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Movement while learning really helps! More proof.

 

This article appeared recently and serves to support the growing belief in the role of movement in helping learning.  It appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Students who take part in physical exercises like star jumps or running on the spot during school lessons do better in tests than peers who stick to sedentary learning.

The meta-analysis of 42 studies around the world, aimed to assess the benefits of incorporating physical activity in academic lessons. This approach has been adopted by schools seeking to increase activity levelsamong students without reducing academic teaching time.

Typical activities include using movement to signify whether a fact is true or false, or jumping on the spot a certain number of times to answer a maths question.

The study concluded that incorporating physical activity had a large, significant effect on educational outcomes during the lesson, assessed through tests or by observing pupils’ attention to a given task, and a smaller effect on overall educational outcomes, as well as increasing the students’ overall levels of physical activity.

Lead author Dr. Emma Norris (UCL Centre for Behaviour Change, UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) said: “Physical activity is good for children’s health, and the biggest contributor of sedentary time in children’s lives is the seven or eight hours a day they spend in classrooms.

“Our study shows that physically active lessons are a useful addition to the curriculum. They can create a memorable learning experience, helping children to learn more effectively.”

Co-author Dr. Tommy van Steen (Leiden University, The Netherlands), added: “These improvements in physical activity levels and educational outcomes are the result of quite basic physical exercises. Teachers can easily incorporate these physical active lessons in the existing curriculum to improve the learning experience of students.”

Researchers looked at data from 12,663 students aged between three and 14. Nearly half of the studies took place in the United States, with seven conducted in Australia, five in the UK, four in the Netherlands and one in China, Croatia, Ireland, Israel, Portugal and Sweden.

In one of the 42 studies analysed, eight- and nine-year-olds simulated travelling the world by running on the spot in between answering questions relating to different countries. The research team, also led by Dr. Norris at UCL, concluded that the children were more active and more focused on the task than peers in a control group, following teachers’ instructions more closely.

In another study in the Netherlands, primary school children who took part in physically active lessons three times a week over two years made significantly better progress in spelling and mathematics than their peers—equating to four months of extra learning gains.

Why fidgeting might be good for children

 

 

Parents and teachers tend to frown at children who fidget in our homes and classrooms.  It is usually interpreted as  a sign of boredom or lack of attention and so we order children to sit still.  But now, a recent report in Medical Express (medicalexpress.com/news/2019-09-fidgeting-good-child-health.html)) suggests that fidgeting could actually be good for their health. Research suggests it might help protect against obesity, improve cardiovascular health, and even save lives.

Researchers from Australian universities measured the energy expenditure of 40 children aged four to six while each spent an hour in a room designed to calculate energy through the amount of oxygen breathed in and carbon dioxide breathed out.

The children all followed the same procedure for the hour: 30 minutes watching TV, ten minutes drawing or colouring in, and 20 minutes playing with toys on the floor. The number of times children changed posture was counted and taken as our measure of fidgeting.

The fidgeting that was witnessed varied enormously, despite all of the children following the standard set of activities. There were 53 posture changes per hour in the most fidgety third of the sample, and only 11 per hour in the least fidgety third. These differences directly affected the number of calories burned.

The difference between most and least fidgety groups was only around six calories per hour. But when extrapolated over months and years, this could lead to large differences in energy use.

After all, children of that age typically spend around nine to ten hours per day sitting down, so a six calorie difference per hour of sitting would become a difference of 60 calories per day, 420 calories per week (about three bags of crisps), and 22,000 calories per year (equivalent to about 2kg of body weight in a 20kg child).

They also found that children were much less fidgety while watching TV than when drawing, colouring, or playing with toys on the floor. This may partly explain why time spent watching TV increases the risk of obesity so strongly in children of this age compared to other sedentary activities.

Meanwhile, an older study found that more fidgety adults resisted weight gain when overfed compared to less fidgety individuals. Taken together, this evidence suggests that differences in the tendency to fidget might partly explain why some people are more susceptible to obesity than others.

It is now well established that prolonged periods of sitting are harmful to health, and it is possible that fidgeting might reduce the harms of sitting. A study of more than 12,000 adult women in the UK found, as expected, that the amount of time spent sitting per day predicted the risk of premature death over the subsequent 12 years.

At the start of the study the women had been asked to self-rate their tendency to fidget on a scale of one (no fidgeting) to ten (constant fidgeting). In the most fidgety third, the risks of premature death from sitting were substantially reduced compared to the least fidgety third.

Why fidgeting seemed to reduce premature mortality was not explored in that study. However, a more recent laboratory-based study in adultsfound that the harmful effects of prolonged sitting on blood vessels in the legs (such as reduced blood flow) could be mitigated by asking the study participants to fidget by moving their legs while sitting. Fidgety individuals may have some protection from cardiovascular diseasecompared to less fidgety individuals

Fidgeting is not considered as being important to health at the moment, but the growing body of research suggests that it should be. The evidence might even lead to new (and much needed) approaches to preventing obesity and promoting cardiovascular health.

Such approaches might be particularly practical as they involve fairly small changes in how we live. Fidgeting or standing breaks during long periods of sitting in the classroom, or at home, far from being an annoying habit, could be precisely what we need.

Children can’t pay attention? Get them moving!

 

 

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 Ratey[1]the 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!

 

[1]Dr John Ratey, author of ‘Spark – The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain’

What is the best treatment for attention problems?

 

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[1].  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!

 

[1][1][1] Shirley Randolph, Tree of Learning Centre, Boise, Idaho

The wonderful body-brain connection

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

What do food labels mean?

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.

Listing ingredients

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.

E-numbers

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

E230    Biphenyl

E231    2-Hydroxybiphenyl

E232    Sodium biphenyl-2-yl oxide

E233    2-(Thiazol-4-yl) benzimidazole

E239    Hexamine

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:

E102    Tartrazine

E104    Quinoline Yellow

E107    Yellow 2G

E110    Sunset Yellow

E120    Cochineal

E122    Carmoisine

E123    Amaranth

E124    Ponceau 4R

E127    Erthrosine

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.

 

 

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