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The key to school success

You will all have heard of people who are famous for their ability to play chess very well.  One of these is Garry Kasparov.  He is a Russian, a former chess grandmaster and a world chess champion who earned the rating of world Number 1 at the age of 20 years.  Many consider him to be the greatest chess player of all time.  He is also a writer and political activist.

Most of us will be impressed by this achievement and we will almost automatically assume that such ability at a challenging game takes really high intelligence.  Do you think that chess masters must have very high IQ’s?

In his introduction to a presentation of the importance of teaching learning strategies to young learners, Albert Ziegler, a prominent researcher in the education field, posed this question to his audience. The answer was that they don’t all score high on intelligence tests. Research found that the average IQ score of a large group of international chess players was 95, placing them in a very average range.

So what does this seeming contradiction tell us?

Kasparov provides an answer.  Although his IQ is 122 and much higher than the average of the chess players, this score still doesn’t place him in the highest category of intelligence.  In addition, he showed limited ability to produce creative ideas.  He and a group of High School learners were asked to quickly list as many unusual uses for a brick. Kasparov blanked out and could produce only 3 – far fewer than the group of kids 

But when asked to memorise a list of 29 words from different languages (none of them familiar to Kasparov) in a veryshort time, he managed to correctly recall the meanings of 27½.  This was a mind-blowing result and was due to his knowing strategies of memorization. 

The lesson here is that knowing how to learn and having strategies to help master various learning tasks is a better prediction of success than IQ.

In the following post, I’ll be sharing some more information about learning strategies – which learners need to be taught in order to succeed in school.


Learning strategies – key points to teach




The information in this post comes from Albert Ziegler, an internationally accredited researcher based in Germany. I share it with you in the hopes that our South African teachers may benefit from the knowledge and pass it on to their learners. 

Young learners can’t be expected to know how to learn by themselves.  The teaching approach in many of our schools still results in children trying to memorise content – without true understanding or critical judgement of the material.

Mastering a cognitive learning strategy is valuable for most learners. This might involve the steps of (1) Rehearsal, by repeating learning material; (2) Organisation of the material by restructuring the content in a form that is easier to memorise, and (3) Elaboration, or integrating the new knowledge into existing learning structures. Examples of this would be thinking through new material and evaluating it, or using own words and being able to teach it to others.

But research shows that teaching only cognitive strategies results in a limited effect on academic achievement.  When metacognitive strategies are taught as well, the effect is much more positive.

Metacognitive strategies include the steps of (1) Planning – learning how to set goals, knowing what resources to use; (2) Monitoring – involving continuous assessment of own learning, and (3) Evaluation, which requires analysis of one’s own performance and the effectiveness of the learning method used.

Using metacognitive strategies requires the early teaching of skills, one of which is called ‘self-regulated behaviour.’

Self-regulated behaviour

Self-regulation includes being able to reflect about your own learning, to understand your strengths, weaknesses and as a result, be able to set your own realistic goals. This may be as important as acquiring new content knowledge and some of you may be surprised that children in Grades 2 or 3 are already capable of learning how to do this. It certainly is a critical learning strategy that can stand them in good stead throughout their school years and beyond.

To my mind, these aspects of learning are as critical, if not more, than the content of the current curriculum. It is truly much more important to teach children how to learn rather than spending too much of their time learning what to learn.







Be aware of air


There is a lot in the news about greenhouse gases and their effect on climate change. There is also a lot written about the the appalling air pollution in Asia, which is the reason for many Asian’s habit of wearing face masks in an attempt to protect themselves.  But what is the position in South Africa – and why should we be concerned for our children?


Young children are particularly vulnerable to air quality because they are smaller than adults. With every breath, they take in more air per unit of adult weight than adults. This means that if air contains toxins, they will be breathing in proportionately more toxic air than adults do.  This is why air pollution is associated with childhood diseases such as pneumonia, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory conditions.  These can be debilitating, resulting in children missing school and possibly causing long-lasting damage to their health and well-being.


But there are also implications for children’s developing brains. We are told that the first 1 000 days of life are crucial to a child’s future. This is the period when the brain undergoes the most critical and rapid growth – and the neurons (brain cells) and neural connections formed during this stage of brain development provide the foundation for all future, healthy brain structure and function.  In other words, this period is crucial for children’s ability to later learn and fulfill their potential in life.


Air pollution can affect children’s brains by several mechanisms.   Firstly, certain pollutants can break down the blood-brain barrier, which is a delicate membrane protecting the brain from toxic substances.  Once this barrier is breached, toxins may enter and damage the brain.  Secondly, very tiny air pollution particles can enter the body through the olfactory nerve and the gut.  One of these is Magnetite, which is common in urban outdoor pollution and is highly toxic to the brain.  Thirdly, some forms of pollutants formed from fossil fuel combustion can contribute to damage of brain cells that are needed to help neurons communicate throughout the brain.  These connections are vital for learning.

Where do you live?

In 2016, the South African authorities that track air pollution updated the regions of our country that have the most polluted air.  Not surprising, densely populated cities are on this list but other smaller areas also make the list due to mining operations in their proximity.  You might be surprised that the area in the top spot is Hartebeespoort. The reason for this is its location. It is close to both Johannesburg and Pretoria, as well as several mining operations. Overall, (according to the latest report) it ranks 162nd as the most air-polluted area in the world.

Here are the most air-polluted areas in our country:

  1. Hartebeespoort
  2. Tshwane
  3. Johannesburg
  4. Vereeniging
  5. Sebokeng
  6. Mpumalanga
  7. Zamdela 
  8. Secunda
  9. Dieploof
  10. Waterberg
  11. Witbank
  12. Ermelo
  13. Cape Town
  14. Durban
  15. Middelburg

So, what to do if you live in one of these areas?  There are some things that you can try, which is what I’ll write about in the next post.


The boss in your child’s brain

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 is available and contains a wealth of information about Executive Functioning and helping to coach children through challenges.  You might find the information valuable.


Be aware of air – Part 2



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.


My child can’t handle change – Why?


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 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.


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