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.
This post contains an extract from Dr Don Blackerby’s ‘Rediscover the joy of learning’.
Dr Blackerby has a Neuro-Linguistic Programming background and works largely with children presenting with ADHD symptoms and other learning problems.
If you find yourself working with or helping children with learning difficulties, it is sometimes rewarding for you and them to intersperse the ILT programme with some useful learning strategies. If you like the extract given below, you might be interested in reading the rest of his book. Shirley has personally shared the spelling strategy with many children, and with great success! It is fun to see them succeed and show a spurt of confidence and self-esteem.
Often in school, learners are asked to remember some important information. This may be spelling words, vocabulary words, dates, names, etc. Too many times the learners flounder around trying very hard to memorise the information and yet when test time comes, they find that they cannot remember it. Many times this comes from the fact that they have no idea how their memory works or how to store and retrieve information in their brain. The following is one way that is useful – particularly in academic subjects.
In order for your memory to work for you and for you to trust your memory, you need to know the following:
- Where you are storing the information
- That you have the information well represented internally
- How to retrieve the information
Your choices of where to store information are limited to five well-known senses – visual, auditory, kinesthetic (touch and feeling), smell or taste. In school, for all practical purposes, you are limited to auditory, kinesthetic and/or visual.
The auditory field has a major limitation in that it is linear. That is, you can only consciously process one word at a time and it has to be in a particular order. It is, therefore, very slow. For many learners the auditory field is also very boring. The auditory field is very useful in singing, reciting and other subjects requiring auditory recall. In the academic subjects, it is most useful for retrieval purposes.
The kinesthetic field is very useful in sports, typing and other like typing ‘use the body’ subjects, but for most of the academic subjects it is difficult to store information in and it is also very slow.
While all three play an important part in memory, your visual field has many advantages. `it is the fastest. It is the most interesting to learners of today who were brought up on TV and other screens. You can store vast amounts of information in one picture and access any part of it instantly.
So, for academic subjects like spelling, vocabulary, history, maths, etc., the best field to store the information is in the visual field. That is, make internal pictures in your mind’s eye of whatever it is you are trying to remember. It may be the actual word or date or it may be a picture of the meaning of the word. Later we will cover how the auditory and kinesthetic fields can be very useful in the third point above – that is in how to retrieve information.
Now that we know to store the information in pictures, the question arises about the second point – how to know we have a good picture. The answer is easy but takes practice for some people. If you are trying to store a word, for example, you take a picture of what the word looks like. When you think you have a good clear picture in your mind’s eye, you spell the word backwards – from right to left. This is a check to see if you have a good picture because you can only smoothly spell the word backwards if you have a good picture.
Once you can do this, the question arises about how to retrieve it. Many tests in school are given auditorially – that is, the teacher asks the question or the learner reads the question by sounding out the words. Therefore, we want the sound of the words to ‘hook’ or bring up the picture of the information so the learner can answer the question off his or her internal picture.
This will happen if you connect the sound of the information to the internal picture. To do this, you simultaneously say the information while you hold the picture of the information in your mind’s eye. The fact that you are looking at the picture while saying the information logically connects the sound and the picture. A learner learning a spelling word, for example, needs to practice this sound and picture connection about 6 to 8 times, preferably over several days.
Developing a visual learning strategy
One of the most common problems that some learners have is the tendency to not make visual images of the words they hear. This creates several problems with these learners.
- They have to resort to a slower learning strategy such as auditory or kinesthetic. The visual strategy is significantly faster.
- For most academic subjects the auditory and kinesthetic strategies are inappropriate and even boring, so the learner who does not know how to make these images is forced to work longer and harder at a task that is boring and ineffective. Guess what this learner’s reaction will be when he is faced with the task of doing his homework or of paying attention in the classroom?
Why would the students not translate the words they read and hear into visual images? Obviously most of them don’t know they are supposed to do it! Learners sometimes show amazement and surprise at the idea that they could make up their own pictures for the words they were reading off the pages of their textbooks.
One of the causes of this seems to occur in the transition of the reading instruction from the early grades to the middle grades. In the early grades when a word is introduced to the learner, a picture of the object is displayed next to the word. The learner has a natural bridge from seeing and saying the word to having an internal image of the object. If the instruction also requests the learner to access an experience the learner has had relative to the object, then the word also has a bridge to the kinesthetic (having the learner find a use for the word or make up a sentence using the word can also create a kinesthetic experience for the learner).
This practice is fairly quickly discontinued, however, and the learners have to make up their own pictures. As learners get older and the words get more abstract, it becomes less natural and harder to do and nobody seems to inform them that they should make pictures of the material and some never get around to it.
Because of the way reading is taught in the grade schools, some learners learn to read by just saying the words, either externally or internally. They do not transform into either visual or kinesthetic unless they already have that accidentally installed in their heads by a personal experience. For example, a learner who is shown and handles a copy of the country’s Constitution will have a rich visual/auditory/kinesthetic representation of the word Constitution. When he reads that word in a history book, for example, the rich internal representation will be elicited. Obviously, the schools can’t rely on all learners having these kinds of experiences in all of the subjects they teach.
These rich internal representations can be deliberately internally generated by the learners and the schools need to teach how to do this to those learners who have not yet figured it out. In fact, one of the primary differences between the better learners and the struggling learners is this very ability
So, what do the learners do who haven’t yet learned to do this? Besides not doing their homework, or at least procrastinating on doing it, what kind of learning strategies do they come up with to attempt to do their homework? Well, some are very ingenious!
One well-meaning teenager complained that her studying took too long, much longer than her fellow students. It seemed to her that what the other learners could get accomplished in one hour, took her several hours to do, and it was getting worse with the passing years. This was a very conscientious student who wanted to succeed in school but was becoming very depressed by her lack of success and the downward trend of her marks. In fact, it was affecting her self-esteem and her attitude about school.
On looking at her reading strategy, it seemed that she used a very complicated auditory strategy. After she had read for a while (by sounding out the words internally) she would realise she did not know what she had read and go back and read it again – this time slower! After trying it a couple of times slower and slower, she would go back to each major word and auditorially insert the definition of the word in the sentence. Guess what that did to her reading speed?
The major words would be words for which she did not have a visual representation. In her case, because her parents had provided a rich background, she had some internal representations of abstract words but not all. She literally would have holes in her comprehension of what she was reading. That’s why she would go back and insert definitions of the major words. She would ultimately comprehend, but only after much effort and in a time consuming manner.
Another young man had much the same problem only he had not had the rich experiences the young lady had so he didn’t have holes in his comprehension, he just didn’t have any comprehension. He was also a dedicated student who spent all of his spare time studying. He was a seventh grade learner who stopped building his reading vocabulary (visual representation) when the schools stopped giving him pictures with words. As the words got more and more abstract, he got further and further behind because all he could do was slow down his reading and try again and again. The only words that elicited a visual representation in him were words that described objects or actions in his real world. This is quite a limitation in school.
So what can be done with these learners? Can they be taught to read and learn so that it is interesting? The answer is YES – and Don tells us to read on!
But first a summary:
To be able to visualize in rich detail, to be able to hold the image so steady you can copy off it, to be able to instantly access large amounts of information, is a skill so significantly valuable for succeeding in school. The learners who do it have an easier time and do far better in school then the students who don’t.
Back in the olden days (before television), children listened to stories told by their elders or on radio and they made up the pictures because they had to in order to really enjoy the story (sound effects also helped). Now with TV, the pictures are ready made. I haave had many students who do well in the classroom when the teacher visually presents the material and do poorly when the teacher does not. They simply did not know that they were supposed to make up their own pictures and the teachers did not know they were supposed to teach them to do it.
One last reason for teaching a visual learning strategy. Imagine having an audio tape of a class you were taking. You can remember the teacher talking about a particular topic, parts of which you could remember including the terms he used. If you wanted to access that information from the audio tape, you would have to do it in a linear fashion. That means you would have to play the tape from the first and listen to every word until you got to the terms you were listening for. That is time consuming. Now imagine that you have the lecture stored as a detailed photograph or picture. As soon as you say the word or term to yourself and picture what it would be like, you would have instant access to the part of the lecture you were looking for. That is what a visual learning strategy offers. The old cliché that a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’ is only a part of the power of the visual learning strategy. The fact that you have instant access to any part of the picture is what is really helpful to you as the student.
Applying this principl
Let’s see how a visual strategy can help when learning spelling words. Many learners are told to write the words five to ten times or to sound the words out phonetically. Sometimes
This works but many times it does not. Try this extremely effective strategy for learning spelling words in an easy and fun way.
All excellent spellers have one trait in common. They spell a word off of a very clear internal picture of the word. So the question is how do we teach other learners to do that? In order to help a child learn to spell using this new spelling strategy, it is important you lead her through these steps for each new spelling word:
- Have her write the word divided into syllables (e.g. Gau teng).
- Have her analyse the word by scrutinizing each syllable and discussing which one is likely to prove difficult to remember. With the example given, a child may well say that the sound of the letters ‘au’ in Gau may be mistaken as ‘ow’ and cause them to make a mistake.Becoming aware and cognitively processing this type of information helps memory and also keeps the child personally involved in the learning.
- Now she looks at the spelling word and REMEMBERS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE.If the word is long, make a picture of each syllable and then put all the pictures together.
From from her internal image, have her spell the word BACKWORDS (from right to left) out loud to you. You check to make sure she spells it correctly. Have her do it several times.
- Once she can spell it backwards (and only then), have her sound the word out WHILE looking at the internal image of the word. This ‘hooks’ the sound of the word to the internal image of the word.
- Then have her spell it from left to right off the internal image.
- Praise her for her success and new skill.Go to the next spelling words and repeat the steps.
After the above strategy has been completed on each of the spelling words, practice by picking random words off the spelling list and have the learner spell them. After practicing a word six to eight times, the learner should be able to just say the word, see the internal image and spell it correctly, without having to spell it backwards. Practicing the spelling words over time (like a few days) will drop the correct spelling into long term memory.
Some additional tips and/or variations on using the spelling strategy are
- Get learners into a visualizing mode by having them imagine something very familiar such as a friend, grandparent, pet or movie star.
- Before you launch into this spelling strategy with new and difficulty words, teach them the strategy by spending one or two sessions having them learn to spell small and familiar words backwards. Gradually increase the size of the words until they are the same size and complexity as the words on their spelling list. Let them give you words to spell backwards so you can make it a game.
- Some variations on step 1 of the spelling strategy are:
- Have the learners look at the spelling word and write it down before they make an internal image
- Have the learners write the word in the air with their fingers on an imaginarty chalkboard
- While you slowly spell the word out loud, have the students ‘print it’ in their minds’ eye. You may have to repeat it several times.
- When the words start to get longer, have them break the words down into syllables or miniwords.
Remember that the reason you have the learner spell the word backwards is to assure yourself and her that she has a clear internal image of that word