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 email@example.com.. 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.
Even though we know a lot more these days about how the brain develops and how it functions, many teachers lack useful knowledge about the role of movement in learning. Movement is responsible for developing the brain in the first place (through the primary reflexive movements) and remains central to efficient learning during the early years of growth and schooling. Without knowing how to recognise signs that a child may have signs of neurodevelopmental problems (meaning that the nervous system with all its component parts), we concentrate rather on the psychological problems of the child, or the socio-economic environment.
A far better approach would be to ask the question, does the child have the equipment she needs to succeed at the educational level asked of her and the methods imposed on her?
The answer is related to the fact that there is often a physical basis for learning disabilities. Not physical in the sense of body growth or health – often children’s physical development is good, yet the foundations on which learning is built and made strong are weak. This results in them struggling to succeed at school. Indeed, some do succeed, but they have to put so much extra effort into their learning and performing. This can continue until adulthood. How many of you know of a colleague who is really good at what he or she does, but pays the price through extreme fatigue at the end of every workday?
So the approach of Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) is to evaluate a child for possible neurodevelopmental delays and other adverse conditions arising from the environment and then helping them. The tools used are largely movement activities.
While this works for children with learning disabilities or learning difficulties, using movement in the course of learning can benefit all children.
Here are three evidence based, very sound reasons why children can thrive in a classroom where the teacher introduces regular periods for a little movement:
- Movement helps to increase learner interest, motivation (Vazou et al., 2012), and learning (Braniff, 2011).
- Movement improves content knowledge, skills, and test scores in core subjects such as mathematics and reading fluency (Adams-Blair & Oliver, 2011; Erwin, Fedewa, & Ahn, 2013; Browning et al., 2014).
- Movement may help children meet the recommendation to complete the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day.
Do consider the significance of these research results. It is difficult to introduce movement into crowded classrooms, to avoid children becoming disruptive and finding it difficult afterwards to settle down. The key is to have short, quick ‘movement moments’ as an integral part of the school day from the lowest grades. This teaches the children that these are part of school and they become so used to it that they don’t see it as an opportunity to get out of hand.
In future posts, I’ll be including some ideas for short ‘movement moments’. If you would like to learn more, consider enrolling for our Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) courses. They are accredited with SACE so will earn you CPTD points while you’re enhancing your knowledge and skills. Read more on www.ilt.co.za or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adams-Blair H., Oliver G. (2011). Daily classroom movement: Physical activity integration into the classroom. International Journal of Health, Wellness, & Society, 1 (3), 147–154.
Braniff C. (2011). Perceptions of an active classroom: Exploration of movement and collaboration with fourth grade students. Networks: An On-line Journal for Teacher Research, 13 (1).
Browning C., Edson A.J., Kimani P., Aslan-Tutak F. (2014). Mathematical content knowledge for teaching elementary mathematics: A focus on geometry and measurement. Mathematics Enthusiast, 11 (2), 333–383.
Erwin H., Fedewa A., Ahn S. (2013). Student academic performance outcomes of a classroom physical activity intervention: A pilot study. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 5 (2), 109–124.
Vazou S., Gavrilou P., Mamalaki E., Papanastasiou A., Sioumala N. (2012). Does integrating physical activity in the elementary school classroom influence academic motivation? International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10 (4), 251–263.