Our children are young, so we expect them to be irresponsible, to need our advice and supervision. We don’t expect them to be able to independently plan to meet their goals, do their homework, safely cross the road or to take on complex tasks while still very young. Why not? What is it about childhood that prevents them from these responsible behaviours?
It’s all about brain development, of course. Tasks that require wise decision making, organising, planning, managing time, thinking before you act and avoiding impulsivity are part of the functions of the front part of the brain – called the prefrontal cortex. This happens to be the very last part of the brain to develop completely – at around age 25 years. This is why adolescence can be a difficult and dangerous age. Young people have so much knowledge, skills and ability yet don’t have the brain development needed to always supervise their own actions in a wise, responsible way. We call the functions performed by this part of the brain Executive Functions. The prefrontal cortex is literally the boss of the brain.
Most children gradually develop this brain area but some may be slower in some areas than others. They may struggle with completing tasks, remembering what homework has been set, being able to stay on task, recalling important detail, and controlling strong emotions. All of us tend to develop unevenly – with some aspects streaking ahead but others lagging behind. This is normal and not necessarily a sign of a serious problem. It is also normal for such a child to need support while waiting for a very natural progression of brain development.
There are ways to help. Leaving such children alone may prevent them from reaching their potential and labelling slower development negatively may impair the very development they need. Supporting them in positive ways can help them over obstacles.
A useful website to visit for clear explanation of executive functions, help that works and ways that could worsen the situation is written by Seth Perler. The website (Google Seth Perler.com) is available and contains a wealth of information about Executive Functioning and helping to coach children through challenges. You might find the information valuable.
In last week’s post I wrote about the potential dangers to children’s developing brains of air pollution and listed the towns in South Africa with the highest levels of measured pollution.
Most of us lack the freedom to live and work according to our choice. More often we find ourselves in towns and cities because of the nature of our work and the availability of jobs. If we are forced to stay in an area said to be heavily air polluted, are there ways of reducing the risk that pollution carries to our family’s health – especially our vulnerable children?
Here are some suggestions:
First and foremost, you need to become an activist in supporting efforts to improve our air quality because you won’t be able to change the situation by yourself.
Improving air quality means replacing fossil fuel combustion (i.e. burning fuel, such as coal, wood and so on) with cleaner sources of energy, including solar and wind. Support organisations fighting for this. On a note closer to home, be careful of fires (heating or braai) that are used in areas not well ventilated. Our increasing use of indoor braai rooms may add to the poor quality of air in our homes.
Green areas, such as parks and trees within towns and cities can improve air quality, so encourage your local municipality to develop green belts and recreation spots. Wherever possible, plant trees and shrubs in your own garden. Our easy-growing plant, the ‘Spekboom’ is a natural supplier of oxygen – every garden should have a few!
Encourage recycling. Waste that is burned in the proximity of living areas releases toxic chemicals that can reach children’s lungs. Although lead in the air has been reduced since its removal from petrol, if car and cell phone batteries are burned, lead can be released into the air. Use the battery disposal units set up in some of our supermarkets.
Try to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution. Wherever possible, avoid travelling at times where roads are congested. If your home or child’s school is in an area of severe pollution, strenuous activity outdoors should be avoided. In spite of the importance of sport and play, exercise in harmful air should be minimal – especially if your child has a medical condition such as asthma or another respiratory ailment. Make sure your child’s school or daycare centre has a well-greened play area with trees and plants.
The quality of air inside school buildings and other community structures can be improved by ventilation and air filtration systems. Mention this at your school and help work towards implementation of such methods.
Other indoor air pollutants should be avoided too. The bad effects of second-hand cigarette smoke on children’s health is well-documented so homes and cars should be smoke-free zones. Other common sources of potentially harmful inhalants include certain cleaning materials. Use products that are manufactured to be harmless to our bodies and brains.
Lastly, but by no means the least important, strive to maintain optimal levels of health in your children. Healthy diets and lifestyles build resistant immune systems and bodies that can help reduce the overall impact of air pollution. The healthier a child is, the less likely that he or she will develop health complications due to the exposure to air pollution. This is partly why Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) continually encourages healthy eating patterns and other tried and tested ways of living that contribute to optimal brain development and function.
When browsing through my library recently, I opened one of the older books on the shelf. Very soon, I was reading with delight some words of wisdom that are as relevant today as they were back in the middle of the last century! I’m talking about the book published by the Gesell Institute, titled Child Behaviour and written by Frances Ilg and Louise Ames, with numerous reprints, in the 19550’s (yes, no typo – it really was written so long ago).
The section I enjoyed dealt with the still common problem experienced by many children today who find it difficult to make shifts. This means that they cannot move easily from one thing to another, or from one behaviour, activity or situation to another. Without help, they simply become stuck.
We all have unique personalities and they may present us with certain problems. Indeed, most people have aspects of personality that they find problematic. A struggle to adapt easily to change is one of these. It isn’t because the child is bad, naughty or difficult. It isn’t a ‘fault’ in the child but simply an aspect of personality. She may be perfectly normal in all respects except for her inability to handle change.
Such children may resist new foods and prefer eating the same thing for every meal. They may find it hard to go to sleep at night, then (after sleeping well) find it difficult to shift back to wakefulness. When playing, they may be able to entertain themselves well for hours but resist shifting from one form of play to another. For example, he may continue to play with lego because he will find it too hard to shift to another toy. Typically, parents of such children find it hard to encourage them to leave their play to come to supper, visit a relative, go shopping, or anything else.
In relationships with others, this personality trait may cause such children to be fine with one person at a time, but find it hard to shift from one person to another. For example, from mother to nursery school teacher. They will find it hard to leave a parent when it is time for school – and then find it hard to leave school to go home with the parent.
How do we help such children? Certainly we can’t scold or punish them when they resist change. They truly need help from their parents whenever there is a transition to be made. Sometimes it helps to provide the changes which she needs and can’t manage herself. An example would be to have the child go find her mother in the playground rather than being met in the classroom, or having a new pair of pyjamas to put on in order to break the bedtime ritual that has become such a struggle.
Of course, some children show reluctance to change in very particular situations and something else may be found to underlie their behaviour. There are many possible reasons for what can be seen as Separation Anxiety, or fear of change due to a traumatic event. What is discussed here is different – we’re describing children who are born with this aspect of personality.
If a child has a personality that resists change in general then it is likely that she will keep that personality trait throughout her life. Accept that there is nothing you have done to cause this, and nothing you can do to change it. You can help her understand herself and provide the kind of situation that makes her feel most comfortable and able to cope with change. But don’t try to change her or make her feel guilty. Individuality is inborn.
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) is forever searching for ways of helping children cope better with problems associated with development, neurodevelopment and learning. Visit our website www.ilt.co.za to learn more about our approach and find practitioners near you to offer help. We also offer courses to parents, teachers and other helping professionals to better understand the reasons underlying children’s learning difficulties and puzzling behaviours. The courses are accredited with SACE, ETDP-SETA and HPCSA.
You are welcome to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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