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.

 

 

Learning strategies – key points to teach

 

 

 

The information in this post comes from Albert Ziegler, an internationally accredited researcher based in Germany. I share it with you in the hopes that our South African teachers may benefit from the knowledge and pass it on to their learners. 

Young learners can’t be expected to know how to learn by themselves.  The teaching approach in many of our schools still results in children trying to memorise content – without true understanding or critical judgement of the material.

Mastering a cognitive learning strategy is valuable for most learners. This might involve the steps of (1) Rehearsal, by repeating learning material; (2) Organisation of the material by restructuring the content in a form that is easier to memorise, and (3) Elaboration, or integrating the new knowledge into existing learning structures. Examples of this would be thinking through new material and evaluating it, or using own words and being able to teach it to others.

But research shows that teaching only cognitive strategies results in a limited effect on academic achievement.  When metacognitive strategies are taught as well, the effect is much more positive.

Metacognitive strategies include the steps of (1) Planning – learning how to set goals, knowing what resources to use; (2) Monitoring – involving continuous assessment of own learning, and (3) Evaluation, which requires analysis of one’s own performance and the effectiveness of the learning method used.

Using metacognitive strategies requires the early teaching of skills, one of which is called ‘self-regulated behaviour.’

Self-regulated behaviour

Self-regulation includes being able to reflect about your own learning, to understand your strengths, weaknesses and as a result, be able to set your own realistic goals. This may be as important as acquiring new content knowledge and some of you may be surprised that children in Grades 2 or 3 are already capable of learning how to do this. It certainly is a critical learning strategy that can stand them in good stead throughout their school years and beyond.

To my mind, these aspects of learning are as critical, if not more, than the content of the current curriculum. It is truly much more important to teach children how to learn rather than spending too much of their time learning what to learn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Movement matters

 

Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners have tried hard over the years to encourage schools to introduce more movement into classrooms.  We understand the terrible pressure put on teachers and learners by curriculum demands, so have worked with pre-school teachers, believing that they have more classroom time to devote to all-important movement.   Imagine our disappointment when we heard from one school that had followed our movement programme with their Grade R learners for some years – with noted success – that they were obliged to stop the programme. The reason was that they now have to use that time to teach the preschoolers how to read.

 

This is doubly sad because not only are those children missing out on the chance to ‘catch up’ on any possible areas of delayed brain development, they are also missing out on vital time spent moving.  There is much written these days about the value of movement and the positive impact that physical activity has on academic learning. With this knowledge, there should be no doubt that introducing movement into classrooms is worthwhile.

 

To our knowledge, many teachers are trying hard to do this, so I thought some information about the latest research might help justify their efforts.  Also, some information about different types of movement might be helpful to get maximum benefit in the shortest possible time.  Before discussing the research into different physical movement strategies, this article will briefly discuss ‘mindful movement’ versus ‘non-mindful movement’.

 

Mindful movement (also called ‘purposeful movement’) is referred to when physical activities are integrated directly with learning goals.  For example, when children form the letters of the alphabet with their bodies, or illustrate the orbits of the planets by walking around a central sun.  The quality of the movement is less important than the fact that learners are focusing on academic content.  Movement is used here as a tool for reaching teaching goals.

 

Non-mindful movement is physical activity that is unrelated to academics.  Examples would be running on the spot, running around the playground before a lesson, sitting on a wobbly cushion, pushing legs against a length of elastic tied around the chair legs, and so on.

 

In other words, mindful movement uses movement activities to teach and learn directly; non-mindful movement does not.

 

Generally, research shows that both types of movement can benefit learning.  Teachers (and school administrators) may fear that movement takes time away from teaching and so will interfere with academic performance.  The evidence gathered in recent years indicates that these fears are groundless.  Learners benefit in more ways than one and a responsive brain results in more efficient learning.

 

To help teachers understand more about the value of movement for learning, the next few posts will share some of these research studies.

 

Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) tries to help children reach their potential by addressing all the possible barriers to learning.  Visit our website www.ilt.co.za to learn more about our approach, find a practitioner near you to help and also see what courses we offer for teachers to better understand brain development, function and learning. Our courses are accredited with SACE (for CPTD points) and ETDP-SETA (for credits towards further qualifications in Special Needs Education).

 

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

 

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