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 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.

 

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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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 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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