or in trouble and gives plenty of time to listen and help
    • Encourages the child to bring friends home
    • Is interested in and focused on making a happy home
    • Grants independence appropriate for the child’s age
    • Does not expect unreasonable achievements


    [1] Dr Miriam Stoppard

  • Baby-led weaning or spoon feeding? The difference it makes to your child’s eating habits is actually very small

    This article appeared in a Science newsletter on April 2nd2019.  We thought it might be of interest as so many children these days present as ‘picky’ eaters who are difficult to feed.

    It was written by Sophia Komninou, The Conversation

    When it comes to avoiding picky eating and meal time tantrums, parents are usually ready to try any method that promises their child will become a better and less fussy eater. This is in part why methods of giving solid food to infants have received a lot of attention in the last few years. Some think that the way babies are introduced to solids can change their attitudes to food into childhood or even for life.

    The most common method used to give babies their first solids has long been to offer a puree or mash using a spoon. This helps parents make sure their babies receive adequate energy and nutrients for their development – something many are often anxious over.

    More recently, however, baby-led weaning has gained popularity – and divided parents. This method sees babies selecting finger foods – such as carrot sticks, broccoli trees or other pieces of whole, baby-fist size pieces of food – and feedingthemselves. While there have been unsubstantiated claims that this method can improve a baby’s dexterity and confidence, research has associated baby-led weaning with their ability to recognise when they are full and being less fussy with their food. This makes it an appealing choice for some parents.

    However, as with most things baby-related, the reality is that many parents don’t use just one method of feeding. It changes depending on the time, day or situation they are in. Which is why, for our recently published study, we wanted to compare how different styles of feeding affects a baby’s eating habits and attitudes to food.

    Is baby-led weaning better?

    We looked at four different categories of toddlers, whose parents introduced them to solids using either: solely baby-led weaning, mostly baby-led weaning with occasional spoon feeding, mostly spoon feeding with occasional finger foods, or just spoon feeding. We asked the parents questions about their feeding strategies and eating behaviours of their toddlers, like fussiness and food enjoyment. 

    Usually, in a statistical analysis, we look at whether there is a difference between groups. But what this doesn’t tell us is how big the difference actually is. To solve this problem, we looked at the size of the difference between the groups (what we call the effect size). It helps us understand whether the difference actually matters. 

    We found that the magnitude of difference in a toddler’s fussiness and food enjoyment is minimal across the four groups. This means that baby-led weaning, spoon-feeding or anything in between might not actually be the solution to future mealtime battlegrounds some parents hope it will be. That may seem to be in contrast with what the research shows so far, but it doesn’t negate those findings. Babies will be less picky about their food if they are fed using baby-led weaning as opposed to any of the other types of feeding, it’s just not by that much.

    Socio-economics at play

    When looking at the strategies parents use to feed their children, our study did show that those who follow baby-led weaning are less likely to use food as a reward or encouragement, and have less control on eating overall. This helps their toddlers learn to make eating decisions for themselves based on whether they are hungry or full. These parents are also more likely to breastfeed for longer, introduce solids after six months and eat more frequently with their toddlers.

    However, the key difference here is not that the children were fed using baby-led weaning but instead the type of families who usually follow it. Our findings show that these parents are usually of a higher socio-economic status and more educated, which makes them more likely to follow a distinctly different parenting style and be able to afford to spend more time and money doing so.

    Overall, our results suggest that the way a baby is introduced to solids will make very little difference to how fussy they will become, or how much they will enjoy food. It is important to remember that how children eat depend on a lot of factors, including their genetic background, their past experiences with food and their interaction with their parents.

    Research findings are important when communicating complementary feeding advice to new parents, but headlines and quoted study results can often be misleading. So remember that when reports of research say there is a difference between one method over another, it’s not the whole story. The size of this difference – something that is not often communicated – matters too. The most important thing that parents can do is to try their best and introduce solids in a way that is more appropriate for their family, rather than stressing about a specific method, as research suggests might make a only a very small difference.



  • 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”.



  • More movement activities for fun and healthy development

    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.

    1. Have a tug of war. Hold tightly to your end of the rope and have the child try to pull you forward.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.

    1. Kick the ball up into the air. Try to repeat this action so that the ball is sent into the air with each kick.
    2. Play a gentle version of soccer with him. Kick the ball back and forth between you.
    3. Dribble the ball across an open space.
    4. 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.



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