Magic movements

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.

 

Understanding classroom behaviors

Most of you have been faced with a child in your class who simply cannot sit still.  He is always squirming in his chair and seems to have little bodily contact with the chair! When he does occasionally sit on the seat, he almost immediately puts one leg under him.  He then keeps shifting the leg as it begins to ‘fall asleep’ from the pressure of his body.  He may also keep playing with his clothes, his pencils, his books.  All his teachers complain of his constant movement. Yet, if he stretches out on the floor to listen to a story or watch a programme on television, he keeps still and quiet.

What’s the problem here?  Is he naughty? Is he bored?  Is he ADHD?

What such movement can probably mean is that he can’t sit still because he is hypersensitive to touch, particularly in the area along his sciatic nerve (buttocks and legs). The fabric of his clothing rubbing against the chair and into the back of his leg (especially behind his knee) is ticklish.  He may not even realise this since he has been trying to block that sensation and pay attention to the lesson for most of his life.  He might be able to sit a little quieter on some days – maybe he is wearing softer clothes (an older, well-washed school uniform) or perhaps he is more relaxed today and feeling less stressed.

There are many reasons for a child behaving in restless ways. This is just a thumbnail sketch to help your awareness that too often adults jump to conclusions about the underlying causes of the way children try to cope in the classroom.

 

Why learners need food before and during school

 

A lot of attention is paid to the tragic fact that many children attend school on empty stomachs, don’t bring a packed lunch to school or buy ‘junk’ food from school tuck shops. Why the hype?

The reasons are simple. First, children’s nutritional needs are very different from those of adults.  They have smaller stomachs so cannot eat the same quantity of food at mealtimes than adults do.  Yet they are growing: they are building bones, muscles and brains.   Most adults eat to merely maintain their bodies and supply their brains with the glucose it needs to function well.   Grade 5 learners will have doubled their size since Grade R. This means that they need a lot of good food every day.

Apart from the biological demands of growth, we are all aware that learners who are hungry are not able to focus or sustain attention in class.  Many show behavioural difficulties and can be discipline problems. There are research studies showing that nutrition is critical for a child’s brain and those who have a good breakfast tend to function better during the school day than those who have nothing to eat or who have to cope with sub-standard food.

Lack of finances are a problem faced by parents but there is also a question of choosing healthier foods. For example, a young boy admitted to a health professional that his usual breakfast consisted of a slice of white bread spread with margarine and sprinkled with sugar.  This is not nutritious. With this breakfast, his blood sugar will spike, leaving him on an immediate ‘sugar high’.  Remember that white bread is very quickly digested into glucose. In some children this leads to hyperactivity and impulsiveness, so they can’t settle down and learn in school.  Poor quality margarines also contain trans fatty acids which don’t lubricate the brain in the way healthier fats do.  Substitute the white bread for a low GI seeded bread and spread it with peanut butter and the same child will have fuel to last him until mid-morning.

Break time at school is the time for another nutritional top-up and children again benefit from a healthy snack. As fuel for the body, sugar is useless.  The ‘sugar high’ that follows a sugar loaded meal or snack wears off very quickly, leaving the body craving more sugar. The child then has to either feel cranky and miserable or refuelling with more sugar for another high. Not a good situation! 

Quite a few schools these days are checking up on children’s lunch boxes and even banning unhealthy and nutritionally ‘empty’ foods.  Instead, parents are given suggestions for what snacks to provide.  This practice is to be cheered on as it is not only benefitting the children’s body and brain health but it is teaching children about healthier lifestyles and diet.

So be critical of what your learners (and own family) are eating for the sake of optimal development and school performance.

 

 

Moving bodies – growing minds

It is worth beginning with a quote from Gill Connell that expresses what we know so well:

 ‘The most powerful tool for fostering the growth and development of neural connections in your child’s brain is physical movement.’

 Why is movement so important?

 One compelling reason to get children moving more than our current lifestyle allows, is the fact that movement stimulates the brain to produce important chemicals.  One of these is known as ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor’ – BDNF – which has been described as ‘fertiliser for the brain.’  Each time a muscle moves, this miraculous chemical is secreted that not only helps brain cells to grow but also protects our vital neurons (brain cells).   This is a reason why movement is widely acknowledged to be crucial to healthy thinking (cognition) and school success.

 Movement begins in utero – and is actually assisted by the mother’s own movements. A healthy, active mother helps her child’s developing brain long before the birth.  Moms who are obliged to stay quietly in bed for health reasons need to think about what movements they can make in bed without danger to themselves and their developing baby.   For example, if your doctor allows it, gentle rolling from side to side in bed is useful, as is gentle, slow rocking forwards and backwards and from side to side in a sitting position.

 After birth, movement continues to be absolutely vital. We know that infants raised in institutions where limitations are placed on movement and human contact have many neurological conditions.  It isn’t just the lack of loving touch – the absence of enough movement opportunities can also delay or impair brain development.

 This is why we don’t advocate the use of baby seats, walkers, swings and too much time strapped into car seats, supermarket trollies and the like.  Infants need tummy time and freedom to crawl as much as they want to.  Encourage climbing, tumbling, rolling and spinning with toddlers and plenty of outside play with older children. 

 Perhaps it makes sense to remember that movement is largely processed in the cerebellum, or ‘small brain’ at the base of the larger brain.  This is the same area where memory and learning is processed. An underdeveloped cerebellum can affect long- and short term memory, focus and concentration and spatial perception.  And because it is also responsible for coordinating our movements, an underfunctioning cerebellum can be seen in children whose movements seem awkward or clumsy; who struggle with gross and fine motor coordination and more.

 Diet helps the benefit of movement.  The secretion of ‘miracle grow’ BDNF mentioned earlier may be suppressed by diets high in sugar.  A low-sugar diet combined with plenty of exercise supports brain development and can help bring about significant improvements in academic skills.

 The good news is that we know these days that the brain is not ‘cast in stone’ by a certain age.  It remains plastic and can be moulded throughout our lifespans. This ‘brain plasticity’ can be used to benefit children whose brains haven’t developed optimally for whatever reason.  Knowing which movements are important for brain growth and health goes a long way towards helping a child overcome earlier handicaps.

 

Stress and children

 

 

Stress is an inevitable part of our modern life and it is a myth that children are immune or in some way protected from stress. 

When adults are stressed, they turn to others for comfort, attend stress management seminars or simply try to work it off at the gym.  When children are stressed, they have fewer avenues they can turn to for relief and help. Sometimes their cries for help are misunderstood or ignored, but stressed children always need the help of adults who can help them cope.

The word ‘stress’ is from the Latin ‘stringere’ which means ‘to draw tightly or bind.’  In the physical sciences, the term is used to define a physical force which can modify the form of a system.  For example, a stick may bend when force is applied to it.  Stressors in human life are psychological and social forces in the form of events or situations that exert a distorting effect on a person’s equilibrium. 

Defined broadly, stress is an adverse event that causes a response from an individual.  In childhood, these events include: 

  • Parental divorce
  • Poor parent-child relationship
  • Poor teacher-child relationship
  • Frequent change of teachers
  • Homework overload
  • Lack of care and loving discipline
  • Death in the family
  • A new baby in the family
  • Failing a test
  • Struggling at school; having learning difficulties
  • Having to move from one classroom to the next during the school day
  • A birthday party
  • High expectations from family or school
  • Bullying and teasing
  • Rejection from the peer group
  • Intense competition with classmates

The physiological reaction to stress is known as the ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. This helps us survive in the face of an immediate threat to our safety.  But children find it difficult to fight or flee the difficulties they face.  They can’t recognise that they are under stress so they send out distress signals, including:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Confused behaviour, associated with loss of memory or lack of focus
  • Freezing – becoming quiet and withdraw
  • Thoughts of suicide

Stress related physical problems appear, such as headaches, tummy aches, asthma, forgetfulness, temper tantrums, fatigue, tearfulness, fearfulness, sleep difficulties and many others.  Continued stress impairs the immune system’s functioning so children’s immunity to disease and illnesses drops.  They pick up infections easily and become continually tired and lethargic, despite plenty of rest.

How can stressed children be helped? 

  • Recognise distress signals children send out
  • Realise distress signals can be misinterpreted and avoid labelling children wrongly
  • Remove the source of stress from children if possible
  • Be available to speak to the child about the stressor(s) and allow plenty of opportunity for the child to express fears, disquiets, anger
  • Reassure children that they are not naughty or stupid or bad to feel as they do
  • Help children re-learn or acquire new coping skills
  • Make sure the parent-child relationship is as positive as possible
  • Try to strengthen the teacher-child relationship
  • Help the child cultivate friendships in and out of school
  • Make sure the child has the chance to relax after school and have fun
  • Seek professional help if no improvement is seen

 

This article was sourced from the book ‘Help your child to cope’, written by Dr Cai Yiming and Dr Daniel Fung.

 

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.

 

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