Children need more movement time in school

 

The field of neuroscience is peppered with information about the strong links between movement and learning.  We know through science that early movements are crucial for brain development and recently, more and more studies are appearing to support the view that children need movement to learn efficiently.

In spite of this, schools seem to be determined to limit opportunities for movement, both in classroom settings and in the school time-table.  Most teachers are scared to introduce movement breaks into their classrooms for fear of discipline problems and losing control; schools are pushing for even longer times spent sitting at desks engaged in academic tasks.  It seems that the fear of poor performances in standardised tests is part of the reason for the ever increasing pressure on children to learn skills through more academic time – including time spent on piles of homework.

South Africa spends a fortune on education.  Despite this, the academic performance of our learners lags far behind the rest of the world.   The additional time spent on academics at school and at home does not seem to be improving matters.

More importantly, if we deny our learners the chance to engage in movement during the school day and afternoons at home, we are depriving them of a vital and necessary ingredient of childhood. Children love to move; they need to move.  Those who cannot sit still are labelled as disruptive, hyperactive or some other popular label. Many young children are presenting with anxiety, developmental delays and depression.

I do not believe that so many of our children are so incapable of learning skills and acquiring knowledge. Those who report to Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) practitioners are found to be bright and capable but very often not learning ready.  Those children have not had the chance to develop the neural networks needed for efficient learning. The reason may well be because they were and still are deprived of the movement opportunities needed for this to happen.

It is time for pre-school educators to face this challenge and introduce brain-developing movements into their daily programme.  ILT has carefully worked out programmes for them to follow – designed because we are passionate about ensuring that our young learners succeed at school.  These movements prime the brain for learning.

Two examples of the significance of movement:

It helps to understand the role of the ‘movement centre of the brain’ in learning.  The area of brain responsible for coordinated movements is called the cerebellum. This is also known as the ‘little brain’ at the base of the big brain (the cerebral cortex).  Although it might look very much smaller, it is incredibly densely packed with brain cells. Nerve cells (neurons) do not all run from the cortex to the cerebellum so that the brain can ‘order’ the cerebellum to move the body around easily. Instead, most of the cerebellar neurons are outbound, meaning that they travel from the cerebellum up to the cortex.  In terms of brain function, this means that during learning, information is sent to the cerebellum, where the absorbed information is processed, practiced, timed, rehearsed and corrected before it is sent back to the areas of the cortex that are responsible for the motor response or action.  In other words, when we learn a new word, the action is to say or spell the word; when we learn a new maths skill, the action is to perform the skill by solving a maths problem.  This shows that the cerebellum is an area crucial to the learning process.  All new information passes through the cerebellum before it becomes a learned skill or new piece of knowledge.

Secondly, we need to understand the role of the sensory motor system.

We use our senses to help our brains ‘know’ what is going on in the external world.  The media these days publishes many articles about how a child needs good sensory integration in order to be able to pay attention and learn. It is fairly obvious that our senses of sight, hearing, touch and so on have to be functioning well so that we can absorb learning events.  But sitting for long periods of time does not stimulate all the senses.  Listening to a teacher’s voice might stimulate the auditory system but this is one of the least developed senses in a young child! Compare this to a child who is playing outside.  Actions such as swinging, sliding, building sand castles, playing catch, skipping rope and so on, engage multiple sensory motor systems at the same time. These actions are firing neurons that are similarly needed in paying attention – a crucial ability in a classroom.

We need parents and teachers to join forces to encourage a change in all our classrooms and time-tables.  Movement needs to be a major focus during the school day – rather than be seen as a misbehaviour.

Is the school making your child (or you) ill?

 

We’ve heard about ‘toxic offices’ and how they can affect those who work in them. But what about our school buildings – and our homes? Many schools in this country were built a long time ago, and some still cause problems related to the use of asbestos and lead in construction and paints, poor plumbing, sewage inefficiencies, inadequate ventilation, termites and more.  Can they be playing a role in the often bewildering behaviours shown by some children (and you, of course)?

Do you find that your child copes better with schoolwork at home than during the school day?  Do they (or their teachers) become angry or cry/show emotions more easily at school than at home? Why does their behaviour get progressively worse from Monday to Friday then improve remarkably by Sunday evening?

 Dr Doris Rapp practiced environmental medicine for many years and her legacy to us includes some outstanding books. She found that over the years, a growing number of children seemed to routinely feel unwell.  They may react with hyperactivity, show fatigue or misbehave.  Some may express their difficulty in being able to think clearly at school.

 There are many factors that may cause Environmental Illness (EI). Amongst the most prevalent are poor air quality, particularly due to excessive dust or moulds or to chemical pollution in or around a building. Other factors include foods and seasonal pollen.  EI is a name for an assortment of medical problems that can affect many areas of our bodies.  For example, year-round stuffiness or watery nose, repeated fluid build-up behind the eardrums, chest congestion leading to asthma, ‘growing pains’ or aches in the head, back, neck, muscles or joints that aren’t related to exercise, tummy aches, nausea, bloating, bad breath, persistent bowel problems like constipation, and ‘winds’, problems with bladder control, itchy skin, night sweats, irritating twitches. Accompanying these may be a wide range of behavioural and emotional problems, ranging from leg-wiggling to depression.

Many of these symptoms that affect a child’s school performance negatively may be misdiagnosed and ‘treated’ with an activity modification drug such as Ritalin.  Before going this route, consider whether the child may be at risk for EI due to having an immune system that is not functioning as well as it could. Many highly susceptible children have:

 A history of health problems, sometimes dating back to infancy

  • A characteristic facial appearance often with dark rings, puffiness or wrinkles under the eyes, red ears, a ‘spaced out’ expression and more
  • Certain behaviour patterns such as temper tantrums, meltdowns or withdrawing depending on time of day or following certain foods
  • Sudden, inexplicable changes in how they feel, look, act, write or draw
  • An erratic inability to learn or remember

 Finding out the causes of such behaviours can lead to making simple changes in school and home.  Even changing the chemicals used to clean school bathrooms can bring about positive results.  Allergy diets can be followed to identify and then eliminate foods as well as improving nutrition generally. Possible yeast infections can be treated and even probiotic treatment can be used to improve immune system health.

 EI makes a significant impact on individuals and should not be ignored.  Teachers may suspect their environment if they find an increase in skin irritation, inexplicable fatigue and constant drowsiness.  If this describes you, consider whether you work is a dusty school or a recently renovated school that are subjected to much chemical use during construction. Prompt treatment can help diminish learning problems in children as well as prolonged periods of ill health and discomfort in their teachers!

  Content for this article from the book ‘Is this your child’s world? By Doris J. Rapp, MD, puished by Bantam Books.

 

 

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.

 

What exactly is an IQ test?

 

Your child’s school may have requested that you arrange for an IQ test to be done, possibly along with a fuller educational assessment – most often by an Educational Psychologist.  We usually understand the reason for and content of tests to determine reading, maths and spelling ages, but many parents are unsure of the nature and reason for the ‘IQ’. 

The letters IQ stand for Intelligence Quotient.  The test is the most common method to measure intelligence and its value lies mostly in its ability to predict a child’s chances of school success fairly accurately.  Most school subjects require those mental skills and knowledge that are tested by the items comprising the IQ battery of subtests.

IQ tests are based on statistics and the child’s results will reflect her academic abilities as compared to other children of the same age.

The average IQ score is around 100 but a ‘normal’ or ‘average’ IQ can fall anywhere between the scores of 71 – 129, being further divided into ‘below average’ or ‘above average’ if nearing these scores respectively. The two extremes would be IQ scores of less than 70 and more than 130.  Children falling into these extremes would account for roughly 2.5% each of the entire population of children.  They are described as ‘special needs’ children because on the one hand, having an IQ score of under 70 may suggest that academic success will be difficult to achieve, while an IQ score of over 130 places one in the category of ‘gifted’, meaning that academic potential is extraordinarily high. Children in both these categories need special help with their widely differing educational, social and emotional needs 

Typically, IQ scores can be used to predict future scholastic levels although this type of prediction can be misleading.  Many children cope with high levels of education due to determination and perseverance.  However, for the sake of clarity, here are the widely accepted levels 

IQ over 110: The individual should be capable of a university or other tertiary education

IQ between 90 – 110: Capable of completing secondary education and beyond

IQ between 80 – 89: Capable of completing High School or a technical education

IQ between 70 – 79: May have difficulties in High School

IQ below 70: Needs special education 

IQ tests are conducted by trained psychologists who are qualified to administer these tests. Most IQ tests consist of two broad parts: a subtest which tests verbal skills such as vocabulary and general knowledge and a performance subtest which tests visual, motor and spatial skills.

 tests are believed to be unreliable below the age of six .  Between the ages of 6 – 18, test results are fairly reliable but may fluctuate depending on environmental factors such as exposure to languages (especially the language used to test), learning opportunities and family support.  The average child may have an IQ score that varies by up to 15 points during the ten years or so of schooling.  This is why IQ scores should not be taken too seriously in spite of its importance as a predictor of later scholastic success.

What IQ tests can’t measure

IQ tests can’t determine success in life.  Success depends on a combination of intelligence, social skills, endurance and even a healthy dose of chance or opportunity. An IQ represents only the chances of a child’s achieving in the academic sphere.  It cannot predict or substitute for attitude, motivation and interest. In addition, it can’t test for specific talents such as musical or artistic potential, physical prowess, creative thinking, leadership and social skills.

In short, it can be used as a helpful tool in understanding more about a child’s academic potential but falls far short in defining the essential nature of the child.  We are all far, far more and less than our IQ scores may suggest!

If a child has learning difficulties, an IQ score will almost certainly be required.  The results cannot, however, fully explain the reasons for the challenges he or she experiences at school

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.

 

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