Children aren’t born with fully developed personalities. They do show an emerging personality by the age of 4 years and this continues to develop throughout their growing years. At birth, however, they possess the raw material of personality, called a temperament. This will become moulded by their experiences in their families and the larger world (school and friends) into their eventual personality.
Most of us feel that children’s personalities can be shaped by either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parenting. There are studies that show this to be only partly true. Not all children are affected in the same way by good or bad parenting. Some seem to be immune to bad parenting styles and behaviours, while others can be seriously harmed or helped by actions of their parents (or caregivers).
A study by a team at the University of Utrecht, published in Psychology Bulletinin August 2016 and written by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest, looked to see how temperament was affected by parenting style and subsequently influenced personality development.
The idea was to see how ‘bad’ or ‘good’ parenting styles resulted in positive or negative behaviours in children, depending on four different aspects of temperament. The four temperament characteristics were: impulsivity; signs of early conscientiousness; negative emotionality (the tendency to experience predominantly unpleasant emotions – something displayed by AA Milne’s Eeyore character); and a hard to define combination of all three which could be called a ‘difficult temperament’ and shows up in behaviours like screaming in a shopping mall or other inappropriate place.
The study found that the children rated during their infancy with negative emotionality were the most affected by parenting style. These children are most susceptible to bad parenting and can be easily hurt by it. Good parenting, defined by warmth, how much parents made their children feel comfortable, accepted and approved of and loving control (guiding behaviour by helping children think through things and teaching them to behave responsibly rather than autocratic, harsh discipline) helped these children hugely.
Children with negative emotionality who are exposed to bad parenting can internalise behaviours in the form of anxiety, depression and self-harm, or externalise in the form of aggression, delinquency, drug abuse and so on. In contrast, susceptible children exposed to good parenting would externally show empathy, community involvement and positive feelings about other people. Internal effects would be succeeding at school, good language, reasoning, memory and other forms of intellectual development.
The researchers found that impulsivity and effortful control didn’t have much effect on whether children were negatively or positively affected by parenting styles. Interestingly, the negative emotionality that made children most susceptible to hurt by wrathful, neglectful parenting also allowed them to really be helped by kind, consistent parenting. The vulnerability cuts both ways. “The very quality that appears to be a frailty in children may also be their strength, given a supportive parenting context,” the authors write.
This study was based on a relatively small sample size so cannot be taken as absolute fact. It is nevertheless an interesting glimpse into the way in which parenting helps shape personality and certainly carries a valuable message into the best ways of helping children who during their infancy seem to have been born ‘difficult.’
Parents and teachers alike will agree that children who struggle at school usually feel bad about their academic abilities. Most of them will certainly have some emotional problem related to the learning difficulty.
While this is probably considered to be a ‘known fact’ amongst educators, another fact, gleaned from practical experience, is that the priority seems to be on the diagnosis and remediation of the learning difficulty or disability. The need to address the emotional aspects takes a backseat.
The way emotions and learning difficulties or disabilities interact is a complex subject and not always easy to unravel. Essentially, there are some guidelines to keep in mind:
- Emotional distress may be caused by learning difficulties.Learners who fail to thrive at school may suffer from anxiety, depression, loneliness and low self-esteem – especially regarding their academic abilities
- Learning difficulties may aggravate social and emotional functioning.If a child struggles with mental processing that is severe enough to cause a learning problem, they may experience problems in nonacademic areas as well. This typically shows itself in behaviours that don’t conform to the child’s social environment. The result is escalating emotional concerns such as feelings of being misunderstood, sadness and anxiety – all on which may already be present because of the learning problem.
- Emotional issues can disguise a child’s learning disability. This may happen if the child resorts to defiant behaviours such as ‘acting-out,’ distracting behaviours such as being the ‘class clown’ or complaints about physical ailments.Adults’ focus might be on the undesired actions and the learning difficulty could be overlooked.
- Emotional issues may aggravate learning difficulties.Constant failure to succeed at school may lead to stress or feelings of inferiority which can intensify the learning problem. A child who, for example, consistently struggles with certain academic tasks may decrease the child’s ability to pay attention and concentrate on the work.
- On the other hand, a child with learning difficulties who enjoys good emotional health may find it easier to cope with challenges. This can enhance school performance.
This last finding emphasises the importance of ensuring that children with a learning difficulty or disability are well supported emotionally and socially. On the positive side, parents and teachers usually do try to understand the complexities of the interaction between emotional functioning and learning difficulties. Most do try to ensure that the help the child receives is not limited to academic remediation.
Content for this post was based on an article entitled ‘Understanding children’s hearts and minds: Emotional functioning and learning disabilities’ written by Jean Cheng Gormon and available at: www.idonline.org/article/626292/?theme=print.
The field of neuroscience is peppered with information about the strong links between movement and learning. We know through science that early movements are crucial for brain development and recently, more and more studies are appearing to support the view that children need movement to learn efficiently.
In spite of this, schools seem to be determined to limit opportunities for movement, both in classroom settings and in the school time-table. Most teachers are scared to introduce movement breaks into their classrooms for fear of discipline problems and losing control; schools are pushing for even longer times spent sitting at desks engaged in academic tasks. It seems that the fear of poor performances in standardised tests is part of the reason for the ever increasing pressure on children to learn skills through more academic time – including time spent on piles of homework.
South Africa spends a fortune on education. Despite this, the academic performance of our learners lags far behind the rest of the world. The additional time spent on academics at school and at home does not seem to be improving matters.
More importantly, if we deny our learners the chance to engage in movement during the school day and afternoons at home, we are depriving them of a vital and necessary ingredient of childhood. Children love to move; they need to move. Those who cannot sit still are labelled as disruptive, hyperactive or some other popular label. Many young children are presenting with anxiety, developmental delays and depression.
I do not believe that so many of our children are so incapable of learning skills and acquiring knowledge. Those who report to Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners are found to be bright and capable but very often not learning ready. Those children have not had the chance to develop the neural networks needed for efficient learning. The reason may well be because they were and still are deprived of the movement opportunities needed for this to happen.
It is time for pre-school educators to face this challenge and introduce brain-developing movements into their daily programme. ILT has carefully worked out programmes for them to follow – designed because we are passionate about ensuring that our young learners succeed at school. These movements prime the brain for learning.
Two examples of the significance of movement:
It helps to understand the role of the ‘movement centre of the brain’ in learning. The area of brain responsible for coordinated movements is called the cerebellum. This is also known as the ‘little brain’ at the base of the big brain (the cerebral cortex). Although it might look very much smaller, it is incredibly densely packed with brain cells. Nerve cells (neurons) do not all run from the cortex to the cerebellum so that the brain can ‘order’ the cerebellum to move the body around easily. Instead, most of the cerebellar neurons are outbound, meaning that they travel from the cerebellum up to the cortex. In terms of brain function, this means that during learning, information is sent to the cerebellum, where the absorbed information is processed, practiced, timed, rehearsed and corrected before it is sent back to the areas of the cortex that are responsible for the motor response or action. In other words, when we learn a new word, the action is to say or spell the word; when we learn a new maths skill, the action is to perform the skill by solving a maths problem. This shows that the cerebellum is an area crucial to the learning process. All new information passes through the cerebellum before it becomes a learned skill or new piece of knowledge.
Secondly, we need to understand the role of the sensory motor system.
We use our senses to help our brains ‘know’ what is going on in the external world. The media these days publishes many articles about how a child needs good sensory integration in order to be able to pay attention and learn. It is fairly obvious that our senses of sight, hearing, touch and so on have to be functioning well so that we can absorb learning events. But sitting for long periods of time does not stimulate all the senses. Listening to a teacher’s voice might stimulate the auditory system but this is one of the least developed senses in a young child! Compare this to a child who is playing outside. Actions such as swinging, sliding, building sand castles, playing catch, skipping rope and so on, engage multiple sensory motor systems at the same time. These actions are firing neurons that are similarly needed in paying attention – a crucial ability in a classroom.
We need parents and teachers to join forces to encourage a change in all our classrooms and time-tables. Movement needs to be a major focus during the school day – rather than be seen as a misbehaviour.