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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.


Why do students blank out in tests and exams?


The simple answer to the question posed in the heading to this article is that we blank out when we go into stress mode. Understanding the mechanism responsible for this is important if we want to be able to help a child who experiences this.

It started with the theory of a triune brain, described by John MacLean. This theory may be seen as outdated these days but it has important implications for brain development and patterns of neural firing.

Basically, his theory concerns the development of the brain from bottom up.  The first brain areas (or systems) to develop are the primitive, lower level areas that need to function to ensure our survival.  Their functioning includes regulation of heartbeat, breathing and other vital automatic functions.  Following these very primitive areas are those that regulate our emotions, around the midbrain area. Finally, the more advanced areas, responsible for our higher human functions like attending, decision making, problem-solving and so on, are fully developed at around the age of 25 years.

Because our survival depends on it, the primitive systems in the brain tend to override more advanced (cognitive) functions when needed.  Studies into the effects of distress show that the brain down-regulates the cognitive areas in favour of lower systems, such as brainstem, medulla and other stress-response systems.   To explain this in simpler terms, when we are faced with a threat or danger, we go into stress mode. This activates the sympathetic nervous system that releases stress hormones (cortisol and adrenalin) and effects other physiological changes.  These include the limiting of oxygen sent to higher brain areas and diverting it to the muscles so that we can better fight or flee the danger.  We don’t have to begin problem-solving when faced by an attacking dog; we have to use our muscles to either defend ourselves physically or run away as fast as we can.

And this is what happens in a stressful test or exam situation. The child has learned the work but due to fear of failure or poor performance, goes into stress mode.  Oxygen is shunted away from those higher brain systems holding all the necessary knowledge, stress hormones are released into the body and the child cannot remember anything.  Once the threat of danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system once again overrides the sympathetic and once equilibrium has been achieved, it is common that knowledge seems to flood back. The learner realises that he actually does remember what was required.

How can you help?  Firstly, don’t try to talk the learner out of the situation.  Remember that he is experiencing stress, and can’t access the rational, intellectual areas of his brain.  Instead, helping such learners requires time. They need to learn how to de-stress the brain and reverse the physiological reaction to stress. 

This can be effected through deep, even breathing and progressive relaxation of the muscles of the body.   Shallow, rapid breathing is a symptom of stress, so consciously altering the breathing pattern helps the brain to understand that the danger has passed.  Tension in muscles is another reaction to stress, so being able to quickly relax muscles is another signal to the brain to switch off the sympathetic nervous system response and reduce the effects of stress.

Having the opportunity to practice these techniques at home and at school can better prepare learners for not only the stressful times of testing but also for coping with the stressors that they face in life.  If you feel uncertain about how to go about this, perhaps engaging the help of a professional may be the way to go.  Yoga is an approach that teaches deep breathing and relaxation, so encouraging this discipline may also be helpful.




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.


Why? Why? Why? Those questions are clues to children’s storybook preferences

A study by Frontiers in Psychology

Are you under a deluge of constant ‘why?’ questions from your child or learner? It’s because children have an insatiable appetite to understand why things are the way they are. While researchers have been aware of children’s interest in information, they didn’t know whether it influenced children’s preferences during real-world activities, such as reading.

A new study in Frontiers in Psychology finds that children prefer storybooks containing more  information about why and how things work in the world. The results could help parents and teachers to choose the most engaging books to increase children’s interest in reading, which is important in improving early literacy and language skills.

Children have a burning urge to understand the mechanics of the world around them, and frequently bombard parents and teachers with questions about how and why things work the way they do (sometimes with embarrassing consequences). Researchers have been aware of children’s appetite for causal information for some time. However, no one had previously linked this phenomenon to real-world activities such as reading or learning.

“There has been a lot of research on children’s interest in causality, but these studies almost always take place in a research lab using highly contrived procedures and activities,” explains Margaret Shavlik of Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.

“We wanted to explore how this early interest in causal information might affect everyday activities with young children—such as joint book reading.”

Finding the factors that motivate children to read books is important. Encouraging young children to read more improves their early literacy and language skills and could get them off to a running start with their education. Reading books in the company of a parent or teacher is a great way for children to start reading, and simply choosing the types of book that children most prefer could be an effective way to keep them interested and motivated.

Shavlik and her colleagues hypothesized that children prefer books with more causal information. They set out to investigate whether this was true by conducting a study involving 48 children aged 3-4 years from Austin, Texas. Their study involved an adult volunteer who read two different but carefully matched storybooks to the children, and then asked them about their preferences afterwards.

“We read children two books: one rich with causal information, in this case, about why animals behave and look the way they do, and another one that was minimally causal, instead just describing animals’ features and behaviours,” said Shavlik.

The children appeared to be equally as interested and enthusiastic while reading either type of book. However, when asked which book they preferred they tended to choose the book loaded with causal information, suggesting that the children were influenced by this key difference. “We believe this result may be due to children’s natural desire to learn about how the world works,” explains Shavlik.

So, how could this help parents and teachers in their quest to get children reading? “If children do indeed prefer storybooks with causal explanations, adults might seek out more causally rich books to read with children—which might in turn increase the child’s motivation to read together, making it easier to foster early literacy,” said Shavlik.

The study gives the first indicator that causality could be a key to engaging young minds during routine learning activities. Future studies could investigate if causally-rich content can enhance specific learning outcomes, including literacy, language skills and beyond. After all, learning should be about understanding the world around us, not just memorizing information.

What type of exercise can help ADHD symptoms?

Mary Mountstephen is well known for her work in education. Visit her website to learn about her achievements and the help she offers to children with special needs.  She recently posted the results of a study she did to determine whether exercise can really impact on performance in the classroom and, if so, what type of exercise is more effective? Here is a summary of her findings.

Much of the research to date has focused on aerobic movement programmes. These place emphasis on general health rather than the impact that physical activity may have on the workings of the mind. It seems that there is now growing interest in researching the use of a wider range of movement interventions that combine different types of activities to address specific needs.

Some of these activities include

– Yoga, with links between improved focus and executive functioning. Some research shows that two 60-minute sessions of yoga over a 20-week period brought improvements in ADHD type symptoms.

– Martial arts, which offers a structured approach that requires a combination of cognitive and motor approaches. This helps to increase attention, focus and self-control.

– Floor-based motor programmes, focusing on neurodevelopmental immaturities such as retained primitive reflexes have also shown potential to improve attentiveness and hyperactivity. Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) and Move to Learn are examples of approaches using this type of programme as part of their therapeutic intervention.

Combining aerobic activities with less strenuous movements can produce improvements in cognitive flexibility, working memory and inhibitory control. This is why schools are encouraged to allow children to perform aerobic exercise during the school day for a temporary enhancement of executive functioning, needed to focus, complete tasks and generally learn.  Parents too can use this information. Encourage your child to join a class of yoga or martial arts, do some form of aerobic exercise (skipping is an excellent activity needing a small space outdoors) before homework or study time, and consider help for determining whether a child’s challenges with ADHD-type symptoms may be due to developmental immaturities.


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