Do learning difficulties affect families?

 

It’s very common for families to report upheavals and arguments in the home as a result of a child’s struggle to learn.  Some of the problems may be caused by the decisions that have to be made, both medical and educational that might also put pressure on finances. Others are more emotional, encompassing disappointment, guilt, blame and even anger.

Being privy to countless families who seek help for their child, it is clear that those families that cope best have both parents fully involved and sharing in the raising of the child, management of the learning difficulty and all aspects of the programmes chosen to help the child. When only one parent carries the burden of being responsible for everything, it can add tremendous stress. This stress becomes enormous if the other parent tends to criticize or even suggest blame for lack of success.

 I’ve noticed that some parents tend to deny signs of difficulties.  Unfortunately, my experience has been that this is more typical of fathers.  Mothers are quicker to notice ‘at risk’ signs when the child is still young. These signs might be dismissed by the father and as difficulties escalate in higher grades, the disbelief of existing problems are expressed as the child being ‘lazy’ or ‘disliking school – like I did’ or needing discipline to produce more effort. 

 To help restore family harmony, it is important that both parents have opportunity to meet with the professionals who are working with the child.  They need time to understand the reality of their child’s challenges because this realization can be painful. Following this, making an effort to understand the nature and needs of the learning difficulty is really important.  It isn’t enough to merely know that a child has some or other diagnosed condition that carries a label.  Insist that you are given all the facts of any evaluations or diagnostic procedures that are done and don’t be fobbed off by vague or professional terminology.  Don’t leave the office before you feel enlightened and empowered with knowledge of what is needed at home and what role you have in helping the child. Remember that as parents, you aren’t responsible for the learning difficulty and you can’t cure your child.  You can, however, provide invaluable help and support – both to the child, siblings and most of all to each other.

 If both parents work together, they can plan how to adjust family life to ensure strong family bonds, positive self-concepts and a generally loving and effective family.

 This post originated from an article written by Dr Betty Osman, entitled How learning disabilities affect family dynamicsand published by Great! Schooling. The article is available at www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/family-dynamics/

 

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.

 

Children need more movement time in school

 

The field of neuroscience is peppered with information about the strong links between movement and learning.  We know through science that early movements are crucial for brain development and recently, more and more studies are appearing to support the view that children need movement to learn efficiently.

In spite of this, schools seem to be determined to limit opportunities for movement, both in classroom settings and in the school time-table.  Most teachers are scared to introduce movement breaks into their classrooms for fear of discipline problems and losing control; schools are pushing for even longer times spent sitting at desks engaged in academic tasks.  It seems that the fear of poor performances in standardised tests is part of the reason for the ever increasing pressure on children to learn skills through more academic time – including time spent on piles of homework.

South Africa spends a fortune on education.  Despite this, the academic performance of our learners lags far behind the rest of the world.   The additional time spent on academics at school and at home does not seem to be improving matters.

More importantly, if we deny our learners the chance to engage in movement during the school day and afternoons at home, we are depriving them of a vital and necessary ingredient of childhood. Children love to move; they need to move.  Those who cannot sit still are labelled as disruptive, hyperactive or some other popular label. Many young children are presenting with anxiety, developmental delays and depression.

I do not believe that so many of our children are so incapable of learning skills and acquiring knowledge. Those who report to Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners are found to be bright and capable but very often not learning ready.  Those children have not had the chance to develop the neural networks needed for efficient learning. The reason may well be because they were and still are deprived of the movement opportunities needed for this to happen.

It is time for pre-school educators to face this challenge and introduce brain-developing movements into their daily programme.  ILT has carefully worked out programmes for them to follow – designed because we are passionate about ensuring that our young learners succeed at school.  These movements prime the brain for learning.

Two examples of the significance of movement:

It helps to understand the role of the ‘movement centre of the brain’ in learning.  The area of brain responsible for coordinated movements is called the cerebellum. This is also known as the ‘little brain’ at the base of the big brain (the cerebral cortex).  Although it might look very much smaller, it is incredibly densely packed with brain cells. Nerve cells (neurons) do not all run from the cortex to the cerebellum so that the brain can ‘order’ the cerebellum to move the body around easily. Instead, most of the cerebellar neurons are outbound, meaning that they travel from the cerebellum up to the cortex.  In terms of brain function, this means that during learning, information is sent to the cerebellum, where the absorbed information is processed, practiced, timed, rehearsed and corrected before it is sent back to the areas of the cortex that are responsible for the motor response or action.  In other words, when we learn a new word, the action is to say or spell the word; when we learn a new maths skill, the action is to perform the skill by solving a maths problem.  This shows that the cerebellum is an area crucial to the learning process.  All new information passes through the cerebellum before it becomes a learned skill or new piece of knowledge.

Secondly, we need to understand the role of the sensory motor system.

We use our senses to help our brains ‘know’ what is going on in the external world.  The media these days publishes many articles about how a child needs good sensory integration in order to be able to pay attention and learn. It is fairly obvious that our senses of sight, hearing, touch and so on have to be functioning well so that we can absorb learning events.  But sitting for long periods of time does not stimulate all the senses.  Listening to a teacher’s voice might stimulate the auditory system but this is one of the least developed senses in a young child! Compare this to a child who is playing outside.  Actions such as swinging, sliding, building sand castles, playing catch, skipping rope and so on, engage multiple sensory motor systems at the same time. These actions are firing neurons that are similarly needed in paying attention – a crucial ability in a classroom.

We need parents and teachers to join forces to encourage a change in all our classrooms and time-tables.  Movement needs to be a major focus during the school day – rather than be seen as a misbehaviour.

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.

 

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