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.

 

When does my child need help?

 

All children, and adults, go through periods of difficulties.  Children’s development occurs in stages and sometimes they may show unusual behaviour that may simply be a sign that they are ‘going through’ a growth stage.  So when do you sit up, take notice and realise that your child may be in need of help?

 

Obviously families have periods of crises and stress, so if this is the cause of a child’s learning difficulties, you’ll probably be able to put two and two together and determine how best to help. But how do you know when the trouble is probably school-based?

 

Perhaps this list may be useful.   Your child may be having trouble in school that needs your immediate attention if you notice any one or more of the following:

 

  • Your usually cooperative child begins to be disobedient at school
  • Your usually social child becomes aggressive and even hurts other children
  • Your child shows a reluctance and even refusal to go to school
  • Your child has tummy aches or headaches on most school mornings
  • Your child becomes quieter, seems sad and disinterested in schoolwork
  • Your child is said to be restless and unable to sit quietly at school
  • Your child is reported to be doing less well than expected in schoolwork
  • Your child gets poor marks for tests in spite of having learned the work at home
  • Your child has difficulty learning new skills or simply remembering things

 

The first step will obviously be a meeting with the teacher. Be sure to discuss what happens on the playground as well as what is observed in the classroom.  Sometimes interactions in the peer group or even bullying might be a problem.  Find out what the teacher has done to help the child in the classroom, but if the problem persists, you might have to look further for help.

 

One source of help is from Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners. We follow an holistic approach, looking carefully for underlying causes of learning difficulties and puzzling behaviours. Often the problem is based in the child’s neurodevelopment, meaning that his or her brain is underdeveloped and needs ‘catch-up’ time to mature in all areas.  Sometimes the problem can be caused by environmental offenders (think nutrition, allergies and the like) that need to be addressed.

 

ILT doesn’t believe in ‘one size fits all’ or that there is an easy, quick way to help a child overcome learning difficulties. We do, however, know that our careful, thorough assessment and dedicated work with children result in changing their attitude of “I can’t” into “I can”.  Our reward is their renewed pleasure in school

 

To learn more about our approach, visit our website at www.ilt.co.za.  You’ll also find a list of practitioners near you to help as well as courses you can take to further your understanding of how children’s brains develop and what might go wrong.  As a result, you’ll be in a better position to help.  After all, parents are the first source of help for all children!

 

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Baby movements – building the brain

 

As young parents, we are all too aware of the movements our babies make.  They are such wriggly,  animated little beings from birth on – seeming to be seldom still unless they are asleep.  Talk to them and arms and legs wave in response; hold them upright and they seem determined to try and walk; before long, true mobility begins with their learning how to roll over, then sit, crawl and finally walk.

 

These movements are what we call neurodevelopmental movements and are far more significant than we might think.  They are the genetically determined, automatic movements that all healthy babies do while still in the womb and during the first year of life.  We call them primary reflexes and they are precisely the mechanism that enables the staggering rate of brain growth during the early months of life. 

 

At birth, our human babies’ brains are only about 21% developed.  This is why they are so helpless and dependent on us.  But the stimulation of brain neurons from the movements we feel and then see results in the gazillions of connections between brain cells that cause the baby to show such amazingly rapid development in the first year and beyond.  In short, baby movements are going to be responsible for the child’s future learning and ultimately, her performance and happiness in school.

 

These days, our society and lifestyles can have a negative impact on these neurodevelopmental movements.  For example, too much reliance on baby seats and limited tummy time can impede natural movements. When this happens, children can be left with underdeveloped brain areas that are needed to serve as a foundation for school learning.  In other words, they may lack the maturity and connectivity that is needed for ease of learning, even though they show high intelligence.

 

The result is unexpected difficulties when they enter school or progress beyond the early grades.  The good news is that the brain can be given a second chance to catch up – at virtually any age.  Thanks to the plasticity of the brain, we can help individuals across the lifespan. 

 

By replicating the early, brain-building movements we can help the brain mature and connect to sensory systems. This leads to less stressful learning as well as better social-emotional development.

 

Most parents (and teachers) believe that if a child is struggling with a learning area, they need remedial teaching, usually involving more engagement with the particular academic skill.  For some children, extra work isn’t successful and can lead to even more stress because the reason for their difficulty isn’t their lack of ability – it’s due to lack of maturity of certain brain areas.

 

Once the foundations for learning are in place, the brain is able to function as nature and genetics intended.

 

If you feel your child needs this kind of help, visit our Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) website at www.ilt.co.za to read about our approach. You will also be able to find a practitioner near you to help and see that we offer training courses for parents and teachers to help gain more understanding of how the brain develops and functions and the many reasons that can underlie a child’s learning challenges.

 

You can also write to us at info@ilt.co.za

 

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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 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 info@ilt.co.za.

 

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Dyslexia – or inner ear problem?

 

Dyslexia is a widespread diagnosis amongst learners who struggle with reading, spelling and/or or writing.  Teachers and parents are often surprised when Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners take little notice of the diagnosis and instead turn their attention to the individual’s inner ear functioning.

 

The part of the inner-ear so often found responsible for the problems associated with dyslexia is called the vestibular system.  This little system has enormous implications for our learning and functioning – something which is only truly understood by those of us who have suffered from health conditions affecting the vestibular.  To their surprise, irregularities brought about by inner-ear infections and similar prevent them from carrying out their usual daily routines altogether. 

 

The vestibular system has several functions, beautifully described by Dr Harold Levinson in his books (see www.dyslexiaonline.com).  Here are some, briefly summarized:

 

  1. The vestibular guides our eyes, hands, feet and various mental and physical functions in time and space. We need this for our eyes to fixate and sequentially track letters, words and sentences; to be able to write on the horizontal in a neat fashion; to pronounce words accurately as we speak.
  2. The vestibular fine-tunes all motor responses that make our movements coordinated and balanced. If dysfunctional, we show delayed speech; impaired ability to walk; difficulty tying shoelaces, buttoning buttons; holding and using pens and pencils. We may also take long to toilet train and show symptoms such as bed-wetting, soiling and more.  This find-tuning function also makes it difficult to concentrate and remember what is seen and heard. You could compare this to the tuning function on a TV.  Imagine how difficult to watch a programme if the picture and sound are fuzzy, indistinct and blurred out.
  3. The vestibular also has a compass function. It allows us to be aware of spatial relationships such as right and left, up and down, front and back, east and west and north and south. If the compass system isn’t working efficiently, the brain has to compensate by finding methods such as wearing a watch on one hand, or remembering which hand is which by the presence of a scar, etc. This compass system directs all body functions: sensory, motor, speech, thought, even biophysical patterns. It isn’t always true that all functions will be dysfunctional. One sequence may be misdirected or scrambled while another remains unaffected.
  4. The vestibular acts as a timing mechanism. If it isn’t functioning as it should, a child may have difficulty in learning to tell time and sensing time.  Often, so-called dyslexic learners do not understand the difference in meaning of before and after and can’t sense whether a minute, an hour or several hours have gone by.

 

Impaired functioning of this very crucial sensory-motor system explains why such learners struggle to learn to read, write neatly and with clear meaning, reverse letters and words and more.

 

Take note that the vestibular system is located in the inner ear. This part of the ear is prone to damage through various avenues, including but not limited to ear infections. For this reason, ILT practitioners always ask about health history, because just one severe ear infection might underlie later problems in school.

 

So before treatment begins to help such learners overcome the symptoms they are displaying, it makes perfect sense to ensure that their vestibular systems are helped to restore functioning.  A perfect example of why looking for the underlying cause of symptoms is often a quicker and more efficient way of helping those with learning difficulties.

 

Visit our website at www.ilt.co.za to learn more about our approach. We do list practitioners who are ready to help you or families that you want to refer. We also offer training courses to help teachers improve your understanding of brain development and function and how to recognise and help signs of difficulties you see in your learners. 

 

The courses are accredited with SACE for CPTD points and with ETDP-SETA for credits towards further qualifications.

 

You are welcome to write to us for more information at info@ilt.co.za

 

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Learning about Learning Disorders – Part Two

 

If you missed Part One of this series, you’ll find it (and other articles) on the blog of Integrated Learning Therapy’s website – www.ilt.co.za.

 

In this article, some answers are given to some of the most often asked questions that parents pose about learning disabilities and difficulties[1].

 

  1. What is a learning problem?

Typically a learning problem is defined as a difficulty acquiring academic skills such as reading or maths.  Some children show very subtle problems which are hardly noticeable. Other problems are very severe and make it virtually impossible for the child to progress in a certain academic area.

 

Learning problems can be rooted in emotional factors, such as fears, a highly stressful environment, family troubles and so on. It can be based on a mismatch between the child and her environment – for example, a school that is too unstructured for her her.  It could be biological – and due to irregularities in brain development and functioning.  If fairly severe, the term commonly used is ‘learning disability’. If not, ‘learning difficulty’ would be appropriate.  Either way, it would be unwise to ignore it and hope it will go away.  Better to have a comprehensive evaluation to try and determine the root causes underlying the learning problem. A learning disability, on the other hand, cannot be due to emotional problems.  See below for more about this.

 

  1. What is a learning disability?

A learning disability is usually understood to be a learning problem that is severe enough to impact negatively on a child’s academic progress and that can be attributed to some or other inefficient brain functions.  It is NOT the result of lower intelligence, severe emotional disturbance or a physical challenge such as sight or hearing impairment.  Some learners are incorrectly labelled as ‘slow’ learners, suggesting below average intelligence when, in fact, they are suffering from an unrecognised learning disability.

 

Some intellectually gifted children who are coping at school but failing to realise their very high potential may also have a learning disability.

 

  1. Can a learning disability be outgrown?

It is more likely that a child with a learning disability may learn how to compensate for her difficulties.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it can help to build resilience and strength that can help enormously throughout life. In fact, many of us have ways of compensating for areas of weakness.  An example of a compensatory technique is reading through study content in preparation for a class if you cannot follow spoken language easily, or reading content out loud  (or making an audio recording of it to play back) if you can understand and remember better through auditory channels.

 

  1. Can a learning disability be caused by an emotional problem?

No. The root of learning disabilities lie in irregular functioning of certain brain areas. A child may, of course, show accompanying emotional problems which are caused by the distress of her learning disability.  In this case, the emotional problems may be helped by therapy.  It is rare for a child with a learning disability to not show low self-esteem and a sense of being a failure.  Years of struggling result in confusion about one’s self identity, anger, despair and frustration.

 

Trouble at home, parental discord and so on are never the primary, underlying cause of a learning disability.  Neither is poor parenting, abusive parenting or inattentive parenting. These factors can exacerbate the effect the disability has on the child and how well she can cope with it, but they don’t cause disabilities.

 

  1. Can medication ‘cure’ a learning disability?

No known medication addresses the root cause of a learning disability.

 

  1. Can disabilities be inherited?

This is a difficult question. Some research suggests that some learning disabilities may be inherited and that others are not.  Often those in the field of neurodevelopment find that a weakness in a certain brain area or other important brain system might be inherited. This might result in a learning disability but the child may have a different experience to the family member which results in her not showing any lack of ability at all.  ILT practitioners have had the experience of seeing parents experienced surprising improvement in certain areas if they participate in their child’s therapeutic programme.  This is because the underlying brain area has benefitted and becomes more efficient.

 

  1. When should I consider placing my child in a remedial or special needs school?

The fact that a child has a learning disability doesn’t necessarily mean that she has to leave mainstream schooling.  If the prognosis is good, it might be better to seek out the support of the current school while the child undergoes a programme to help.  It is sometimes not easy to return from remedial or special needs environments to mainstream education so a child who can cope might benefit more by staying put.  However, school personnel and other professionals need to be in agreement with this and together you can decide on the best course of action if it is warranted.

 

Most children with learning disabilities can be helped and ILT has a very good track record when it comes to turning dis-ability in ability.  However, we can never guarantee 100% success – we are regularly humbled by children who present with very puzzling problems.  In spite of saying that, a child with a learning disability will not flourish over the long run without proper assessment and treatment.  Don’t delay in getting your child the help she needs.

 

In the next article, I’ll be discussing the most frequently encountered underlying causes of learning disabilities and difficulties.

 

If you would like to learn more about Integrated Learning Therapy, visit our website – www.ilt.co.za.   And to receive more articles like this, remember to Like our Facebook page and Share with all your friends.

 

 

 

 

 

[1][1] With thanks and acknowledgement to Barbara Novick and Maureen Arnold who wrote the book ‘Why is my child having trouble at school?’

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