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?
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.
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.
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.
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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.