So many parents are being told that their children have concentration problems, can’t focus or show limited attention span. Along with these descriptors, they hear that their child daydreams, fails to complete tasks, loses things, fidgets excessively and so on.
Seeking medical help usually results in a prescription for a stimulant drug, such as Ritalin, Concerta and Strattera. We do know that behaviour can be changed using certain drugs. On Ritalin, for example, children are better able to pay attention, stay on task and sit still but the results are temporary; only with repeated dosages and sustained-release tablets will the benefits last all day. Increasing the dosage over time brings risk of potential side effects even if these don’t show immediately and prolonged use should be discouraged because of uncertainty about long-term effects. In addition, the drugs don’t address the basic problem. They may make children easier to manage but don’t make them smarter or happier. Children don’t learn any better when on medication – in fact, their work may show a lack of thought and originality. They help the children get through the day in a mechanistic way but don’t make them better prepared for tomorrow. Unfortunately, the drugs are often used alone, with no on-going programme to help the child in other ways. In short, they may be the quickest and easiest ‘solution’ for children with attention problems but they aren’t the best.
The reason is that drugs don’t affect the underlying problems. Behavioural problems and inattentiveness are symptoms of other problems and the answer isn’t to be found in medication. Let’s have a look at some case studies:
Little Anna was the smallest child in class and came across as being quiet, withdrawn and easily distracted. She stares at other children and plays nervously with her crayons and books. When evaluated for neurodevelopmental delays, she showed that her stress levels were very high. She had some early developing irregularities that interfered with her brain’s ability to cope with the sights and sounds in the world. She was simply overwhelmed by what she perceived as ‘threats’ from her environment. Once these were addressed, her stress levels dropped and she became more responsive.
John never sits still. His constant activity often makes him a nuisance in class and at home. Under investigation, ILT found that due to hitches during his birth and early development, he had mixed dominance, and had failed to develop left-right preference because he hadn’t integrated the two sides of his body. He also hadn’t developed the foundational systems needed for efficient motor functioning and stable posture. As these were addressed, he became better able to keep his body still and use it in developmentally healthy movement activities that he could not master before. This led to his behaviour becoming less annoying, increased ability to make friends and improvements in classroom learning.
Kevin is a daydreamer. He often stares out a window or at the television screen. He is slow to complete his work. He is clumsy and often drops things. He has allergies and is often ill with sinusitis and colds. An ILT evaluation showed that his body didn’t work automatically. He was using his mind to run his body so the brain’s higher levels, supposed to be used in learning and daily coping, were not available for cognitive functioning. It would have been so easy for Kevin to slip through the cracks without achieving his potential. A programme to help underdeveloped brain areas brought about noticeable improvements in his schoolwork and physical coordination.
Little Sam was asked to leave his nursery school because his ‘violent’ behaviour and tantrums became too much to manage. A full neurodevelopmental evaluation by ILT showed no irregularities in development or sensory-motor system functioning. What was suspected was a sensitivity to food colourants and preservatives. On a trial basis following this suspicion, Sam’s family excluded any foods containing these additives and Sam almost immediately became calmer, eventually returning to his school as a happy, friendly little boy.
So drugs aren’t the answer to behavioural problems or inattentiveness. Instead, these children need a comprehensive evaluation followed by an individualized programme that corrects identified areas of irregular functioning.
Interestingly, an ILT associate ran a programme with a group of over 50 children, all diagnosed with ADHD. They were given daily certain sensory-motor stimulation and other movement activities designed to recreate the movement patterns that function to develop the brain in the early years. About half these children were on Ritalin when they started the programme. All were taken off Ritalin from three to six months later with no need to be put back on Ritalin or other behaviour-modifying medication. For all children, the results showed the elimination of behaviour problems, better school results and dramatically improved coordination. Social skills improved significantly as well but most importantly, the children were clearly happier.
Correcting behavioural and learning problems isn’t easy. Effective intervention needs a holistic approach that reaches to the problems in the background and provides a supportive, encouraging environment. For this reason, ILT is practiced in the family – no weekly visits to a therapist but ‘quality time’ spent in movements in which one or both parents can be involved. The rewards are immeasurable. There is nothing better than watching a child who begins to feel good from the inside out!
 Shirley Randolph, Tree of Learning Centre, Boise, Idaho
Most people still believe that learning happens in the brain and the body doesn’t play a role. See how teachers insist that children sit still without any fidgeting with any part of the body when in the classroom.
In the past, children could make up for this body neglect by using their bodies in all kinds of activities after school hours. They used to climb, run, tumble, dig, fall into ditches and fall out of trees. The change isn’t all due to TV and screen time but also because today’s families live in small homes without access to open play areas. Long hours are spent in commuting to and from school. The streets have become dangerous places. It’s been estimated that children are spending 25% less time on free play than they did in their grandparents’ time.
The reality is that the brain needs the body’s movement in order to create the neural pathways that make ease of learning possible. You can’t make a child learning ready with workbooks, i-pad games or computer programmes. It develops as children’s brains mature along with experiences occurring as a result of bodily sensation and movement.
Important movements are the early reflexes, followed by large body movements such as climbing, jumping, swimming, playing hopscotch, catching and throwing balls, riding bicycles, running, skipping, sweeping and digging. Smaller body movements develop fine motor skills, such as cutting vegetables, drawing, building with blocks, moving to music and learning rhythm through clapping, singing and so on. Movements that need crossing the midline help build the pathways connecting the two brain hemispheres and are crucial for learning to read, write and understand maths.
Children love to move; they need to move. If their bodies are given the chance needed to move in play, they will develop to a stage of learning readiness. Perhaps not all of them will reach this stage at exactly the same time but we do have the genetic potential to be wired to learn.
So limit sedentary time. Push your children out of doors. Make sure you spend quality time in play parks or open spaces over the weekends. Buy body healthy toys like trampolines, skipping ropes and balance boards rather than the latest hi-tech toy. Go back to basics if you really want your child to reach his or her potential at school.
If you feel confused about what you should be reading and believing on food labels, you aren’t alone! Integrated Learning Therapy practitioners focus on young people so let’s see if we can offer some guidelines to steer you in the right direction regarding your children.
First of all, it is necessary to realise that labels are there for two main reasons. They tell us the name of the food or drink that we are looking at, what ingredients it is made of, its weight and where it comes from. They also are designed to tempt us into buying the product. It is their job to look attractive – hence they are colourful, have appealing pictures (aimed at the children) and try to highlight the nutritional and health credentials of the content (aimed at parents). Unfortunately, we can’t always believe the hype on the packaging. We simply have to be prepared to spend a few moments reading the label.
Ingredients are listed in their weight-descending order at the time the product is being prepared. This means that the first item on the list will be present in the largest quantity, and so on. When a product uses a variety of ingredients, such as herbs, but all in roughly the same quantity, then they can appear in any order.
Recently a friend bought a packet of Tasty Brown Onion – a 2-in-1 stew mix. The ingredients were listed as follows: Wheat flour, maize flour, salt, flavour enhancers (monosodium glutamate, E631, E627), flavouring, caramel colourant (E150c), radurised herbs, potassium chloride, sugar, vegetable oil (palm fruit, TBHQ). The nutritional information noted that, amongst other things, it contained minimal sugar but 378 mg of sodium (salt) per serving.
What do we make of this? There aren’t any onions in it, surprisingly! Seems like it contains only flour, flavourants, colourants and little more. Not very helpful, but the quantity of salt needs further examination.
Children’s recommended salt intake
As adults, we shouldn’t be having more than 6 grams (6 g) of salt per day (roughly one slightly rounded teaspoon). Children’s salt intake depends on their age, as shown below:
Children up to 6 months 1 g 1/5 teaspoon
7-12 months 1 g 1/5 teaspoon
1-3 years 2 g 2/5 teaspoon
4-6 years 3 g 3/5 teaspoon
7-10 years 5 g 1 teaspoon
The salt content of the stew mix is 378 mg, which is about 38% of 1 gram. This might sound well below the daily recommended amount for older children but because it is a ‘hidden’ ingredient in the dish being prepared, it would add considerably to the actual salt intake of a child over a day’s meals and snacks. As a general rule of thumb, the amount of salt (sodium) in any processed product would be considered low (i.e. a little) if less than 40 mg of sodium per 100 g of the product.
Some breakfast cereals, claiming to be lower in sugar, are very high in salt. This is done to improve the flavour of the food but doesn’t add to the health value. It’s quite common that children could be eating 30-40 percentage of the recommended daily amount of salt in a 30 g helping of cereal.
The presence of so many additives in the form of flavourants and colourants is also a red flag. Flavour enhancers do what they say – they perk up the taste in some foods. There are over 4 000 flavouring agents used in food, some of which are natural flavourings make some that are totally created by chemists and are not found anywhere in nature.
With the exception of flavourants, other additives carry an E number. The idea of the E number is to identify which have been declared ‘harmless’ by the European Union. However, if evidence mounts up to indicate that the additive might not be innocent, it can have its E number removed.
While many of us can consume many additives, some children prove to be more vulnerable to them. Here’s a list of preservatives that are best avoided if you are buying food or drinks for your children (or, of course, for yourself), particularly if they have any health issues, including learning difficulties:
E210 Benzoic acid
E211 Sodium benzoate
E211 Potassium benzoate
E213 Calcium benzoate
E214 Ethyl 4-hydroxybenzoate
E215 Ethyl 4-hydroxybenzoate sodium salt
E216 Propyl 4-hydroxybenzoate
E217 Propyl 4-hydroxybenzoate sodium salt
E218 Methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate
E219 Methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate sodium salt
E220 Sulphur dioxide
E221 Sodium dioxide
E222 Sodium hydrogen sulphite
E223 Sodium metabisulphite
E224 Potassium metabisulphite
E226 Calcium sulphite
E227 Calcium hydrogen sulphite
E232 Sodium biphenyl-2-yl oxide
E233 2-(Thiazol-4-yl) benzimidazole
E249 Potassium nitrate
E250 Sodium nitrate
E251 Sodium nitrate
E252 Potassium nitrate
And here’s a list of colourants that have been banned in many countries:
E104 Quinoline Yellow
E107 Yellow 2G
E110 Sunset Yellow
E124 Ponceau 4R
E128 Red 2G
E129 Allura Red
E131 Patent Blue V
E132 Indigo Carmine
E133 Brilliant Blue FCF
E142 Green S
E151 Black PN
E154 Brown FK
E154 Brown HT
Its really hard these days to avoid foods and drinks containing additives but it is possible to minimize intakes.
Minimising food additives
The easiest way to do this is to reduce the amount of processed foods that your family eats by going back to ‘traditional’ eating habits. Like your grandparents did, cook meat or fish or other protein source (eggs, cheese) and serve up with plenty of vegetables and fruit. Also cut back on shop-bought cakes and biscuits. It certainly helps to buy free range chickens, grass-fed beef and naturally raised pork. These may carry less of a load of the probiotics and other growth hormones used to boost meat production.
Any change you can make to your family’s diet that reduces the reliance on over-processed food, which by its nature requires lots of additives to give it form, taste, texture, colour and preservative qualities, is a step in the right direction
Isn’t this going overboard?
Are we being ridiculous? That’s an open question but going by the number of children whose symptoms have lessened with dietary changes, I believe that being cautious about food additives is sensible. Regulations for baby foods are very strict. However, after the age of 1 year, the guidelines disappear. The reasons for the levels of salt and additives being restricted in foods for babies is because their liver and kidneys, which have to deal with detoxifying these substances, are immature and simply can’t cope. It is hard to understand why older children are considered to have organs that suddenly can manage higher intakes. Toddlers and older children are exposed to foods and drinks rich in sugar, salt and additives.
So the only way you can ensure that your children are eating healthily is to be aware of how easy it is to shop for foods that may be more harmful than helpful. You simply have to be a ‘label detective’ to avoid the traps modern consumerism lays for you.