Helping anxious children

 

 

Children with learning disorders often have trouble with anxiety, especially with tasks related to schoolwork. Being asked to read aloud, given tests, having to start a creative writing exercise can all trigger anxiety, which causes the child to freeze, show restlessness or even become agitated.  This is why it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between anxiety and the behaviours associated with ADHD.  If a child has difficulty focusing, anxiety may follow attempts to try; on the other hand, anxiety makes it very difficult to focus. 

What is anxiety?  Briefly put, it is a concern or worry about something vague and not necessarily connected to anything specific. In a very simple sense, it is the feeling that one’s safety or well-being is threatened.  Most children experience anxiety.  In the younger years, they may be anxious about being separated from their parents, or fear the dark, barking dogs, or thunderstorms.  As they grow, concerns about their school performance may cause anxiety or social relationships.  As adults, we can laugh at our childhood fears and anxieties because we’ve developed the ability to view youthful worries in perspective. But most children don’t have the mental maturity and experience to shake off feelings accompanying concerns like “What if I’m not invited to the party?”, “What If I can’t answer the question when it’s my turn?”, “What if I’m not chosen for a team?”  None of this is abnormal.  Anxiety becomes a problem if it interferes with the child’s normal living. A child who refuses to go to school because of anxiety regarding her ability to cope needs help.

True anxiety can affect up to 10% of young children and it’s not always easy to know what the cause is of the anxiety, or when your child is feeling anxious.  This is why anxiety has been called the ‘silent affliction’ because even young people are able to hide their anxiety from others.

Anxious children tend to show specific problems. They[1]

  • Find it harder than most other children to calm themselves when faced with a stressful situation
  • They seem unable to make plans to cope with their anxiety
  • Even when they do come up with a plan, they become discouraged very quickly and give up
  • Even when they are succeeding in reducing their anxiety levels they tend to disregard their success 

When anxiety is triggered, we all show typical physical reactions: shallow breathing, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, tense muscles, feeling faint or nauseous and so on. Being in the grip of such bodily responses to perceived threat means that the brain is unable to think clearly, making it impossible to reason with the child or comfort them with words.  Helping children who are in the grip of anxiety includes teaching them to calm themselves down again. Some children may react well to techniques such as deep breathing, using a punching bag or aerobic exercise.

Once they are calm, you might help them think of creative ways of handling the anxiety – even imagining a special, private, ‘safe’ place (real or imaginary) to which he can retreat to regain calmness. 

Failure to use the chosen way of coping shouldn’t be allowed to discourage progress.  Constantly boost the child by encouraging daily practice and perseverance, and point out to them any small steps they may have made in overcoming the effects of their anxiety.

Children will experience anxiety uniquely and also react in her own individual way.  Many children do find it calming to be able to describe their anxiety, what they think is causing it and its effect on them.  For this reason, adults should listen carefully and try not to make any judgements.  Telling a child that he ‘doesn’t have to feel anxious’ and that his fear is ‘not real’ is not helpful.  Being a good listener and showing the child that you understand her fears and feelings is called ‘reflective listening’ and is a powerful helping tool.

With anxiety being so rife amongst our younger population, it may not always be possible to help the child yourself. Parents and teachers should be on the lookout for signs of anxiety and, if need be, look for help for the child.

Here is a list of 10 signs that your child is at risk of anxiety:

  • Perfectionism/rigid, inflexible behaviour
  • Constant meltdowns
  • Aggression
  • Withdrawal (from activities and/or interactions)
  • Excessive or unusual procrastination
  • Sleep problems
  • Excessive defiance
  • Disturbance of eating habits
  • Irritability/tantrums
  • Over-clinginess

Don’t overlook the possibility of anxiety playing a role in your child’s school performance.  It could be one of the reasons for a child failing to thrive at school. 

 [1]From: Dacey, J.S. & Fiore, L.B. Your anxious child. Published by Jossey-Bass.

Moving bodies – growing minds

It is worth beginning with a quote from Gill Connell that expresses what we know so well:

 ‘The most powerful tool for fostering the growth and development of neural connections in your child’s brain is physical movement.’

 Why is movement so important?

 One compelling reason to get children moving more than our current lifestyle allows, is the fact that movement stimulates the brain to produce important chemicals.  One of these is known as ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor’ – BDNF – which has been described as ‘fertiliser for the brain.’  Each time a muscle moves, this miraculous chemical is secreted that not only helps brain cells to grow but also protects our vital neurons (brain cells).   This is a reason why movement is widely acknowledged to be crucial to healthy thinking (cognition) and school success.

 Movement begins in utero – and is actually assisted by the mother’s own movements. A healthy, active mother helps her child’s developing brain long before the birth.  Moms who are obliged to stay quietly in bed for health reasons need to think about what movements they can make in bed without danger to themselves and their developing baby.   For example, if your doctor allows it, gentle rolling from side to side in bed is useful, as is gentle, slow rocking forwards and backwards and from side to side in a sitting position.

 After birth, movement continues to be absolutely vital. We know that infants raised in institutions where limitations are placed on movement and human contact have many neurological conditions.  It isn’t just the lack of loving touch – the absence of enough movement opportunities can also delay or impair brain development.

 This is why we don’t advocate the use of baby seats, walkers, swings and too much time strapped into car seats, supermarket trollies and the like.  Infants need tummy time and freedom to crawl as much as they want to.  Encourage climbing, tumbling, rolling and spinning with toddlers and plenty of outside play with older children. 

 Perhaps it makes sense to remember that movement is largely processed in the cerebellum, or ‘small brain’ at the base of the larger brain.  This is the same area where memory and learning is processed. An underdeveloped cerebellum can affect long- and short term memory, focus and concentration and spatial perception.  And because it is also responsible for coordinating our movements, an underfunctioning cerebellum can be seen in children whose movements seem awkward or clumsy; who struggle with gross and fine motor coordination and more.

 Diet helps the benefit of movement.  The secretion of ‘miracle grow’ BDNF mentioned earlier may be suppressed by diets high in sugar.  A low-sugar diet combined with plenty of exercise supports brain development and can help bring about significant improvements in academic skills.

 The good news is that we know these days that the brain is not ‘cast in stone’ by a certain age.  It remains plastic and can be moulded throughout our lifespans. This ‘brain plasticity’ can be used to benefit children whose brains haven’t developed optimally for whatever reason.  Knowing which movements are important for brain growth and health goes a long way towards helping a child overcome earlier handicaps.

 

Parents – trust your gut!

It’s the end of another term and with that comes the report from school.  Now, as parents, you have to read what one or more other human beings think of your child.  This can be a pleasure but can also cause confusion and even concern.  How seriously should you take the schools’ verdict on your child’s performance, behaviour, growing personality and abilities?

Are we teaching our children when they’re ready to learn?

 

“Education is the single most important job of the human race.” —George Lucas

Our education system demands that children have to start school in a certain window of time.  The law states that a South African child may start school at the age of five-and-a-half, provided she turns six by June 30 of her Grade One year.  A child must start school by the year in which she turns seven.   If children seem ready before the prescribed age, they may be denied entrance to school. Others may be forced to begin formal schooling because they meet the age requirements.

How wise is this approach?  Are all children exactly the same in terms of learning readiness or interest in learning?   Added to this is the fact that in many instances, children are being expected to begin formal learning before Grade 1.  Government schools are now teaching reading skills to pre-schoolers even though there is neurodevelopmental evidence to show that its more efficient to teach them to read at an older age.  It seems that any advantage from learning to read earlier is cancelled out in later years.

An overly crowded curriculum means that young children might struggle to keep up with work that once was designed for higher grade levels.  Failure to cope is seen to be the learner’s problem rather a deficiency of the curriculum. The result is that some children are feeling stressed, anxious and inadequate.  This is wrong because they don’t have a problem. The problem is that they are not ready to learn what they are being taught.

There are very fundamental skills that need to be in place for a child to meet the demands of Grade 1 and beyond. For example, a child needs to be able to see and reproduce the oblique line in a triangle to recognise and write letters like K and R.  They need to have an understanding of numbers to really understand adding and subtracting.

What pre-schoolers need is the freedom to play, albeit it in carefully designed environments.  This allows them to develop the basics for those key skills. They don’t need to become proficient in reading and writing.

Brain development makes it easier to learn virtually everything (except foreign languages) as we get older.  As adults, perhaps you have looked at your child’s schoolwork and wondered how you, at the same age, found such seemingly simple work as being challenging.   Rushing academic teaching may neglect ensuring that basic skills are well embedded in children’s neural networks.

In their book, Stixrud and Johnson (see reference below) relate that one of the ‘most obvious problems we see from rushed academic training is poor pencil grip. Holding a pencil properly is actually pretty difficult. You need to have the fine motor skills to hold the pencil lightly between the tips of the first two fingers and the thumb, to stabilize it, and to move it both horizontally and vertically using only your fingertips. In a preschool class of 20 we know of in which the kids were encouraged to write much too early, 17 needed occupational therapy to correct the workarounds they’d internalized in order to hold a pencil.’

There are always exceptions.  Some children are ready to learn and manage school-based tasks at a younger age than others.  Some of them go on to starting post-school studies in their early or middle teens. We are, however, concerned with all children and many, especially from our disadvantaged communities, are simply not equipped to deal with accelerated learning practices.  Replacing fundamentals with academics won’t help our failing education system.

Reference: The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Child More Control Over Their Lives by William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson, published on February 13, 2018, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

 

(Mis)understanding Learning Disabilities (LD)

Over the last few years there seems to have been an enormous leap in explanations for Learning Disabilities (LD).  There is talk of genetic predisposition, drug therapy, processing times (e.g. slow auditory processing), brain imaging techniques and findings, quantified EEGs, brain biofeedback, sound therapy, light therapy, and many others. Each new avenue quickly gains a following of professionals offering help. 

 

In the midst of all this, one might wonder if the ‘old-fashioned’ belief in movement programmes is outdated.  With all the computerized programmes, new therapies and drugs that speed up processing times being more and more widespread, can we motivate the belief in the power of movement programmes?  Why does Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) still achieve such good results, even though the approach is neither supported by technology nor uses sophisticated equipment?

 

The answer lies in the simple truth that LD is not just a cognitive (intellectual) deficit.  A really close look at children identified has having LD will show that they also have significantly high deficits in several motor (movement) areas.  This was supported by research in England, which suggested that very refined, accurate tests of balance might be a quick way of screening for LD[1].

 

Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) finds that movement training is wonderfully beneficial.  It refines and speeds up kinesthetic (feeling of movement) processing as well as auditory processing, visual processing and the integration of all three to produce balanced, calmer individuals who become more proficient in reading, spelling, maths and writing.

 

ILT sees that the learning problem is in the brain of children who have difficulties – not because of lack of intelligence.  The brain ‘wiring’ is faulty or incomplete, leading to neurological disorganization.  Look at the behaviour of a child with LD.  They can be seen to reflect the disorganized neural networks in their brains with their disorganized ways of trying to learn and cope with the demands of home and school.  They are struggling with information that is not getting through from skin, body, ears and eyes to the brain, or they are processing the information too slowly, or it may be scrambled along the way.  Some children may be hearing only part of a word or sentence and, to make matters worse, what they do hear may be processed slowly and is confusing.  They don’t hear full instructions from teachers and parents.

 

To add insult to injury, their two brain hemispheres may not be working together.  You can see signs of this in school-aged children: they don’t automatically know their left from their right, they can’t do more than one thing at a time, handwriting and producing written work is tedious and really hard because they struggle to organize themselves or their work.  Not surprisingly, they become frustrated with the daily effort and may have meltdowns.  Simply put, LD children are usually working much, much harder than their more ‘learning ready’ classmates.

 

The good news is that we can speed up the rate at which information reaches the brain and is correctly processed.  Brain networks can be reinforced to be more stable – and we do this with the knowledge that the brain is plastic and in a constant state of change throughout our lifespans.

 

As is true of other countries around the world, it is unlikely that our South African government will increase resources to help those with learning difficulties in the near future.  We do, however, have resources in the form of trained people who can help introduce movement and perceptual training into school programmes.  Several schools around our country use ILT as part of the school day to help – and the amazingly successful results speak for themselves.  If you’re interested in knowing which schools these are, contact us at info@ilt.co.za.

 

ILT practitioners around the country try to help LD children but the ideal would be to have programmes in the schools.  Schools should be the place where immature children are given the chance to catch up.  Appropriate exercises can be done daily in the classrooms.  With the right attitude, schools can use these professionals and helpful parents to improve the learning of LD and other learners. 

 

This is why we offer courses to empower teachers, parents and other helping professionals to share the knowledge and acquire the skills needed to implement such programmes.  If you are a parent of an LD child or teach LD children in your classroom, then the first step in truly would be to study what we know and have been successfully implementing for nearly 20 years.

 

More information can be found on the website www.ilt.co.za or write to info@ilt.co.za.

 

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[1] Angela Fawcett, in Pheloung, B. Help your class to learn. Manly: Australia.

Probiotics – why all the sudden hype?

Probiotic has become a new buzzword after seldom having been heard by most of us during our growing years.  The reason for the hype is that they are very necessary for our physical and mental health.  So important, in fact, that they have been termed a ‘new essential food group’[1].  It is possible that in the past, our diets, lifestyles and medications were less harmful to the population of probiotics that we need in our body.  That’s most likely the reason that we haven’t all been as aware of their importance as we are of other food groups, namely proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

 

The term ‘probiotics’ is derived from the Greek: pro as in ‘promoting’ and biotic, meaning ‘life’.  It is a term covering a wide range of different microbes that live in our digestive tracts and doesn’t only refer to the limited few commonly found in or added to some foods, such as natural yoghurt, aged cheese, the recently popular kefir drinks, and so on.  Because our foods might not include all the probiotic strains that we need and because anti-biotics and other medications tend to destroy healthy probiotics, we often don’t have enough of them to really function well.  This also means that other, potential harmful, bacteria can multiply and thrive, causing an imbalance.

 

The result is obviously that our digestive system suffers but the impact goes further.  Our immune system relies on probiotics for proper functioning and if we lack a sufficient supply, our immune system begins to overreact, cause inflammation, allergies, intolerances and frequent illnesses.  A faulty immune system can also turn against the body’s own cells, causing autoimmune disorders, such as eczema, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, asthma, colitis, Crohn’s disease and even ‘ADHD’ [2].

 

Because foods containing probiotics are no longer part of our diets – for example, naturally fermented vegetables – and other popular foods such as sugar encourage the growth of harmful microbes – many of us resort to supplements to try and maintain a healthy gut.  This might not be enough because in order to thrive, probiotics need certain nutrients.  These are called prebiotics. 

 

Every time we eat, even if it’s a quick snack, we tinker with the delicate balance of microbes in our bodies.  We should concentrate on feeding the healthy probiotics while starving the bad microbes.  The best prebiotic is dietary fibre, which is found in fruit, vegetables and whole grains.  We can’t digest fibre but probiotic microbes thrive on it.  Prebiotics can also be found in certain fats, tea, herbs and spices, red wine and dark chocolate. 

 

Many children try to avoid eating the foods their bodies most need.  Because of this, our ‘picky’ eaters are most in need of supplementation.  And it is not surprising that many of these children are prone to health conditions, including brain health, like attention and learning problems.  This can make the situation even worse because frequent bouts of sinusitis, colds, chest complaints, ear infections and the like often result in a prescription for antibiotics, once again depleting the probiotic population.

Taking probiotics with antibiotics

 

Keep in mind that even though your doctor may prescribe a course of probiotics along with an antibiotic, the way you take these may make a difference.  When taking an antibiotic, protect the microflora in the following ways:

  • Once the medication begins, take a total of two or more doses of probiotics during the day.  Don’t consume them with the antibiotics.  If they’re in the stomach at the same time the probiotics will be killed by the antibiotics.  Keeping the digestive system supplied with probiotics is difficult, because many will be killed by the antibiotics even if they are taken separately.
  • Try to eat a wide variety of probiotics.  A supplement should preferably contain at least 10 billion CFU (Colony-forming units, or otherwise, live microbes) and hopefully more than six different probiotic strains.
  • Eating prebiotics to support the probiotics is important.  Try to avoid refined carbohydrates (bread, flour, sugars, pastas, cookies, cakes, etc). This supports the probiotics and helps them compete against the harmful bacteria.
  • Continue taking at least one extra dose of probiotics per day for at least a week after the antibiotic course is finished.  Even though the medication has stopped, there is still quite a battle going on in the gut.

 

What probiotic supplements to buy?

 

You’ll find plenty of probiotics in chemists and health food shops, not to mention on-line suppliers.  It is, however, best to buy supplements from a source where they’re kept under refrigeration.  Also consider if the shop is likely to sell these products regularly and replenish stocks often. Unlike vitamin pills, probiotic supplements contain living organisms.  If they’re not properly stored or stored for too long, they can die even before you buy them. Keeping them cold helps prolong their lives.

 

You’ll also need to choose a reputable brand.  Here it may be wise to ask the advice of your pharmacist or do an on-line search for the company producing the product.   Even then, you don’t have any guarantee that products actually contain the stains listed on the label, or that the microbes are still viable, or that they’re free from contamination.  Sadly, some American studies have shown that ineffective products are common.

 

Companies that also produce medications or food may be better sources of a supplement because they are generally held to strict standards for their products.  Manufacturers may include references on their websites to scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals or state that they’ve submitted their products to independent laboratories for testing.

 

Check the expiry date.

 

Look for the number of CFUs in the supplements.  You need at least 10 billion of six or more strains.

 

Finally, be very cautious of cheaper products.  You usually pay more for capsules or packets that contain more CFU and more strains.  This, and assured quality, means that the higher priced options may just be money well spent.

 

The recommendations in this post have been based on scientific opinion but aren’t meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice.  You may want to speak to your medical doctor about these issues before giving your children or yourself probiotic supplements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Dr Gary Huffnagle, 2007, The probiotics revolution. Vermilion: London

[2] Dr Amy Myers, 2015, The Autoimmune Solution. HarperCollins: New York

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