Just like we don’t all grow in height at the same rate, we have different rates of neurodevelopment. This means that the brain develops over time and reaches certain levels of development at different stages of childhood. That doesn’t mean that a child who is a little behind in development will be doomed for life.
Mild delays in development are usually the result of an immature nervous system (which consists of the brain, spinal column and all the nerves carrying messages from and to parts of the body). Here are some signs that can help you identify whether or not your child is a slower developer. Remember that all children may show one or more of these signs. Slow developers will usually show several.
1. A history of ‘late bloomers’ in the family
2. A premature birth
3. Physical or emotional problems in the early months (including a stressful pregnancy)
4. Chronic diseases such as asthma, upper respiratory diseases (e.g. ear infections, tonsillitis), viruses and so on.
5. Difficulty with social skills: taking turns, sharing, communicating with peers. A child who seems to prefer younger children may be showing a need for more time to catch up
6. Difficulties with coordination: skipping, hopping, catching a ball, climbing stairs, cutting, colouring-in.
7. Overflow movements shown when a child moves body parts that don’t need to be engaged during a particular movement, e.g. arms flapping when he climbs stairs, tongue moving during colouring-in, feet moving while engaging in a task. This is fairly common in pre-schoolers but shouldn’t be obvious in older children
8. Delayed language development
9. Difficulty paying attention, easily distracted, struggles to sit still
10. Seems overly impulsive for age
11. Thoughts are unrealistic, e.g. avoids a situation by believing it will go away if ignored. Typical of slightly older children who avoid homework!
12. Birthday is later in the year than most classmates. Boys especially may lack readiness if they are six months or more younger than the majority in their class.
If you are concerned that your child is struggling to adapt easily to school because of suspected neurodevelopmental delays, it is important for you to check this out with an ILT practitioner. Find them on www.ilt.co.za and help your child ‘catch up’ with the rest.
It’s hard being a parent in today’s world. It’s also hard being a teacher. They have to deal with classroom conditions that make it difficult to teach effectively. For this reason, we can’t blame them too harshly for looking for labels that match certain difficult behaviors in children and that result in help from other professionals in controlling the behaviour.
The most common label emerging in recent years is that of ‘ADHD’. Many medical and mental health practitioners find that there is a lack of evidence to support the actual existence of this mental disorder. It is difficult to justify the validity of an ADHD diagnosis because there are no tests to ‘prove’ it exists. In spite of this, it remains the term of choice to use when children fail to behave as they should in an educational setting.
There is another side to the coin – one that does not rely on snap judgements by medical practitioners or well-meaning but unknowing teachers. Children don’t need diagnoses. Children who have problems with attention, organization, hyperactivity and learning difficulties don’t need to be treated as suffering from disorders. They don’t need to be stigmatized by labels and poisoned by drugs that suppress their symptoms and do harm to their systems. They need real help to feel and function well.
The underlying causes of the symptoms of ADHD are many. Several children may carry this label because their behaviors tick the same boxes but they may have very different reasons for behaving the way they do. Very often there are neurodevelopment irregularities leading to immature brain areas; there may be nutritional deficiencies affecting the brain and body; poor gut health directly impairs brain functioning; emotional factors may play a role; environmental offenders such as heavy metals might be part of the picture. Nothing stands alone, so sometimes we don’t find a single, simple cause but have to address the problem holistically.
So don’t believe blindly in the ADHD label. We can see how children are behaving, just as we can see the tip of an iceberg. What isn’t obvious is what lies beneath the surface. Before allowing our children to be diagnosed with a mental disorder and treated accordingly with a potentially dangerous drug be prepared too look deeper.
A good starting point would be to explore the website www.ilt.co.za and read about the work of Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) – an approach that seeks to address the real causes underlying superficial labels. ILT practitioners are available countrywide and you are also welcome to study an ILT course to help you learn more. Those teachers who have studied with ILT recommend it highly. They learn to look at children with very different eyes.
Quite a few people wonder about ILT’s focus on movement. Most can’t understand how our movements can possibly be linked to our ability to learn and thrive at school. In fact, we are very dependent on the movements made by our bodies for the organized network of neurons that we call the brain. This has been shown by fascinating research over the past half a century so we aren’t sucking this belief out of our thumbs! This means that when a child shows difficulties at coping with school related tasks, we look to the body for clues as to his or her early and current brain development. Often we find the answer in developmental events and consequent healthy development and functioning of the body.
The body’s role in learning
We are trying hard to change the belief that learning happens in the brain and the body doesn’t play a role. An example of this is how teachers insist that children sit still without any fidgeting with any part of the body. “Sit still and listen to me” is a common instruction; “Sit on your hands if you can’t keep them still” is another.
In the past, children could make up for this body neglect by using their bodies in all kinds of activities after school hours. They used to climb, run, tumble, dig, fall into ditches and fall out of trees. The change isn’t all due to TV and screen time but also because today’s families live in small homes without access to open play areas. Long hours are spent in commuting to and from school. The streets have become dangerous places. It’s been estimated that children are spending 25% less time on free play than they did in their grandparents’ time.
The reality is that the brain needs the body’s movement in order to create the neural pathways that make learning easy. A child doesn’t become learning ready with workbooks, i-pad games or computer programmes. Readiness develops as children’s brains mature along with experiences of bodily sensation and movement.
Important movements are the early reflexes, followed by large body movements such as climbing, jumping, swimming, playing hopscotch, catching and throwing balls, riding bicycles, running, skipping, sweeping and digging. Smaller body movements develop fine motor skills, such as cutting vegetables, drawing, building with blocks, moving to music and learning rhythm through clapping, singing and so on. Movements that need crossing the midline help build the pathways connecting the two brain hemispheres and are crucial for learning to read, write and understand maths.
Children love to move; they need to move. If they are given the chance to move in play, they will develop to a stage of learning readiness. Perhaps not all of them will reach this stage at exactly the same time but we do have the genetic potential to be wired to learn.
So limit sedentary time. Push your children out of doors in all weathers (dressed appropriately, of course). Make sure you spend quality time in play parks or open spaces over the weekends. Buy body healthy toys like trampolines, skipping ropes and balance boards rather than the latest hi-tech toy. Go back to basics if you really want your child to reach his or her potential at school.
A healthy body is the start to a healthy brain.