From virtually the moment of conception, human genes dictate that we will move. The earliest movements we make are not deliberate but are automatic reflexes. These ‘primitive’ reflex movements are truly magic because they help develop the brain.
Each time you feel the baby moving inside your uterus, you can celebrate, knowing that those movements are laying down the patterns of neural pathways that serve to connect the different brain areas. These are the pathways that are vital for learning, behaving appropriately, forming healthy relationships with the people in our lives and enjoying emotional well-being.
They also help develop ability to control the body, muscle tone, good integration of information coming in from the different senses and survive the early months of life.
At birth, our brains are far from completely developed so we depend on primitive reflexes to help us enter the world and then keep us alive. For example, the Moro reflex is a reaction to being startled. This reflex produces cortisol and adrenaline to help activate the birth process. Then the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) comes into play, helping the foetus twist down the birth canal during a normal birth. After we are delivered, the Moro reflex triggers our first breath and permits us to straighten out after months spent in the foetal position in the uterus.
After birth, the sucking reflex allows the mouth to take in nourishment and swallow, while many others are present to help in other ways. Slowly, these early reflexes are integrated as new ones take their place. Each reflex appears in a crucial time, does its important job and is then replaced in order for higher development to happen. Ultimately, primitive reflexes are replaced by so-called postural reflexes which allow us to crawl and then finally to walk.
Problems can be experienced later on if these primitive reflexes are not absorbed or integrated. Retained reflexes can cause emotional problems, timidity and fearfulness, attention problems and learning difficulties, depression, sensory disorders, lack of confidence, tantrums, bedwetting, fidgeting, thumb sucking and many of the challenges often seen in children. Unfortunately, children with learning, behavioural and emotional issues often fail to be helped. This is because the symptoms they show are treated, rather than being helped to overcome the underlying causes of their problems.
There are many reasons for reflexes to remain present and not be integrated. Included in these are the diet and general health and emotional well-being of the mother during pregnancy. Traumatic birth events including Caesarean birth and the use of instruments can interfere with amongst others, the Moro reflex. This has the domino effect of interfering with the integration of all the reflexes that should follow, setting up glitches in brain development that can persist for years.
When several unintegrated reflexes persist, normal tasks that are taken for granted by most of us become difficult if not impossible. When children experience sensory integration disorders, vision and listening challenges, extreme shyness and lack of confidence, ADHD, learning challenges and developmental delays, it is time to look for help. Reading and writing difficulties, language and speech delays, disorganisation, fidgeting and lack of focus all may be signposts to the need for reflex integration.
The good news is that it is not difficult to integrate reflexes by helping the child with a movement programme. Certain movements replicate the earlier movements that somehow failed to achieve reflex development or integration, so by showing a child different movements, we give the brain a second chance to reorganise those all-important networks needed for efficient functioning.
Movement is magic! Even more magical are the improvements seen in children when they are given the chance to overcome early setbacks in their development.
If you suspect that a child may have unwarranted challenges in coping with home and school demands, you should seriously consider a neurodevelopmental assessment.
Here’s a quote from Carl Zuckmayer that might be worth passing on to your children. It carries a lot of truth:
One half of life is luck; the other half is discipline – and that’s the important half, for without discipline, you will not know what to do with your luck.
Sometimes people misunderstand the difference between discipline and punishment, believing them to have the same meaning. Not so. Discipline refers to the training adults give to youngsters to bring about self-control. Consistent, gentle discipline causes life-long changes in the mind and character of children. Punishment is meant to cause pain or discomfort for breaking rules. Typically children are verbally scolded, sent into time out, relieved of toys or special privileges (e.g. TV time) or even given physical hidings or smacks.
Punishment can, of course, form part of disciplining but it should never be the only way that parents use to correct wrongdoing.
Here are some ways of disciplining children
- Ignore unacceptable behaviour.This can be useful and effective for many problem behaviours such as sulking, whining, interrupting, begging for treats, or insulting authority figures (parents/teachers). There are situations where you cannot ignore the child, such as when they are physically hurt. Don’t try to ignore behaviour if you are truly angry inside because children will pick up on your fury and know their behaviour has had the desired result. When you ignore, you should try to avoid paying attention to behaviours that you have clearly explained as being unacceptable.
- Setting boundaries. Children should have set limits that are strictly enforced with patience and firmness.
- Give simple orders. Keep your instructions simple, clear and brief. Children are confused if too much detail is given.Also try to give instructions one at a time rather than a whole list of them. When you speak to your children, look at them and don’t call out orders from a distance. If you have any doubt as to whether a child has understood your instructions, ask them to repeat them to you.
- Spend time with your children.Emotional development depends on the love and attention of parents. This means interacting with your children on their level. Reading the newspaper or watching TV doesn’t count as ‘quality time.’
- Give choices within limits. Children want and need to feel some control.Having some positive control helps them be independent and confident. Rather than always giving orders, set limits instead. Parents can also involve children in determining the disciplinary process and setting consequences (punishments). This helps development of independence and cooperation.
- Help children understand consequences, which are the results of choices the children make.There are two kinds of consequences: natural and logical. Natural consequences just happen. For example, if children do not eat, they get hungry. Logical consequences is created by parents, so a child who purposely hits his sister with his new toy will have to give it up.
- Be consistent.Always treat the same behaviour the same way, no matter the place or time. The more consistent you are, the more effective disciplining will be. Parents need especially to stay consistent in public, which is usually the most difficult and unpleasant. Don’t worry about what others are thinking but simply persist in maintaining the limits that are important to you. For example, if a child misbehaves in a restaurant, the child should be taken outside for a while. She can return after a while but don’t keep food for her. Although unpleasant, missing her food treat helps to teach her the limits.
- Notice good behaviour.Be sure to catch your child being good and obeying limits. Let them know you approve by positive words and actions.
The source of this information was based on the book ‘Help your child to cope’ by Dr Cai Yiming & Dr Daniel Fung.
It’s quite common that primary school learners show uneven development when it comes to fine motor skills. The small muscle coordination needed for printing and writing seems to develop more slowly than other abilities. This is more often seen in boys than girls. The boys, however, seem to be better able to manipulate small objects like Lego, computer mouses, and screwdrivers than pencils, so their skill with these objects doesn’t reflect their struggles to control a pencil.
Many of them may, as a result, develop some anxiety related to written work. They may be fluent speakers and communicate brilliant ideas or relate experiences with gusto, but come to a halt when asked to write it down. Children typically equate ‘fast’ with ‘smart’ so when they cannot produce good written work quickly, they stop trying, work too fast and carelessly and make excuses about written work being ‘too boring.’ This develops into them disliking writing and developing anxieties about written tasks.
Last week, I shared Dr Sylvia Rimm’s tips for reducing reading anxiety. This week, I’m summarising the suggestions she gives for helping children overcome ‘pencil anxiety’. The source is her book ‘Why bright kids get poor grades: and what you can do about it.’
- Encourage the child’s use of a computer or other keyboard for all drafts when asked to write a story or complete other written tasks.The schools are more open to this these days and may even allow the child to hand in the printed work rather than struggle to write it out.
- Allow your child to use fine line markers instead of pencils as their fibre tips run more easily over the paper. Ask the school to give permission for their use in the classroom as well.
- Make comments that will help to change expectations. Tell the child that intelligence and speed are not the same. Some examples are:
- Although some smart children finish work quickly, others, just as smart, are slow workers
- Quality is more important than quantity
- Authors always write may drafts before they feel satisfied
- Try this ‘speeding’ exercise. It’s a personal self-competition model. They can copy written material or write out maths facts. You’ll need a stopwatch and multiple sheets of the same maths facts or written material to copy. Have them first copy the material and set a baseline time to record on a calendar.The next day they can write the same material and mark the time. The goal is to beat their own time. Writing the same material every day may get boring, but they’ll soon fine they can write much faster. They’ll become much more relaxed about times tests if timing becomes a daily habit and they can see their improvement.
Of course, some children need help to strengthen the small muscles responsible for pencil control. Usually help can be given by an Occupational Therapist and schools are quick to refer to these professionals.
If you don’t have access to an OT, here are two strengthening exercises that you can do at home:
- The child squeezes and releases a stress ball in one hand several times, then changes hands. Encourage the habit of using the stress ball during times of relaxation, such as watching TV or driving in the car. The hand does get tired as the muscles feel the work-out so don’t overdo it.Doing the exercise regularly is more important than the length of time spent on it.
- Take a length of toilet paper (start with about 1 metre).The child holds one end in his hand and crumples the length into a ball in the palm of his hand. When he’s finished, straighten the paper and let the other hand have a turn. Even though we want to strengthen the muscles of the writing (dominant) hand, we want to work on both hands. This activity can also be done while watching TV or driving in a car. As the hands get stronger, lengthen the strip of paper.