Look closely at a child’s reading difficulty: It may be a symptom of an underlying problem




When Mat fails to learn to read at grade level, his parents are encouraged to help him with extra reading at home, or refer him for remedial reading.  This often doesn’t help very much and the reason is that reading failure is a symptom that the child has an underlying problem.   His problem may not be the act of learning to read at all.  The struggle to read is a red flag signifying that there is something going on in Mat’s brain that is the real reason for his problem.

 For example, if the two sides of Mat’s brain aren’t communicating properly, the eyes won’t function properly either.  Most people see words with each eye.  If you are reading the words THE CAT your right and left eyes will separately see the words (THE CAT and THE CAT), then send the signals to the brain. The brain, in turn, superimposes the two images into one and you ‘read’ the words: THE CAT.

If Mat’s eyes are not functioning properly, he might look at the two images and see: THE TCAT CAT.  He can’t make sense of this so can’t read it.  He blinks and looks again.  This time he sees: THE CATHE CAT.   Mat decides that he really sucks at reading and must be very stupid!

 It isn’t simply a question of seeing.  An optometrist finds that Mat has perfectly normal vision.  The truth is that efficient reading depends on many skills, not only the health and visual acuity of the eyes.  The problem may be more deep seated – caused by faulty wiring in the brain, that we call ‘neurological disorganization’ or ‘incomplete neurological organisation’.   If the child’s inability to read is the result of incomplete neurological organization, there will be other significant clues.  If his eyes don’t function well together, he will most likely get tired quickly; he may find that certain sports are difficult; most likely his coordination will be poor and he may show awkward movements.

 Many children with learning problems show a lack of coordination stemming from poor neurological organization.  These children are not stupid but merely need help in rewiring the brain networks to bring about organized neural pathways needed for reading, writing and numeracy. ILT practitioners see this day after day.  Once the correct connections have been made in Mat’s brain, he might suddenly take off and develop rapidly in many areas.

 Clues to neurological disorganistion

 Here are some of the signs of a disorganized brain that many children with reading problems (also labelled as dyslexia) show:

 They lack coordination. Running, walking even crawling seem awkward and lack grace and smoothness

  • They have undecided or delayed dominance, meaning that they show uncertain preference for writing, for throwing, stepping on a stool, etc. This lack of a clear dominant side exists way beyond the age of six years, when most children have developed clear dominance.
  • They seem to love music
  • Their handwriting has no consistent slant: their letters seem to have different angles and go in different directions
  • They show signs of visual difficulties – often holding their noses close to the paper when reading or writing
  • Many reverse letters and numbers, mixing up the directions of letters such as ‘b’ and ‘d’. They may read ‘saw’ for ‘was’ or write numbers backwards
  • Most are poor spellers who may be drilled for a test but forget what they learn in a very short time
  • Many seem to manage maths better than reading and speak more fluently than they can express themselves in writing
  • Most seem to understand spoken language but struggle with written language.

 The importance of neurodevelopment

 Very often the brain does not develop normally if a stage of development is missed. The eyes, for instance, learn to work together in the period when the child is crawling on hands and knees. When the leading hand feels the floor, the eyes will reflexively focus on that hand.  This helps both eyes focus on one point at the same time.  The two images from the two eyes are superimposed in the brain and the child sees one image and not two.  Crawling is also very important in helping the child judge distance, an ability needed when writing.

 During this all-important crawling stage, the ears are also learning to work together. As the forward hand hits the floor, the head moves gently from side to side as the eyes follow the hand.  This provides stimulation to the vestibular system in the inner ears, and much of the information leading to the speech centre is coordinated through this system.  The vestibular system coordinates visual perception with the ability of judging where the sound comes from and helps the brain make the postural adjustments to allow the child to move freely.

 This is just one example to emphasise the importance of the crawling stage in infancy. Parents need to severely limit the time that babies are kept in playpens, walking rings, car seats and such like.  These prevent the infant from learning the normal crawling patterns which are so vital for coordinating all the functions of the body.

 How do we address this?

 ILT practitioners look for clues that point to inadequate functioning or underdevelopment of brain areas that support learning in their young clients.   They also appreciate the role of nutrition in brain functioning and know that a healthy brain depends on the body being healthy and well nourished. 

 Once the underlying causes of the child’s problem have been uncovered, a programme of individualized activities are given to the family to be done at home every day. The child’s progress is monitored through a series of programme reviews, in order to adjust the activities according to progress shown. 

 This process basically gives the brain a second chance to develop all areas and so make it possible for the child to ‘catch up’ on those difficult academic areas.


Building a better brain in babies



The early years of life are vital for laying the foundation of learning success. Most parents get it right – and that’s because it isn’t as difficult as you might think.

I get lots of enquiries from people wanting to know what programmes to buy or what activities to do with their infants to ensure good brain development.  The reason is that they want their children to do well at school and in good tertiary institutions so that they will enjoy a lucrative career later in life.  While their motivation is pure, they are often trying too hard to stimulate their children.  Expensive equipment, costly academic packages and too-early school admittance simply aren’t needed.  Instead, providing lots of love and spending lots of time playing games and talking to your babies while ensuring that their diet is as good as you can afford are the ingredients for a healthy brain.

 The brain is very underdeveloped at birth. This is because human mothers could not give birth to an infant with a fully developed brain – it would simply be too big.  So from the moment of birth, everything in the infant’s environment will impact on the development of the neurons (brain cells) that comprise the brain. Genetics do play a role in intelligence – but the nurturing received after birth is vital.  In his book ‘Raise a smarter child by kindergarten’, Dr David Perlmutter writes that ‘great brains are made, they are not born. From birth to age 3, up to 30 IQ points are up for grabs.’

 He goes on to list some simple things that parents can do to ‘claim’ those IQ points for their child:

 Breastfeeding for at least twelve months

  • Making sure your toddler eats brain-enhancing ‘real’ food
  • Engaging your baby in mentally stimulating activities from the first weeks of life throughout childhood – not with artificial or ‘educational’ media but simply through games you play with her. Think ‘Peek a boo’; ‘Where’s mommy gone?’; singing songs and telling or reading stories
  • Limit TV and DVD watching and playing video games
  • Training a child to use a computer, however, can improve cognitive function and better prepare her for school
  • Introduce youngsters to formal music training by aged 4 years. This helps develop future future maths and science ability
  • Be aware of possible toxins in your home and environment that may cause learning problems (pollution being one)
  • Provide a warm, loving, low-stress environment with lots of attention from you

 In the next few articles, I’ll be focusing on what happens in a baby brain when we provide a nurturing environment and also on good, brain-building activities.

Why swimming lessons may help learning

Most children love summer for the joys of playing in and around a swimming pool, the sea, river or lake.  Parents enjoy the relaxation of being able to let children amuse themselves in the water – although remaining vigilant, of course. And the healthy, outdoor exercise is obviously good for growing bodies. The brain also benefits from the extra oxygen taken in during the exercise, but swimming may also develop skills that are valuable for school learning. 

The bilateral cross-patterned movements in swimming strokes help with the development of neurons (nerve fibres) that connect the right and left sides of the brain. This makes fast, efficient communication possible between the two.  The result is better cognitive functioning which will be seen in better learning ability.

A study was conducted in 2012.  It involved over 7000 preschool children in Australia, New Zealand and the USA over three years.  The results showed that children taught to swim at an early age reached developmental milestones consistently quicker than average.  They showed better coordination and increased fine motor skills like cutting, colouring in, drawing shapes and many mathematically related tasks.

The research found significant differences in academically related skills between those children who were taught to swim and non-swimmers, regardless of socio-economic background.  There were also no gender differences.

Professor Robyn Jorgensen of Griffith University in Australia who led the research, said “Many of these skills are highly valuable in other learning environments and will be of considerable benefit for young children as they transition into pre-schools and school.”

For further information about the study, you can contact the team at earlyyearsswimming@griffith.edu.au.

Remember, though, that these children were taught to swim using strokes that allow us to swim ‘properly.’  They weren’t merely ‘doggy paddling,’ jumping around, splashing in the water or bobbing with water wings or other flotation device. To get the most out of swimming as a brain boosting activity, children should learn the basic strokes and spend time using these to move through the water.

And, of course, it keeps them safe around water! 

Dyslexia – not just a reading problem



Dyslexia is not just a severe reading disorder characterized by reversals. It is a syndrome, meaning that it shows many and varied reading and non-reading symptoms such as:


* Memory instability for letters, words, numbers

* A tendency to skip over or scramble letters, words, and sentences
* A poor, slow reading ability prone to compensatory head
tilting, finger pointing and rapid fatigue
* Reversals of letters such as b and d, words such as saw and was, and
numbers such as 6 and 9 or 16 and 61* Letter and word blurring, doubling, movement, scrambling, omission,
insertion, size change , etc.
* Poor concentration, distractibility, light sensitivity (photophobia), delayed visual and phonetic processing, etc.


* Messy, poorly angulated, or drifting handwriting prone to size,
spacing, and letter-sequencing errors.


* Difficulties remembering spelling, grammar, math, names, dates, and
lists , or sequences such as the alphabet, the days of the week and
months of the year, and directions.


* Speech disorders such as slurring, stuttering, minor articulation
errors, poor word recall, and auditory-input and motor-output speech


* Right/left and related directional uncertainty.


* Delay in learning to tell time.


* Impaired concentration, distractibility, hyperactivity, or



* Difficulties with balance and coordination functions, i.e. walking,
running, skipping, hopping, tying shoelaces, and buttoning buttons.


* Difficulties with headaches, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, motion
sickness, abdominal complaints, excessive sweating, and bed-wetting
* Feeling stupid, ugly, incompetent, brainless.
* Fears of the dark, heights, getting lost, going to school
* Fear or the avoidance of various balance, coordination, sports, and
motion-related activities.
* Mood disturbances.
* Obsessions and compulsions.

Because dyslexia is often mistakenly viewed as a severe reading
impairment rather than a syndrome of the above mentioned symptoms,
many believe that normal or even superior reading individuals can’t be
dyslexics – despite the presence of typical dyslexic – related
difficulties with writing, grammar, spelling, math, memory, speech,
sense of direction, and time, etc.

As a result, typical dyslexics with normal or superior reading scores
are termed Learning Disabled – as if dyslexia and LD were separate and
distinct disorders.

Several approaches, supported by research, believe dyslexia to be a
syndrome of many and varied symptoms differing in intensity. And thus
some dyslexics will have severe reading, spelling and speech
difficulties while others will have major problems with only math,
memory and concentration.


What many don’t realise is that many of the symptoms understood to be part of this syndrome are linked to irregular functioning of the vestibular system (better known as the inner-ear).   Not all Dyslexics are alike but many can be helped by activities aimed at improving vestibular functioning.  This means that particular, coordinated, slow movements can help many children who are struggling at school.

There will be more information about this in following posts.


Summer heat and young brains


The fact that schools and higher learning institutions close for the summer holidays might not be based on neuroscience but is nevertheless wise. It has to do with the effect of heat on our brains. 

I’m sure we can all relate to the experience of not being able to focus and cope with mental work in extreme heat.  The same can be said for children, struggling in a hot classroom. 

A recent study finds a link between heat and lower academic achievement.  High school students who were tested during hotter years had lower scores compared to their test performance after a cooler year. Another study concerned university students who were given two tests a day of basic addition and subtraction, cognitive speed, memory, attention and processing speed for 12 consecutive days during a particularly hot spell. Those students who lived in air-conditioned buildings scored significantly higher than those who did not.  Yet another researcher[1]wrote that taking an exam on a day where the temperature reaches 32 degrees Centigrade leads to a 10.9% lower likelihood of passing a particular subject (e.g. Algebra). 

So our hot South African summers cause some brain drain and possibly our youngsters could benefit from schools staying closed during January and February, the hottest months of the year.  Of course, air conditioning seems to offset the damaging impacts of heat on academic achievement but we know how expensive it is to install and run air conditioners in   schools. We also know that air conditioners release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is not good for our already struggling environment. 

But summer heat can cause physical problems for children as well. It’s important to remember children are at high risk for heat-related illnesses, as their bodies heat up 3-5 times faster than those of adults. When the weather is extremely hot and humid, the body’s ability to cool itself down is compromised, and both adults and children are at risk if the temperature rises above 32 degrees Centigrade.

Dehydration is a major concern and it should be remembered that often children don’t feel thirsty when they are engaging in physical activities out of doors.

  • Before outdoor physical activities, children should drink freely.During activities, they should have water available and take a break to drink every 20 minutes.
  • Sports practices and games played in the heat should be shortened and there should be more frequent water breaks.
  • Clothing should be light-coloured and lightweight. Limit clothing to one layer of absorbent material to help the evaporation of sweat. If their shirts become sweaty, they should change to dry clothing.
  • Children complaining of feeling dizzy, lightheaded or nauseous should be allowed to move into a cooler environment.

There is no doubt that heat and dehydration can make children sick.  Apart from dehydration, children can also suffer from heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat strokes.

Your child may not tell you if they’re feeling bad, so it’s critical to recognize the signs and symptoms of these heat-related illnesses in order to take proper action and prevent further injury.

If your child develops any of the following symptoms, it might be wise to call your pediatrician immediately:

  • Feeling faint
  • Extreme tiredness (e.g. unusually sleepy, drowsy or hard to arouse)
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Intense thirst
  • Not urinating for many hours
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Breathing faster or deeper than normal
  • Skin numbness or tingling
  • Muscle aches
  • Muscles spasms.

With the long summer holidays looming every closer, plan to protect your children from the heat by playing outside in the early mornings and late afternoons (apart from swimming).  Children may become restless if kept indoors for too long so make sure you have entertainment planned in the form of indoor games and activities. 

But don’t forget to limit the amount of screen time!

 [1]R. Jisung Park, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

How can we help balance brain development?

All movements and thinking activities that children engage in help to develop the network of brain cells that are so crucial to learning and coping in life.   We can create new connections in our brains throughout our lives but during childhood this is crucial for their state of learning readiness and ability to meet academic demands.

The brain is composed of a left and right side – called right and left hemispheres.  It may be that we develop a preference for using either side to function but rather than encourage a decided dominance of a particular hemisphere, it is far better to balance the brain.  We need the specialised areas of both hemispheres to function optimally – especially in school. With this in mind, we should try hard to provide opportunities that will promote development of both brains in our children.

What kind of activities does your child gravitate towards? TV, computers, video games and texting will wire the brain in a certain way.  Art, music, sport, messy play will result in other areas being wired.  What is needed is a variety of activities to help the brain’s left and right sides develop equally and be able to communicate efficiently.

The left hemisphere predominates when we are using our right hands and right side of our bodies, speaking, reasoning, or working out a maths or science problem.  You will be helping the development of this brain when you get your child involved with:

  • You can play with numbers, for example having the child learn to count by jumping up and down a flight of steps; call out a number and ask the child to tell you what number comes before or after it; introduce shapes and have them cut out different paper shapes; teach quantity in the kitchen.
  • As soon as a child is speaking his home language well, introduce a second language. Teaching songs, rhymes and simple phrases is a good beginning.
  • Install a love of reading. Children simply must have stories read to them.
  • Once children are older and can read, play a dictionary game: give them the first three letters of a word and have them find words with those letters.
  • Play with science concepts. For example, ask children how water turns into ice and back again; what makes wood burn? What is wind? Where does our water come from? Explore the environment: have children draw everything they can find in the garden, including insects and discuss their discoveries with them.
  • Introduce them to music: if at all possible, let them learn to play an instrument. Studies have shown that music appears to accelerate language development, speech and reading skills.
  • If learning an instrument isn’t possible, at least play music in the home with chances to move to the rhythm, beat out the rhythm on homemade drums and learn the words of songs. Be sure to include a variety of music – including classical.

The right side of the brain is specialised for control over left-hand and left side of the body, imagination, intuition, understanding the ‘big picture’ and more. Activities that encourage right brain development include:

  • Telling stories and hearing stories read or told out loud.Understanding content through tone of voice and speech inflection is an important part of comprehension.
  • Dealing with feelings: talking about the child’s own feelings and how others feel; watch a film together and talk about how events affected the child and you. Ask for suggestions how the story or ending could be changed and how that would affect feelings.
  • Encourage children to engage in fantasy play. Playing make believe is a very important part of childhood.
  • Study the faces of other people and try to guess their feelings. This can be done with ‘emoticons’ too, but looking at people when you are out and about can be fun and enlightening too.
  • Use music to discuss feelings. How do different pieces of music affect feelings?
  • Use art to express feelings: blank pieces of paper with paint or crayons stimulates imagination and the release of emotions. Don’t overdo the colouring-books.

This list provides some examples of the many activities that can be used to help whole-brain development.  Spend some time on the internet to lengthen the list, and then enjoy the time spent with your child.  Your brain will benefit too!


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