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?
Most pre-school children amaze us with their ability. Little Hanlie, at aged two, can name all the animals in her favourite picture book. Hansie names most of the cars on the road before his third birthday and many four year olds are fascinated by dinosaurs and know their long, difficult names.
Then they begin school and the wheels come off. This can be devastating, especially if they have been encouraged to start school early because of their demonstrated intelligence. It is so important for families to know that even if their child has learned to read at a very early age, they may not be ready to learn. Things may go well in the first year or so but slowly progress falls behind. Very often parents come along (wisely) for a neurodevelopment evaluation and tell us that the child will be repeating Grade R because of emotional immaturity. This is not entirely accurate. Failing to cope with school has far more to do with brain maturity – what we call a state of learning readiness at school-going age.
Brain age vs chronological age
The trouble is that children are sent to school at an age determined by their birthday rather than by their stage of brain development. We are not robots, programmed to behave predictably. We are human beings who have a very personal timetable of development. Our brains are not ready to learn at a prescribed date but are subject to growth spurts that determine its level of functioning. Strategies for teaching reading, for example, will be different for children who have not yet fully developed the connections between the two brain hemispheres. Children may seem to be learning to read well but after Grade 3, begin to fail because they have relied on the look and see methods which is basically aimed at the right brain hemisphere. This is too limiting and they may have to be taught all over again.
Teachers are very well aware that boys are slower in brain development than girls. We also know that there are more boys who experience learning and school-related behavior problems (e.g. hyperactivity) than girls. The theory goes that, since boys’ brains develop more slowly, their brains remain longer in the very early brain stages, making them more vulnerable to viral damage or any slight accidents.
A maturity lag can cause all kinds of problems. If, for example, a child’s visual system is not fully developed, he might not be able to clearly differentiate letters. This means that he may learn the word ‘d-o-g’ by recognizing the shape of the whole word, reinforced by having the word accompanied by many pictures. But using pictures to remember individual words won’t help him when he has to do more advanced reading. They don’t help him use letters to read other words. These are ‘splinter skills’ that children develop that work well for a while but not in the higher grades.
And in the higher grades, few realise that the child is having problems because he was never ready to read in the first place.
It’s important to know a child’s stage of brain development
It is so important to consider an assessment of brain development before deciding on school entry. Far more important than school readiness is the knowledge that the child’s brain is ready to learn.
For neurodevelopmental reasons, it is disturbing to consider the consequences for certain children following the government’s suggestion that no child will be held back in Grade R. Sometimes it is necessary to do so. To counter this, give careful thought to arranging to have your child assessed before school entry. By assessment, we mean NOT school readiness, but learning readiness – which is not the same thing.
The media has been focusing for quite some time on the benefits of fats and oils in our diets. It seems that finally the world is realizing that saturated fats are not the killers we once thought they were and we are becoming aware that not all oils available in supermarkets are as healthy as marketers would have us believe.
Standing out from this muddle of misinformation over the decades has been the fact that Omega-3 oil is a key nutrient for brain help.
None of us would disagree that learning takes place largely in the brain. It follows that if the brain is deprived of the nutrients that it needs to be healthy, it won’t be able to fulfil its learning function.
We can all be labelled as ‘fat heads’ because our brains are predominantly made of fat. Almost all of its structures and functions are crucially dependent on essential fatty acids. These cannot be made by our bodies but come directly from our food. Pause then, for a moment, and consider the impact of the last thirty years or so during which we were sternly told that fat was bad for us and we should consume low-fat or fat-free products. We now know without doubt that if a child’s brain is deficient in the important fatty acids (mainly Omega-3) it will still function but will process information far slower than otherwise. Imagine an outdated computer that works but processes slowly, compared to an up-to-date version, which processes at the blink of an eye
Researchers in the UK have found that a child’s blood levels of Omega-3 (specifically a component known as DHA) can significantly predict how well he or she is able to concentrate and learn. From sampling nearly 500 schoolchildren, they found that higher levels were associated with better reading and memory, as well as with fewer behaviour problems, as rated by parents and teachers
Many of the children identified as having below-average reading skills showed levels of Omega-3 that were way below the level considered optimal. Their parents also revealed that almost nine out of ten children in the sample ate fish less than twice a week, and nearly one in ten never ate fish at all. This is significant because fish is the only really practical source of Omega-3 in our diets. If a child is sensitive to fish, flaxseed (or flax oil), pumpkin seeds and walnuts provide the most commonly available alternatives.
In the light of this knowledge, it makes sense to encourage children to eat fish from an early age. We have good sources of cold water fatty fish (which are the best sources of Omega-3). Snoek, hake, trout, pilchards and herrings will all feed our hungry brains – but not battered and deep-fried – learn to grill, bake or lightly braai!
The question naturally arises about Omega-3 supplements – particularly in children who are picky eaters. I’ll be addressing this in next week’s post.
Your child’s school may have requested that you arrange for an IQ test to be done, possibly along with a fuller educational assessment – most often by an Educational Psychologist. We usually understand the reason for and content of tests to determine reading, maths and spelling ages, but many parents are unsure of the nature and reason for the ‘IQ’.
The letters IQ stand for Intelligence Quotient. The test is the most common method to measure intelligence and its value lies mostly in its ability to predict a child’s chances of school success fairly accurately. Most school subjects require those mental skills and knowledge that are tested by the items comprising the IQ battery of subtests.
IQ tests are based on statistics and the child’s results will reflect her academic abilities as compared to other children of the same age.
The average IQ score is around 100 but a ‘normal’ or ‘average’ IQ can fall anywhere between the scores of 71 – 129, being further divided into ‘below average’ or ‘above average’ if nearing these scores respectively. The two extremes would be IQ scores of less than 70 and more than 130. Children falling into these extremes would account for roughly 2.5% each of the entire population of children. They are described as ‘special needs’ children because on the one hand, having an IQ score of under 70 may suggest that academic success will be difficult to achieve, while an IQ score of over 130 places one in the category of ‘gifted’, meaning that academic potential is extraordinarily high. Children in both these categories need special help with their widely differing educational, social and emotional needs.
Typically, IQ scores can be used to predict future scholastic levels although this type of prediction can be misleading. Many children cope with high levels of education due to determination and perseverance. However, for the sake of clarity, here are the widely accepted levels:
IQ over 110: The individual should be capable of a university or other tertiary education
IQ between 90 – 110: Capable of completing secondary education and beyond
IQ between 80 – 89: Capable of completing High School or a technical education
IQ between 70 – 79: May have difficulties in High School
IQ below 70: Needs special education
IQ tests are conducted by trained psychologists who are qualified to administer these tests. Most IQ tests consist of two broad parts: a subtest which tests verbal skills such as vocabulary and general knowledge and a performance subtest which tests visual, motor and spatial skills.
IQ tests are believed to be unreliable below the age of six years. Between the ages of 6 – 18, test results are fairly reliable but may fluctuate depending on environmental factors such as exposure to languages (especially the language used to test), learning opportunities and family support. The average child may have an IQ score that varies by up to 15 points during the ten years or so of schooling. This is why IQ scores should not be taken too seriously in spite of its importance as a predictor of later scholastic success.
What IQ tests can’t measure
IQ tests can’t determine success in life. Success depends on a combination of intelligence, social skills, endurance and even a healthy dose of chance or opportunity. An IQ represents only the chances of a child’s achieving in the academic sphere. It cannot predict or substitute for attitude, motivation and interest. In addition, it can’t test for specific talents such as musical or artistic potential, physical prowess, creative thinking, leadership and social skills.
In short, it can be used as a helpful tool in understanding more about a child’s academic potential but falls far short in defining the essential nature of the child. We are all far, far more and less than our IQ scores may suggest!
If a child has learning difficulties, an IQ score will almost certainly be required. The results cannot, however, fully explain the reasons for the challenges he or she experiences at school.
We’re well into the first term of school. How is your Grade R or Grade 1 learner coping? At the end of last year, did an assessment conclude that he or she was school ready but now you’re seeing signs that not all is well?
Let’s consider wht might be going on.
A broad definition of school readiness describes it as meaning each child enters school ready to engage in and benefit from early learning experiences that best promote the child’s success. This means that the child should have developed adequately. Inherent in this definition is the understanding that the child is also learning ready, meaning that the brain has developed to a point of supporting a child’s ability to learn educational materials.
Development areas relevant for school success are:
- Health and physical well-being.Apart from health through eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of rest and receiving adequate medical care, a child should be able to do all the activities that help develop large muscles and provide exercise (running, jumping, climbing etc.), and activities that help develop small muscles (using pencils, crayons, scissors, etc.). A child can look healthy and engage in physical activities but if there is delay in competence in these areas, they may be experiencing a delay in brain development.
- Emotional and social preparation.This includes the ability to follow directions, be able to communicate needs and wants, be motivated to learn, explore and try new things as well as being able to separate from parents and form relationships with other children, and to be able to listen and focus. Any hiccups here are again possible signs of lagging areas of brain development.
- Language, maths and general knowledge.Children should recognise and say simple rhymes, be willing and able to learn to write, count, identify shapes and colours, listen and remember stories, understand simple concepts of time, sort and classify objects. Clearly being delayed in these growing abilities will make school more challenging than it should be.
If a learner is showing any signs of difficulties in these key areas, it might be wise to consider an evaluation to determine learning readiness. Without development of the brain networks needed to acquire the skills associated with learning, a child may be handicapped and face a barrier to learning.
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. There is a lot of overlap between consciousness (i.e. being awake), paying 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 Rateythe 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!