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.
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.
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.