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Why food matters

Too many families continue to disregard the guidelines to healthy eating, considering them to be from those on the fringe, or tree-hugging fanatics.  They consider all the contents of supermarket food isles as being appropriate foods for growing children – and feel that denying children the foods they prefer is unfair.

Yet the evidence is clear, and those of us who work with young learners have proved over and over again that children who struggle at school improve when their diets are altered.

We know that children need appropriate foods to support their growth and development – but there is a huge body of research showing conclusively that what children eat also affects their mood and learning.  A truly healthy diet can enhance concentration and memory, improve moods, moderate behaviours, increase energy and generally lead to improved academic performance.

All children deserve the opportunity to be successful, happy, healthy and resilient. 

Providing and promoting healthy foods is a first step towards this goal.

A healthy diet means that families should be eating plenty of nutritious, minimally processed foods from the five food groups:

  • fruit
  • vegetables and legumes/beans
  • whole grains (no refined flours, or cereal products)
  • lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds
  • milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives

Foods and drinks to avoid are those that are nutritionally poor, like sweets, chips, fried foods, white flours, baked goods and processed meats.   These have been linked to emotional and behavioural problems in children and adolescents.

What have schools to do with this?

Schools can play a key role in influencing healthy eating habits by enforcing healthy choices being available in tuck shops and giving clear guidelines as to what learners should have in their school lunch-boxes.  Teachers should also be role models and be seen to drink water often and enjoy wholesome foods themselves. Rewarding children with lollipops or other sweets should not happen either.

In short, homes and schools should work together to encourage healthier eating habits. Childhood and adolescence is a key time to build lifelong habits and learn how to enjoy healthy eating.



Myths about school readiness

With acknowledgements to content from Premier Academy (see

When kiddies enter Grade 0 and Grade 1, the words ‘School Readiness’ begin to be heard.  Preschool teachers are focused on helping the child achieve a level of readiness that will make it easy for them to adjust to formal schooling from Grade 1.  Being school ready actually begins far earlier – and we know that the first few years of life are crucial to brain development. Ultimately it is the network of brain neurons that will ensure a child’s Learning Readiness, which is necessary for coping at school.  The communication between different parts of the brain that is made possible by the neural network provides the foundation for adequate development of language, reasoning, problem solving, social skills, appropriate behaviours and emotional intelligence.  These areas will ultimately affect a child’s school performance.

Because the schools are focused on academics, it is not surprising that many families believe that a child who is well tutored in academic areas will cope well in school. For this reason, many preschools drill the basics of reading and numeracy.

Premier Academy (see their website above) report that in a recent study, primary school teachers emphasised their belief that children should enter their first years of school with an ability to comprehend broader language and math concepts, as well as to be prepared for the social and emotional demands of school. In fact, 96% of teachers surveyed indicated they believe that social and emotional preparedness are the most important outcomes of a child’s preschool experience in order for them to be poised for academic success in the elementary years.

  • Teachers agree that key indicators of the children’s social and emotional readiness for kindergarten and first grade are readiness to accept new responsibilities and greater independence; a strong enthusiasm for learning; an ability to make new friends; and the ability to respect others.
  • 96% believe the child’s pre-K experience played a critical role in the child’s preparedness for school.

Common Myths about What School Readiness Means for Your Child

Children who have enjoyed a healthy infancy and early childhood and who come from homes where adults read, spend engaged time with their children, value literacy, and/or have some social interactions with other children in child care, playdates or groups, or preschool are usually well prepared for kindergarten.

But there are some common myths of which to be aware.

  • Myth #1 – Learning the ABCs is crucial to school readiness.
    The Truth: While important, learning the ABCs is a memorisation skill. It’s more important that children recognize letters and identify their sounds to prepare for school.
  • Myth #2 – Children need to count to 50 before going to grade school.
    The Truth: Again while it is important that children understand the order of numbers, when it comes to school readiness, it is far more important to understand the idea of 1-to-1 correspondence (each number counted corresponds to an object, person, etc.) and understanding quantity.
  • Myth #3 – The more teacher-directed the learning, the better.
    The Truth: Children internalise concepts more fully when they are actively engaged in exploration and learning versus being told by someone else. Teachers should be there to guide learning.
  • Myth #4 – The more a programme looks like the school we remember as a child the more children will learn.
    The Truth: Young child learn best in an environment that allows them to make choices; to select their own materials for at least part of the day; and empowers them to try new things with a teacher who guides the learning.
  • Myth #5 – Children need quiet to learn.
    The Truth: Children need a language-rich environment where adults provide responsive language interactions and where vocabulary is regularly introduced.
  • Myth #6 – Learning to write is all about letter formation.
    The Truth: While letter formation is one part, even more important is understanding the idea of recording one’s ideas on paper. When a child makes some scribbles and says “This is my daddy,” write your child’s words on the picture and she will begin to make connections between spoken and written words.

Learning some “school skills” like lining up and raising hands before transitioning to school will certainly help make the transition to formal schooling easier; however, the best way to prepare your children to enter school is giving them the chance to fully explore and experiment in an environment with caring adults who guide, support, and extend their learning.



Why children – including boys – benefit from playing with dolls

A study done by neuroscience researchers from Cardiff University explored the impact that playing with dolls has on children.  Over a period of 18 months they monitored the brain activity of 33 children, aged between four and eight, as they played with dolls.

The study, conducted with Mattel, the makers of Barbie, is the first time neuroimaging data has been used to highlight how the brain is activated during natural doll play. As such, the researchers say it is a step forward in developmental science’s understanding of this type of play.

In the study the play was split into different sections so the Cardiff team could capture the brain activity relating to each kind of play separately – playing with the dolls on their own; playing with the dolls together with another person (a research assistant); playing with the tablet game on their own and playing with the tablet game along with another person (a research assistant).

They found that doll play activated parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when they were playing alone. Furthermore, they saw far less activation of this part of the brain when the children played with tablet computers on their own. The study included both genders and the results were the same for boys and girls.

The findings of the study have been published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Lead author Dr Sarah Gerson, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s Centre for Human Developmental Science, said: “This is a completely new finding. (It) shows that playing with dolls is helping them rehearse some of the social skills they will need in later life. Because this brain region has been shown to play a similar role in supporting empathy and social processing across six continents, these findings are likely to be country agnostic.”

“We use this area of the brain when we think about other people, especially when we think about another person’s thoughts or feelings,” said Dr Gerson. “Dolls encourage them to create their own little imaginary worlds, as opposed to say, problem-solving or building games. They encourage children to think about other people and how they might interact with each other.”

They found that doll play activated parts of the brain that allow children to develop empathy and social information processing skills, even when they were playing alone. Image is credited to Cardiff University.

The dolls used included a diverse range of Barbies and sets. Tablet play was carried out using games that allow children to engage with open and creative play (rather than a rule or goal-based games) to provide a similar play experience to doll play.

The study found that when children played alone with dolls, they showed the same levels of activation of the pSTS as they do when playing with others. When the children were left to play tablet games on their own there was far less activation of the pSTS, even though the games involved a considerable creative element.

The researchers say the study is the first step towards understanding the impact of doll play and further work is required to build on these initial findings. Dr Gerson and the Cardiff University team, along with Mattel, have committed to further neuroscience studies in 2021.


A hidden sense

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.


The possible role of sugar in ADHD-type behaviours

Over the past couple of decades, Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) has closely followed research on the possible role sugar plays in ADHD-type behaviours.  The findings over the years began to convince us that sugar is not a huge no-no as far as children is concerned.  While an overdose of sugary foods, typically due to a birthday party, might cause a child to become overactive and emotional, sugar was not seen as THE cause of continual challenging behaviours.

Now a new study has been released showing that high intake of sugar may, after all, be part of the causes of several disorders with behaviour symptoms.

The research, out today from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and published in Evolution and Human Behavior, shows evidence that fructose, a component of sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and uric acid (derived from fructose) increases the risk of challenging behaviours.

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.

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 behaviour 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. Excessive intake of fructose is due to the high amounts of refined sugars and high fructose corn syrup in the Western diet.

Johnson notes, “We do not blame aggressive behavior on sugar, but rather note that it may be one contributor.”

The full title of the publication is “Fructose and uric acid as drivers of a hyperactive foraging response: A clue to behavioral disorders associated with impulsivity or mania?” by Richard J. Johnson, William L. Wilson, Sondra T. Bland, Miguel A. Lanaspa.  Published in ‘Evolution and Human Behavior’.

What books are best for a growing vocabulary?

In summary, less is more when it comes to helping young children learn new vocabulary.

Most books today are flooded with colourful pictures. The reason for this is to entice adults to buy the books.  However, a recent study by psychologists at the University of Sussex shows that having more than one illustration per page results in poorer word learning among pre-schoolers.

The findings, published in Infant and Child Development, present a simple solution to parents and nursery teachers for some of the challenges of pre-school education and could help in the development of learning materials for young children.

Researcher Zoe Flack said: “Luckily, children like hearing stories, and adults like reading them to children. But children who are too young to read themselves don’t know where to look because they are not following the text. This has a dramatic impact on how well they learn new words from stories.”

The researchers read storybooks to three-year-olds with one illustration at a time (the right-hand page was illustrated, the left-hand page was blank) or with two illustrations at a time (both pages had illustrations), with illustrations introducing the child to new objects that were named on the page.

They found that children who were read stories with only one illustration at a time learned twice as many words as children who were read stories with two or more illustrations.

In a follow-up experiment, researchers added a simple hand swipe gesture to guide the children to look at the correct illustration before the page was read to them. They found this gesture was effective in helping children to learn words when they saw two illustrations across the page.

Zoe, who has written a blog post about the research, said: “This suggests that simply guiding children’s attention to the correct page helps them focus on the right illustrations, and this in turn might help them concentrate on the new words.

“Our findings fit well with Cognitive Load Theory, which suggests that learning rates are affected by how complicated a task is. In this case, by giving children less information at once, or guiding them to the correct information, we can help children learn more words.”

Co-author Dr Jessica Horst, said: “Other studies have shown that adding ‘bells and whistles’ to storybooks like flaps to lift and anthropomorphic animals decreases learning. But this is the first study to examine how decreasing the number of illustrations increases children’s word learning from storybooks.”

She added: “This study also has important implications for the e-Book industry. Studies on the usefulness of teaching vocabulary from e-Books are mixed, but our study suggests one explanation is that many studies with e-Books are only presenting one illustration at a time.”

The study is one of many being carried out at Sussex in The WORD Lab, a research group that focuses on how children learn and acquire language. Previous research has shown children learn more words from hearing the same stories repeated and from hearing stories at nap time.


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