A new year, a new decade, a new beginning. Nothing like making some resolutions now to start afresh and improve the quality of your family’s life.
The topic today is not a new one but it is important enough to keep repeating so that we all think carefully about what we feed our children on. This applies equally to schools because while some are meticulous about controlling what foods children are allowed to eat on school premises, others don’t give this any attention. In fact, educating children about healthy eating sometimes helps their parents become aware of good nutrition too.
I was impressed once when I visited a family with young children. The mother insisted that the children helped pack their school lunchboxes. There was a list on the ‘fridge with items that should be included so the children knew what to pack even though they had a choice of items falling under the various categories. They could also vary the amount of food according to their appetites and how long they would be staying at school for the day.
The list looked something like this:
Foods to be packed every day:
- One piece of fresh fruit.
- Some crunchy or raw vegetables (e.g. carrots, cucumber, tomato, baby corn).
- A meat or protein food such as slices of lean meat (not processed meat), hardboiled egg, peanut butter or nut paste*, nuts.
- Dairy food such as a piece of cheese, grated cheese, milk or yoghurt.
- Starchy food such as whole wheat bread, a seed roll, pita or flat bread, fruit bread or crackers.
Of course, there are some foods that should not be found in lunchboxes. Here’s a list of those. My wise family mentioned above didn’t have this list displayed because that might have put thoughts into young heads! It is, nevertheless, important to know the kinds of foods that might not be the best for a busy school day, where bodies and brains are needed to function well.
Here are some lunchbox snacks to avoid:
- Packaged fruit juice and dried fruit. Dried fruit has simply too much sugar in it. Occasionally one or two pieces might be useful but handfuls are not recommended.
- Pre-packaged muesli bars and other ‘energy bars’ that haven’t been carefully vetted for sugar and salt content.
- Muffins (sugar laden!) and any other baked product that contains sugars, additives and colourants (cup cakes, etc).
- Foods containing highly refined flours (white bread and rolls, cakes and cookies).
- Flavoured milk.
- Pre-packaged ‘snack packs’.
- Packaged dried fruit straps.
- Packaged chocolate spread.
- Processed meat.
- Sweets (sugar does NOT give you more energy).
ILT practitioners are well aware of the significance of a good diet to helping overcome learning challenges. We look for the root causes of learning difficulties and food is one area that we keep having to explore.
There is a reason why some children are so restless in class. They are showing a need to move. While this need may be rooted in some irregularities in the functioning of their nervous systems, it may also be a sign that they need to move in order to focus better on their teacher and schoolwork. What is this connection between moving and attention?
There isn’t any single part of the brain that controls our attention. Instead, attention happens as a result of a web of neural connections that transports signals throughout the brain to wake it up and cue our attention. There is a lot of overlap between consciousness (i.e. being awake), paying attention and movement.
The neural pathways that enable us to pay attention are regulated by two neurotransmitters: norephinephrine and dopamine. These are the chemicals targeted by ADHD medications, which stimulate the release of more chemicals being released into the brain synapses. According to Dr John Rateythe problem for people with attentional challenges (‘ADHD’) is that their attention system is patchy, discontinuous, fragmented and uncoordinated. The reason might be that the neurotransmitters responsible for efficient transport of impulses through the attention circuits are dysfunctional. Another reason is that there can be irregular functioning in any one of the brain areas that form part of the attention circuits. The trouble with the medications is that they are mind-altering drugs with as yet unknown long-term effects and some serious side-effects. Don’t we have an alternative?
ILT tries to identify the problematic areas and work on enhancing their functionality but before this, it may help to understand why movement seems to help children.
The attention system ties in with movement and thus exercise: the areas of the brain that control physical movement also coordinate the flow of information. One important area of the brain that does this is the cerebellum. This vital brain area regulates certain brain systems so they run smoothly, updating and managing the flow of information to keep it moving seamlessly. In children who struggle to pay attention, parts of the cerebellum can be smaller or not functioning properly so it makes sense that this could cause disjointed attention.
Leading from the cerebellum are neural pathways conducting impulses to the higher level centres for thinking and movement. Along the route, these pass through the basal ganglia, which acts like a gearbox, shifting attention resources as the higher brain demands. This brain area needs dopamine to function. If there isn’t enough dopamine, attention can’t easily be shifted (i.e. sluggish attention) or can only be shifted all the way into high gear (i.e. overfocus).
We all know about Parkinson’s disease. This condition is caused by too little dopamine in this brain area and leads to the person’s inability to coordinate not only motor movements but also complex cognitive tasks. Significantly, neurologists are now recommending daily exercise in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease to stave off symptoms.
In the same way, exercise can help to regulate the attention system and it does this by increasing the production of neurotransmitters. With regular exercise, we can raise the baseline levels of dopamine and norephinephrine and the result is immediate.
So let’s rethink the schools’ curriculum which demands long periods of sitting still in classrooms. Some young children have only a single 15 minute break in their school day, which is hardly long enough to eat a snack and engage in sufficient exercise. Teachers could benefit quite markedly if they were encouraged to allow children little episodes of movement during lessons. I firmly believe that they would be able to get through more of the learning content as a result, without having to constantly call children to attention, repeat instructions and generally waste time through managing restless youngsters.
At home make sure children have plenty of opportunity to move and engage in exercise that raises their heartrate. Doing some really energetic movements before homework time, for example, might make it easier for them to focus when having to sit at a desk and work.
Rather than giving children psychotropic drugs, just imagine if we could put exercise in capsules and hand these out during the day!
Dr John Ratey, author of ‘Spark – The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain’
Most pre-school children amaze us with their ability. Little Hanlie, at aged two, can name all the animals in her favourite picture book. Hansie names most of the cars on the road before his third birthday and many four year olds are fascinated by dinosaurs and know their long, difficult names.
Then they begin school and the wheels come off. This can be devastating, especially if they have been encouraged to start school early because of their demonstrated intelligence. It is so important for families to know that even if their child has learned to read at a very early age, they may not be ready to learn. Things may go well in the first year or so but slowly progress falls behind. Very often parents come along (wisely) for a neurodevelopment evaluation and tell us that the child will be repeating Grade R because of emotional immaturity. This is not entirely accurate. Failing to cope with school has far more to do with brain maturity – what we call a state of learning readiness at school-going age.
Brain age vs chronological age
The trouble is that children are sent to school at an age determined by their birthday rather than by their stage of brain development. We are not robots, programmed to behave predictably. We are human beings who have a very personal timetable of development. Our brains are not ready to learn at a prescribed date but are subject to growth spurts that determine its level of functioning. Strategies for teaching reading, for example, will be different for children who have not yet fully developed the connections between the two brain hemispheres. Children may seem to be learning to read well but after Grade 3, begin to fail because they have relied on the look and see methods which is basically aimed at the right brain hemisphere. This is too limiting and they may have to be taught all over again.
Teachers are very well aware that boys are slower in brain development than girls. We also know that there are more boys who experience learning and school-related behavior problems (e.g. hyperactivity) than girls. The theory goes that, since boys’ brains develop more slowly, their brains remain longer in the very early brain stages, making them more vulnerable to viral damage or any slight accidents.
A maturity lag can cause all kinds of problems. If, for example, a child’s visual system is not fully developed, he might not be able to clearly differentiate letters. This means that he may learn the word ‘d-o-g’ by recognizing the shape of the whole word, reinforced by having the word accompanied by many pictures. But using pictures to remember individual words won’t help him when he has to do more advanced reading. They don’t help him use letters to read other words. These are ‘splinter skills’ that children develop that work well for a while but not in the higher grades.
And in the higher grades, few realise that the child is having problems because he was never ready to read in the first place.
It’s important to know a child’s stage of brain development
It is so important to consider an assessment of brain development before deciding on school entry. Far more important than school readiness is the knowledge that the child’s brain is ready to learn.
For neurodevelopmental reasons, it is disturbing to consider the consequences for certain children following the government’s suggestion that no child will be held back in Grade R. Sometimes it is necessary to do so. To counter this, give careful thought to arranging to have your child assessed before school entry. By assessment, we mean NOT school readiness, but learning readiness – which is not the same thing.
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.
IQ tests are believed to be unreliable below the age of six years. 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.
Way, way back in 1996, a writer in an edition of Newsweekfocusing on Your Child’s Brainwrote “…. There is new evidence that certain kinds of intervention can reach even the older brain and like a microscopic screwdriver rewire broken circuits.” This was exciting news to those of us researching ways of helping children.
The brain has neurons – that we call ‘wires’ – and these neurons need to communicate with each other so that we can function. This means that there are umpteen billions of connections in the brain. It is rather remarkable that most of us manage to form these neurons and their connections without faults but we need to remember that there are many things that can go wrong with this process, known as ‘neurodevelopment.’
Thanks to research, we’ve had confirmation that things suspected through observation and experience are facts. We now know that by carefully watching how a child moves and what a child needs to do to meet an expectation from school or his home, we can get an idea of where in the brain the problem lies. Then, by giving the child’s brain a chance to repair itself, we can bring about positive changes.
Let’s have a look at an example of how we apply neurodevelopmental insights to solve a child’s learning problem.
An important reflex movement
It’s significant that many children with learning difficulties have no Headrighting Reflex (HRR). This reflex shows when the angle of the body in relation to the ground shifts – in other words, the body tilts to either side, backwards or forwards. The reflex automatically adjusts the head to remain in a nearly vertical position. In a less well coordinated child, the head does not remain or immediately return to the vertical position but stays in line with the body. In other words, the child’s head moves in line with his spine.
If the head rights itself, there is very little shift in the background compared to when the head tilts in line with the spine. (Try this yourself by swaying to each side, alternately keeping your head still in a vertical position and allowing it to align with the spine.) Such a child will find himself in a constant state of visual strain because one of the reasons for this reflex is to stablise visual images on the retina of the eye. There is little wonder that children who don’t have this reflex may have reading problems.
Giving a child the HRR
This is where a knowledge of neurodevelopment can help. We need to give children a HRR if they haven’t developed one themselves. How do we do this?
Different parts of our bodies are controlled by different nerves but it is wise to remember that nothing stands alone. No function of the brain operates in isolation. For example, when your vestibular system (in your inner ear) is stressed (perhaps by movement), you get seasick. You feel this in your tummy and it happens because of the intimate interconnectedness of different nerves. The vagus, one of the ten cranial nerves, is responsible for causing your stomach to revolt against the movement registered by an overwhelmed vestibular system.
The HRR is influenced by another cranial nerve that controls the trapezoid muscle. This muscle controls the movements of the head and neck. If a child hasn’t developed the HRR, it is likely that there is a poor connection between the trapezoid muscle and the cranial nerve that controls it. Our job would be to connect this muscle and we use a seemingly simple movement activity to do so.
The original movement came from Carl Delacato, who worked for many years with learning disabled children. He found that having children lie on the floor and moving their arms, legs and head in a way that resembled the movement of a ghecko or lizard, caused significant and positive changes in the brain.
The Flip Flop movement
The benefits of the Flip Flops are many. Information goes into both sides of the brain as the muscles move equally on both sides. At the same time the brain gets sensory information from the weight of the body moving across the surface on which the child is lying. This is very important because during later development the brain is constantly having to coordinate information received from the two brain hemispheres to allow for stereophonic hearing, posture and vision. So with our Flip Flops, we are not only stimulating the cranial nerve to connect to the trapezoid muscle but also influencing vision, hearing and balance. Through this, information is communicated to many other brain areas, especially to the cerebellum, the midbrain and the thalamus. The thalamus is an area of the brain that acts as a gate-keeper – either allowing sensory information to pass through to higher brain (cortical) areas or not. If it fails to allow certain information through, the important messages will not arrive at the proper destination.
So in short, by giving a child a (seemingly) simple activity, we are effecting profound changes in brain function. We can’t control what comes out of the brain but we certainly can control what goes in. This helps the brain receive the information it needs to correct faulty wiring.
Other reflex movements are significant too
Giving the child a head-righting reflex is good but we need to test for later developing movements as well. Once we’ve made connections in the lower brain regions, we have to persevere to encourage connections needed for more sophisticated functions.
When you bring about better neurological organization, you are addressing basic problems in the various areas of the brain. This enables the child to function independently and with improved abilities in many different spheres of life. Such children seem to ‘get it together’ and with this, their self-esteem and confidence soars.
How can I help my child become emotionally strong?
These days, many parents are concerned that children seem to be emotionally immature. They want instant gratification, they demand entertainment rather than managing ‘own time’, they find it difficult to sustain attention, they are easily frustrated and act out their emotions rather than controlling them. Can you help change this?
Remember that your child was born with the desire to be the best person possible, to grow up and do what she is best fitted to do, to be healthy and happy. For this to happen, she needs to develop physically, mentally but also emotionally. Your job is to give her the opportunity to meet her desires.
Parents play an important role here. In the first place, you should be aware of the different factors that can affect her during the growing years. You also need to realise that she will meet obstacles along the way – either stemming from herself or from her environment. For example, she may show a reluctance to try new things which could be the result of criticism or being compared with others. You’ll need to know how to act to help minimize negative things and maximize the positive.
Let’s start with the most basic factors that a child needs in order to develop to full potential.
Obviously children need shelter, food and clothing in order to thrive. After these, health is an important factor. Being healthy helps a child face problems more vigorously while ill-health can have negative effects. During illness, children become less active and muscles may lose some tone leading to fatigue and even arrested development. Illness makes children irritable and anxious and they may show this with temper tantrums. Being frequently ill may be the starting point for problems such as picky eating and behavioural difficulties. Chronic diseases (epilepsy, diabetes) may cause emotional instability by having to be heavily dependent on family members. More minor conditions such as eczema or allergies cause physical discomfort, affecting emotional control, concentration and the lack of will to persevere with something or complete a task.
Malnutrition and lack of a balanced diet can also lead to low energy levels which in turn will limit curiosity, a will to explore and be independent.
Side-effects of these conditions may include shyness, depression and anti-social behaviour which will impact on her emotional development.
A happy childhood isn’t necessary a guarantee of success in later life but it certainly provides a good foundation for success. Happy children are normally healthy and energetic. Happiness in itself is a strong motivation to do things and it seems to help children face obstacles with calmness and a lack of fear. It is also a habit, so happy children very often grow up to be happy, optimistic adults. Being happy and projecting cheerfulness also helps social relationships, which is a huge boon as children need to interact with others for good social-emotional development.
Unhappiness, on the other hand, drains a child’s strength and energy and can also affect general health. It stifles motivation, leads to withdrawal and self-occupation which in turn prevents children from learning from experience. Temper tantrums and difficult behaviors are more common in unhappy children. Generally, happy parents tend to foster happiness in their children so your attitude plays a role as well.
Your feelings about being a parent and the role you adopt as a parent are important. Here are some ways to ensure your attitude is positive:
- Build confidence and self-acceptance in your child by being confident and accepting of her. Don’t have unrealistic expectations of her and hold idealized wishes for a ‘dream’ child.
- Set realistic goals to try to avoid failure and keep self-esteem high.This means helping your child know her own strengths and weaknesses – without harping too much on the weaknesses – so that she develops self-understanding. It is important that she knows about possible limitations.
- Help her develop her individuality by providing opportunities for learning and experiencing different things. Watch that you don’t overdo this as children need time out from activities to play and interact with their families. Also watch your timing. Don’t expect her to enjoy, master or learn an activity if she is not developmentally ready for it.
- Often a child reaches a temporary plateau in her development.Don’t be misled into believing that she has reached her limit. It may be that with a little encouragement from you, she could advance further.
- Teach your child to relate to and be aware of others. She needs to learn to make friends. Model empathy for others as well so that she can learn compassion too. Happy, healthy children show empathy quite early on in their lives. And if unsocial behaviours are noted, don’t ignore them. Try to correct these before they become habits and possible lead her to being excluded from her peer group.
- Be careful not to stereotype male and female roles. These are found to stunt personal development – especially if they include beliefs about superior male and inferior female roles. Each child, regardless of gender, has to be encouraged to reach his or her own potential, without guilt or apology.
There are three main components of personality: emotionality, which is a tendency to become upset or distressed easily; levels of activity, which children show in terms of amount of movement, speed of talking or amount of energy put into any activities and restlessness; and sociability, the searching out for social contact and preference to be with others and sharing activities.
Your child will show a mix of these three components in varying amounts. It will be possible to note that your child has a bias in one or more direction, being more emotional, more active or more sociable. Emotional babies cry a lot and are hard to sooth; active babies don’t sleep very much and are restless; sociable babies respond to cuddles and being easily quietened.
Your job is to accept any of these traits shown in excess but also to encourage your child to move in the direction of the other two. Emotional children need reassurance, support, guidance and help in dealing with strong emotions so that they can feel secure and less emotional. A child who is always on the move can be helped to slow down by you showing lots of attention and gentle restraint. Playing games with an active child can encourage her to concentrate and increase attention span.
So are you doing your best? Here’s a list of things that characterize a good parent
A good parent
- Supports the child at all times but does not indulge or allow over-dependency
- Can be depended on by the child; you need to be consistent and predictable
- Is reasonably permissive and giving within firm boundaries; use your own sense of values and don’t simply follow the herd if you disagree with society’s current practices
- Is fair in discipline; be sure the child knows the boundaries and consequences for challenging them
- Respects the child’s individuality
- Inspires love not fear
- Sets a good example and models expected behaviours
- Is companionable and does things with the child; sets time aside for this
- Is good natured most of the time;
- Shows the child affection and expresses affection as well; let the child know what her most loveable qualities are
- Is sympathetic when the child is hurt or in trouble and gives plenty of time to listen and help
- Encourages the child to bring friends home
- Is interested in and focused on making a happy home
- Grants independence appropriate for the child’s age
- Does not expect unreasonable achievements
Dr Miriam Stoppard