Stop! Are you putting the cart before the horse?
You have a child in your classroom. He seems to be bright: speaks well, has good general knowledge, can be quite cheeky and shows a keen sense of humour. His school performance, however, is below average. He struggles with schoolwork and in spite of his obvious intelligence, is unable to read, write, do maths or spell at required grade level. You refer him to the Learning Support Teacher and she begins to give him individual instruction in weak areas. After a while, she reports that he is not responding well and he continues to fall behind. This is a case of putting the cart before the horse. Trying to solve learning problems with academic work seldom succeeds. What is needed is an understanding of what may be underlying the academic difficulties.
Obviously there could be many reasons for his school underperformance but one that may be interesting to discuss here is a bilateral vestibular problem.
The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and those of you that follow posts put out by Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) will have read about this tiny system before. It may be very small but it is strongly implicated in our ability to cope with just about everything we have to do in the world! Certainly ILT practitioners will tell you that the majority of learners referred for help show signs of irregular vestibular function.
There are two types of vestibular problems that influence learning and behaviour. As a result of vestibular irregularities, the brain either over- or underreacts to vestibular input. This can be compared to a TV that is not properly adjusted. The vestibular acts as the tuning control and should adjust the incoming signal so that the picture and sound are clear and neither too bright or dull, too loud or soft. When the brain’s powers of functioning are not balanced as a result of efficient vestibular activities, the information sent to the brain from the various sensory organs cannot be easily interpreted. If not correctly interpreted, responses to such information are usually inappropriate. Think of yourself trying to view a programme that is not properly tuned to the signal but instead leaves the screen with a confusing mess of zigzag lines with a shrill, ear-shattering soundtrack.
The symptoms of a bilateral vestibular problem are difficult to pinpoint. Learners with this problem are often considered by their families as completely normal until they go to school. Then the puzzling signs appear and they fail to keep up with their learning peers. Often their problems are diagnosed as dyslexia or alexia. Others may offer the opinion that the problem is of an emotional nature.
Signs that may point to the actual underlying problems include:
- Faulty eye movements resulting in difficulties following a moving object or to move attention from one thing to another
- Poor posture; the child has difficulty keeping her head upright while sitting or will tire easily when playing
- Difficulty learning to ride a two-wheeled bicycle
- Are not good at sports and lack the self-confidence to take part
- Although they show normal coordination, they may be clumsy
- He seeks out movement – enjoying merry-go-rounds, spinning or rolling endlessly
- The two sides of her body are not well integrated – she has trouble coordinating the right and left hands with each other, showing poor bilateral coordination
- Is easily confused by direction, especially if not given much time to think; confuses right with left side
- She becomes confused when trying to clap, walk or beat a drum to a rhythm
- May show midline problems
- An underactive vestibular system interferes with specialization of movements. This results in the child developing individual skills with each individual hand and brain hemisphere instead of using one hand for fine motor movements, like writing and using equipment. She will, for example, try to use her right hand for tasks on the right side of the body and her left hand for tasks on the left side. This may result in her seeming to be ambidextrous but she is not skillful with both hands as is a truly ambidextrous individual.
- When lying on her stomach with her arms stretched out forwards, she is unable to lift her trunk, head, arms and legs and hold them for 30 seconds.
- She tends to reverse letters, for example, ‘d’ and ‘b’ and also tends to read words in the incorrect order.
- She cannot handle stress well and becomes easily frustrated.
The bottom line is to try and gather clues that can help you identify what may be underlying a child’s learning challenges. Teachers often are the first to refer parents for help. Parents become frustrated and disheartened when they find themselves following through with advice but then seeing little improvement.
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) offers teachers training courses to equip them with the knowledge to recognise the real reason for learning problems. This doesn’t mean that teachers have to become practitioners but it does mean that they are in a position to refer to the helping professional best able to offer effective help.
Visit our website www.ilt.co.za to learn more about our approach and to find practitioners around the country to help. The website also outlines the attendance and distance (correspondence) course we offer teachers. If you need more information, contact us at email@example.com.
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You all know how frustrating it is when you’re trying to get an important message across to your class and you notice that one or more of the learners is not listening. At other times, the end of the school day looms and the learners are tired. It becomes increasingly more difficult for them to maintain their level of focus. There is something you can do to help in these situations.
It’s all about one of the most primitive of reflexes human beings share. It’s crucial to our survival and without it, we would die. I’m talking about sucking. If a baby is born unable to latch and suckle, very rapid steps will be taken to ensure that the infant is tube-fed. But apart from the importance of taking in nutrition, sucking and swallowing have very significant effects on brain function. Infants can self-sooth by sucking on their fists or thumbs and sucking and swallowing also help them to breathe deeply. This early reliance on sucking and stimulation of areas around the mouth doesn’t leave us either. Watch how young children move their mouths in rhythm with their hand movements when they are learning how to cut with a scissors. How many of us turn to chewing or sucking sweets when we are tired but still have marking or lesson preparation to do! Do some of you bite the end of a pen, your nails or even your bottom lip when listening closely to something?
Sucking and swallowing, which are controlled by tongue actions, are our very first brain organisers. When babies suck, swallow and breathe, they are laying the foundations for arousal, attending and focus. By helping to organise the communication between different neural pathways, sucking can reenergise us when we’re tired or calm us down when we’re excited.
In addition, tired eyes might not be focusing on you or on a task requiring reading or writing. Sucking with eyes closed helps the eyes to maintain focus. Try this yourself: close your eyes and put your index finger between your lips on the midline of your face. Suck hard and feel how the eyes pull in together.
Because the eyes and ears work together (through the mechanism of a part of the brain called the colliculus) the ears follow the eyes to focus on the sound coming from whatever the eyes are looking at. This means that what we look at directly affects what we listen to. Grandparents were quite correct when they insisted on us looking at them when they spoke to us! In this way, vision that is focused on something specific in the environment produces focused auditory input as well. This lessens the distracting effect of extraneous sounds in a classroom.
So what can you do? ILT doesn’t recommend that you have children sucking on their fingers, unless they are very young children and you have nothing else for them to suck on!
Instead, try to supply your class with some ‘crazy’ or ‘loopy’ straws that you can buy in the party section of several of the supermarkets. Insert these straws through a small hole in the top of a small bottle of water (or supply plastic cups or glasses). When you feel the attention of the children is waning, ask them to close their eyes, place the straw in the middle of their lips and have them suck – swallow – and breathe. Or have this as a routine part of your lessons. Before beginning a task, have the learners drink some water through their straws. Their concentration will improve – and the water will do them good too!
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) addresses learning and behaviour difficulties caused by disturbances in neurodevelopment or environmental factors. If you are interested in learning more about this approach, visit our website www.ilt.co.za. We have practitioners around the country ready to help and also offer training courses that are accredited with SACE and ETDP-SETA.
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People worldwide share the belief that education is important for children. Academic achievement is considered to be a key to future economic stability and personal success in life. Yet, in spite of school curricula being designed to be achievable to the average learner, too many children and youths are not able to meet the learning targets set by their teachers and education authorities. These children are not necessarily amongst those who have a mental or physical problem that can be seen to interfere with their learning. Neither are many of them disadvantaged in terms of geographic location, poverty, poor home circumstances and poor teaching. So what is missing? Why are these children having difficulties and showing fairly commonly observed symptoms such as
- Problems with gross motor skills
- Memory deficits
- Disorganization – always losing equipment and possessions
- Concentration problems
- Inability to complete tasks in time
- Difficulty understanding concepts
- The list goes on and on ….
These behaviours may lead to some or other diagnosis with the result that the child is labelled. We hear about Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and many other words starting with ‘dys’, which signifies a supposed learning disability. Here are some definitions of the most frequently used labels:
Dyspraxia: difficulty coordinating movements
Dyslexia: difficulties with language, such as reading, writing or spelling
Dysgraphia: difficulties with writing, spelling, handwriting, putting thoughts on paper
Dyscalculia: difficulty learning and understanding how to use numbers
Dysphasia: difficulties with speaking and/or understanding language
And then, of course, we have Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) dislikes the use of labels because they result in the label being treated while sight is lost of the child who carries the label. It works like this: A teacher has difficulty in getting a child to remain in her chair and the constant movement suggests to her that the child is hyperactive. The parents are asked to consult a medical doctor. The doctor listens to the complaints and perhaps observes the child’s restlessness in the consulting room. A diagnosis of ADHD is made and a prescription for a drug that is recommended for this disorder is promptly written.
The usual approaches recommended to ‘treat’ the labels don’t always help. If we don’t understand the real nature and cause of a learning or behaviour problem then all we are doing is treating the symptoms shown by the child. This is the same as taking a headache pil: it certainly may help to relieve the pain we call ‘a headache’ but doesn’t do anything about getting rid of what may be causing it in the first place.
Too often we label these symptoms and lose sight of what could be an underlying cause of these symptomatic behaviours. If the underlying cause of a child’s problem is misdiagnosed, families may try many ‘cures’ for a disease, disorder or condition that their child doesn’t actually have.
Make no mistake – some children do struggle with aspects of learning and sometimes the label might be accurate. Children with ‘real’ ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and so on need specialized help in the particular area of difficulty. ILT has, however, had many years of experience in unravelling the root causes of the symptoms shown by many children. In most cases, the disabilities are caused by neurodevelopmental delays, meaning that they have a brain area that hasn’t developed fully. In many other cases, the brain is unable to function optimally because of the influence of environmental factors. If these are addressed, the symptoms sometimes disappear or at least diminish considerably. Neuroscience has proved that the brain is ‘plastic’, meaning that it can change, grow and be adapted continually. This knowledge means that we can restructure the brain, encourage the growth of new brain cells, stimulate the development of new neural pathways.
With this knowledge, why resort to only the use of medication or remedial teaching methods to try and find ways of coping with the symptoms of various disorders? Why not learn how to correctly identify possible causes of these disorders? Why not be able to refer to professionals who might be better able to help the child at a fundamental level?
Better still, teachers at the pre- or early primary school level should have knowledge of how to prevent neurodevelopmental problems from interfering with school progress.
One way of ensuring that the brain has developed to the point that a child is learning ready, is to incorporate special movement programmes into the pre-school and Grade 1.
The role of movement in brain development
Research over the last few decades has convinced us that movement is crucial to the organization of our neurological system (i.e. the brain and other parts of the central nervous system). A well organized nervous system that has well developed neural networks will function efficiently and effortlessly. Think of a child whose behaviour is ‘scattered’. He may be unable to sit still or listen in order to understand. He reacts before thinking and seems aimless in what he does. Even when playing, he seems to prefer running around the playground rather than take part in more organized or purposeful games. This kind of disorganized behaviour is a reflection of a disorganized neural network. His ‘brain wiring’ hasn’t made the connections needed for purposeful, deliberate, productive thinking and behaviour. So often it is possible to see that the brain needs help in becoming more efficiently ‘wired’. He doesn’t have ADHD. He is in need of neurological organization that can happen if he is given certain movements to do that replicate those he should have done in infancy.
The discovery of the importance of movement has lent a great deal of support to the importance of allowing babies to move freely during infancy. Babies who are strapped to their mother’s backs for too long, or who are confined to baby seats, car seats, walking rings and so on are not able to move as they should. This can interfere with good brain development. Babies who are left passively lying in a cot without stimulation to encourage movement of the head, eyes and body are also at a disadvantage. We believe today that the best playground for a baby is a rug spread out over open floor spaces.
Would you like to learn more about this? ILT offers training courses to teachers especially to help equip them with knowledge of what the brain needs to develop and function properly.
Our distance courses are very popular, as busy teachers don’t have to spend days away from work and home and do not incur travelling or accommodation costs.
In addition, no-one needs to fear failure on our courses. We try to help all trainees as much as is needed to ensure all arrive at a deep understanding of the content. For those courses which include movement activities, we also work hard at helping you feel confident in using the activities correctly in order to help individual children as well as groups.
You can read about our ILT 1 course on the website www.ilt.co.za or write to us for information at firstname.lastname@example.org.. This course is suitable for teachers at all levels – from preschool through to High school.
Here is some information about a new course that we have put together – mainly for preschools and teachers in Grades 1 and 2:
Readiness to Learn: A practical, ready to use programme to develop learning readiness in children aged 4 – 8.
This course is aimed at helping classroom teachers or teaching assistants address or prevent learning difficulties in pre-school or early primary school. The course consists of two sections:
- Section 1 provides important theory about the reasons why children may enter school without being ready to learn and explains how these may be addressed.
- Section 2 provides a 30 week programme of daily activities designed to help children achieve learning readiness. The handbook contains guidelines for the use of the activity programme, a list of very simple equipment that will be needed and the programme to be followed. The daily activities require 15 – 20 minutes per day.
All course materials are sent electronically, so can be downloaded to your computer.
A certificate is issued on successful completion of the course.
The cost of the course is R2000 all-inclusive.