Will closing schools affect children?

I was alerted to an insightful article written by Ron Crawford of the Productivity Commission in New Zealand.  Here is a summary of the contents:

As a social worker, Ron writes that the extended time spent at home might not be good for all children. This is especially true for those living in households where there is limited material and educational resources on hand, little motivation to encourage learning or few opportunities for uninterrupted study.

For a proportion of children, the risks of mental and physical harm have increased. Lockdown gave at-risk children few or no opportunities to escape from the pressures of a damaging home environment. Schools typically provide their only haven – with caring teachers on hand to monitor their wellbeing.

Are there harms to a wider group of children from school closures? While there is mixed evidence, the answer on balance seems to be yes.  There are grounds to believe that time lost during schools closing can be made up through support for learning at home and ‘catch-up’ once schools open again. But not all learners will fare well.  In the United States, studies show that typically learners’ skills and knowledge fall over the long, three month’s summer break and the losses are worse for children from poorer families.  In New Zealand, missing days at school is unsurprisingly associated with lower achievement. 

The effects of school closures on children’s wellbeing was one of the things that the New Zealand Government looked at closely in deciding that schools would open fully as soon as possible.

Also of importance is the ability of people to earn an income, which many mothers cannot do when forced to stay at home to care for and try to school their children. Being able to earn is pretty important for kids’ wellbeing too.

So, to summarise his main points:

  • School closures heighten the risk of mental and physical harm to possibly the most vulnerable children
  • Closures (even of relatively short duration) increases the risk of educational failure for a wider group of children in less well-off communities
  • Many families are well-placed with the help of schools to support their children to keep learning during closures
  • While schools’ main role is to promote learning they also benefit families by freeing parents to work. This is an important benefit of reopening schools.

Many children in South Africa may be struggling in this time of extended school shutdown. Learning difficulties may be going unrecognized and with no support to correct the causes of learning challenges, children will fall even further behind.  If you suspect your child is avoiding learning while at home (or at school) or struggling to keep up with the prescribed work, don’t delay in seeking help to address the possible reasons – at least the shutdown of schools gives you and your child time to work on overturning “I can’t” to “I can”, and “I won’t” to “I will”.



What’s the best help for your child’s attention problems?



During this lockdown, you’ve noticed that your child seems to struggle to focus attention on tasks or even conversation for any appropriate length of time.  You’ve also noticed that he or she daydreams during a task, takes too long to complete work, fidgets excessively and so on.

Seeking medical help usually results in a prescription for a stimulant drug, such as Ritalin, Concerta and Strattera.  We do know that behaviour can be changed using certain drugs.  On Ritalin, for example, children are better able to pay attention, stay on task and sit still but the results are temporary; only with repeated dosages and sustained-release tablets will the benefits last all day.  Increasing the dosage over time brings risk of potential side effects even if these don’t show immediately and prolonged use should be discouraged because of uncertainty about long-term effects.   In addition, the drugs don’t address the basic problem.  They may make children easier to manage but don’t make them smarter or happier.  Children don’t learn any better when on medication – in fact, their work may show a lack of thought and originality.  They help the children get through the day in a mechanistic way but don’t make them better prepared for tomorrow.  Unfortunately, the drugs are often used alone, with no on-going programme to help the child in other ways.  In short, they may be the quickest and easiest ‘solution’ for children with attention problems but they aren’t the best.

The reason is that drugs don’t affect the underlying problems.  Behavioural problems and inattentiveness are symptoms of other problems and the answer isn’t to be found in medication.   Let’s have a look at some case studies:

Little Anna was the smallest child in class and came across as being quiet, withdrawn and easily distracted.  She stares at other children and plays nervously with her crayons and books.  When evaluated for neurodevelopmental delays, she showed that her stress levels were very high.  She had some early developing irregularities that interfered with her brain’s ability to cope with the sights and sounds in the world.   She was simply overwhelmed by what she perceived as ‘threats’ from her environment.  Once these were addressed, her stress levels dropped and she became more responsive.

John never sits still.  His constant activity often makes him a nuisance in class and at home.  Under investigation, ILT found that due to hitches during his birth and early development, he had mixed dominance, and had failed to develop left-right preference because he hadn’t integrated the two sides of his body.  He also hadn’t developed the foundational systems needed for efficient motor functioning and stable posture.  As these were addressed, he became better able to keep his body still and use it in developmentally healthy movement activities that he could not master before.  This led to his behaviour becoming less annoying, increased ability to make friends and improvements in classroom learning.

Kevin is a daydreamer. He often stares out a window or at the television screen.  He is slow to complete his work.  He is clumsy and often drops things.  He has allergies and is often ill with sinusitis and colds. An ILT evaluation showed that his body didn’t work automatically.  He was using his mind to run his body so the brain’s higher levels, supposed to be used in learning and daily coping, were not available for cognitive functioning.  It would have been so easy for Kevin to slip through the cracks without achieving his potential.  A programme to help underdeveloped brain areas brought about noticeable improvements in his schoolwork and physical coordination.

Little Sam was asked to leave his nursery school because his ‘violent’ behaviour and tantrums became too much to manage.   A full neurodevelopmental evaluation by ILT showed no irregularities in development or sensory-motor system functioning.  What was suspected was a sensitivity to food colourants and preservatives.  On a trial basis following this suspicion, Sam’s family excluded any foods containing these additives and Sam almost immediately became calmer, eventually returning to his school as a happy, friendly little boy.

So drugs aren’t the answer to behavioural problems or inattentiveness.  Instead, these children need a comprehensive evaluation followed by an individualized programme that corrects identified areas of irregular functioning.

Interestingly, an ILT associate ran a programme with a group of over 50 children, all diagnosed with ADHD[1].  They were given daily certain sensory-motor stimulation and other movement activities designed to recreate the movement patterns that function to develop the brain in the early years.  About half these children were on Ritalin when they started the programme.  All were taken off Ritalin from three to six months later with no need to be put back on Ritalin or other behaviour-modifying medication.  For all children, the results showed the elimination of behaviour problems, better school results and dramatically improved coordination.  Social skills improved significantly as well but most importantly, the children were clearly happier.

Correcting behavioural and learning problems isn’t easy.  Effective intervention needs a holistic approach that reaches to the problems in the background and provides a supportive, encouraging environment.  For this reason, ILT is practiced in the family – no weekly visits to a therapist but ‘quality time’ spent in movements in which one or both parents can be involved.  The rewards are immeasurable. There is nothing better than watching a child who begins to feel good from the inside out!

[1][1][1] Shirley Randolph, Tree of Learning Centre, Boise, Idaho

Good eyesight is not enough for efficient learning


Schools across South Africa are preparing to open their doors again. While many children will continue with their homeschooling, many others are facing a return to school.  Homeschooling has advantages – including the fact that children can pace themselves and their learning more flexibly. School timetables tend to be more rigid and classroom tasks may require more from a child.

We don’t often think about the role the eyes play in learning. Of course we know that a child needs normal eyesight to be able to read, write and generally function in the world. But once that eye examination declares that all is well, we tend to forget that learning difficulties may be linked to visual functions not necessarily linked to 20/20 vision.

Many children who present with learning difficulties may have binocular visual dysfunctions (BVD).  In fact, some studies show that up to 50% of children diagnosed with ADHD have BVD.  Binocularity refers to us using two eyes with overlapping fields of view (due to the fact that our eyes are placed widely apart in our heads) to focus on and interpret slightly different visual images. The brain has to blend these into a single, clear image and keep the image steady, no matter how we move the eyes or our heads.  Binocular inefficiencies may make a child tired while reading, cause words to blend together or move on the page as she is reading, skip lines and lose her place when reading and make it hard to concentrate.  Eye contact with others may be difficult too, making it hard for her to focus whenever someone is speaking to her.

Other symptoms include poor coordination, dizziness, headache, light sensitivity, car sickness, clumsiness and sleep disturbances.

If a child shows any of these symptoms and they are affecting schoolwork, she might be experiencing slightly misaligned eyes or have eye muscles that are not controlling the eyes adequately to ensure good binocularity.   A screening by an ILT practitioner may be helpful and also needed to deal with binocular issues caused by muscular irregularities. It may also help alert to the need for a thorough evaluation by a  Developmental or Neurovisual Optometrist.



Reading difficulties: A symptom not the cause of problems

(With thanks to Svea Gold)

When Mat fails to learn to read at grade level, his parents are encouraged to help him with extra reading at home, or refer him for remedial reading.  This often doesn’t help very much and the reason is that reading failure is a symptom that the child has an underlying problem.   His problem may not be the act of learning to read at all.  The struggle to read is a red flag signifying that there is something going on in Mat’s brain that is the real reason for his problem.

For example, if the two sides of Mat’s brain aren’t communicating properly, the eyes won’t function properly either.  Most people see words with each eye.  If you are reading the words THE CAT your right and left eyes will separately see the words (THE CAT and THE CAT), then send the signals to the brain.  The brain, in turn, superimposes the two images into one and you ‘read’ the words: THE CAT.

If Mat’s eyes are not functioning properly, he might look at the two images and see: THE TCAT CAT.  He can’t make sense of this so can’t read it.  He blinks and looks again.  This time he sees: THE CATHE CAT.   Mat decides that he really sucks at reading and must be very stupid!

It isn’t simply a question of seeing.  An optometrist finds that Mat has perfectly normal vision.  The truth is that efficient reading depends on many skills, not only the health and visual acuity of the eyes.  The problem may be more deep seated – caused by faulty wiring in the brain, that we call ‘neurological disorganization’ or ‘incomplete neurological organisation’.   If the child’s inability to read is the result of incomplete neurological organization, there will be other significant clues.  If his eyes don’t function well together, he will most likely get tired quickly; he may find that certain sports are difficult; most likely his coordination will be poor and he may show awkward movements.

Many children with learning problems show a lack of coordination stemming from poor neurological organization.  These children are not stupid but merely need help in rewiring the brain networks to bring about organized neural pathways needed for reading, writing and numeracy.  ILT practitioners see this day after day.  Once the correct connections have been made in Mat’s brain, he might suddenly take off and develop rapidly in many areas.

Clues to neurological disorganistion

Here are some of the signs of a disorganized brain that many children with reading problems (also labelled as dyslexia) show:

  • They lack coordination. Running, walking even crawling seem awkward and lack grace and smoothness
  • They have undecided or delayed dominance, meaning that they show uncertain preference for writing, for throwing, stepping on a stool, etc. This lack of a clear dominant side exists way beyond the age of six years, when most children have developed clear dominance.
  • They seem to love music
  • Their handwriting has no consistent slant: their letters seem to have different angles and go in different directions
  • They show signs of visual difficulties – often holding their noses close to the paper when reading or writing
  • Many reverse letters and numbers, mixing up the directions of letters such as ‘b’ and ‘d’. They may read ‘saw’ for ‘was’ or write numbers backwards
  • Most are poor spellers who may be drilled for a test but forget what they learn in a very short time
  • Many seem to manage maths better than reading and speak more fluently than they can express themselves in writing
  • Most seem to understand spoken language but struggle with written language.

The importance of neurodevelopment

Very often the brain does not develop normally if a stage of development is missed.  The eyes, for instance, learn to work together in the period when the child is crawling on hands and knees.  When the leading hand feels the floor, the eyes will reflexively focus on that hand.  This helps both eyes focus on one point at the same time.  The two images from the two eyes are superimposed in the brain and the child sees one image and not two.  Crawling is also very important in helping the child judge distance, an ability needed when writing.

During this all-important crawling stage, the ears are also learning to work together.  As the forward hand hits the floor, the head moves gently from side to side as the eyes follow the hand.  This provides stimulation to the vestibular system in the inner ears, and much of the information leading to the speech centre is coordinated through this system.  The vestibular system coordinates visual perception with the ability of judging where the sound comes from and helps the brain make the postural adjustments to allow the child to move freely.

This is just one example to emphasise the importance of the crawling stage in infancy.  Parents need to severely limit the time that babies are kept in playpens, walking rings, car seats and such like.  These prevent the infant from learning the normal crawling patterns which are so vital for coordinating all the functions of the body.

How do we address this?

ILT practitioners look for clues that point to inadequate functioning or underdevelopment of brain areas that support learning in their young clients.   They also appreciate the role of nutrition in brain functioning and know that a healthy brain depends on the body being healthy and well nourished. 

Once the underlying causes of the child’s problem have been uncovered, a programme of individualized activities are given to the family to be done at home every day.  The child’s progress is monitored through a series of programme reviews, in order to adjust the activities according to progress shown. 

This process basically gives the brain a second chance to develop all areas and so make it possible for the child to ‘catch up’ on those difficult academic areas.



More movement activities for fun and healthy development

Last week we suggested some physical activities that are known to boost healthy development – mainly related to sensory motor systems.

‘Sensory-motor’ refers to the relationship between information coming in from our senses and movement.  Sensory messages are picked up from our environment mainly through the ‘outer’ senses of vision, audition, touch, smell and taste but we also receive information from inside our bodies. These come from the ‘inner senses’ – in other words, those sensory organs we cannot see, for example, the proprioceptors (which tell us where our bodies are in space) and vestibular (which is responsible for our ability to maintain balance). We use all this information to make appropriate movement responses, to generate thought and feelings.

When children can move efficiently in response to sensory inputs, they find movement activities to be fun.   Some children have greater problems integrating the sensory information with motor responses.  It is possible that they don’t experience physical activities and challenges as ‘having fun’ and may try to avoid them.  These are often children who show clumsiness, dislike climbing on jungle gyms or swinging off monkey bars, find bicycle riding difficult, and so on.  They are amongst those who will benefit from planned and carefully chosen physical activities.  Remember, though, that they might need encouragement to engage in these and persevere until they are able to master them.

The activities last week were aimed at the vestibular system.  Here are a couple of examples to enhance sense of body position (or proprioception).

Fun with a hoop: For this activity, you’ll need one or two hula hoops and perhaps some cushions or a blow up mattress or lilo for introducing later changes.

The idea is to hold the hoop in different positions and ask the child to move through it without allowing any part of her body to touch the hoop.  Start with the hoop in a vertical position with the lower edge at about knee height so that the child can step through it.  It’s a good idea to tell the child that the hoop has a built-in alarm which will go off if it is touched (make loud alarm sounds when this happens and tell the child to begin again). The child is not allowed to dive through the hoop; the movement must be slow and careful.

Once the child has succeeded in climbing through the hoop, she returns through the hoop from the opposite direction.  Then ask her to think of a different way of getting through.  After this, change the position of the hoop – horizontal to the ground, tilted at different angles, etc.

You can add variations once the above becomes easy. For example, use two hoops, parallel and about two feet apart; perform the activity on an uneven surface, like cushions or an air mattress; add other items to get through without touching, like through the legs of a chair or table.

Fun with a rope: For these activities, you’ll need a fairly long rope – ideally about 6-8 metres.

  1. Have a tug of war. Hold tightly to your end of the rope and have the child try to pull you forward.
  2. Hold your end of the rope and have the child pull himself towards you, hand over hand or, even better, on a scooter board if you have one.
  3. Put a heavy object on one end of the rope and have the child try to pull it out. You can even park your car on one end of the rope if no heavy objects are at hand.
  4. Tie the rope to a post or anything else upright and swing it backwards and forwards. Have the child jump over the rope. Once this becomes easy, do it to a beat or to a rhythm.

Fun with a ball:  For these activities, choose fairly large, plastic balls. Soccer and netballs will be too heavy and hard.

  1. Kick the ball up into the air. Try to repeat this action so that the ball is sent into the air with each kick.
  2. Play a gentle version of soccer with him. Kick the ball back and forth between you.
  3. Dribble the ball across an open space.
  4. Put a target at one end of an open space and try to kick the ball so that it hits the target. You can also make pretend soccer nets by placing two objects on the end of the space and aiming to get the ball between them; or use a hoop and try to kick the ball through the hoop.

Fun with tools:  For this, the child will need a very sturdy chunk of wood (or ideally, a log lying in the garden), a hammer and some nails.  Don’t think a toy hammer will suffice – he’ll need a real one to get the job done!  The rest is simple. Let him enjoy hammering the nails into the wood.  If you have no wood at hand at all, use a large, dense piece of polystyrene, like those that are used to pack appliances.



Making daily walks more fun during lockdown



Content adapted from ‘Playing Smart’ by Susan Perry.

We have precious little time allocated to exercise away from our homes during this lockdown period.  Walking is one of the best forms of exercise for all ages, and certainly families should be making sure everyone spends the morning hours profitably. 

It is true that walking the same route every day can get a bit boring, so here are some ways of making it more appealing.  Brainstorm other ways with your children.

  • Change the time of your walk. Yes, we have to be home by 09:00 but try a sunrise walk – watching the sun come up can be wonderful.
  • Have a bird-watching or nature walk. Hunt for pine cones or dried pods to use for some craft activities later in the day. Look for animal tracks.  Spot the birds and try to identify them. Children may enjoy starting a ‘bird list’.
  • Go on a ‘what’s wrong’ walk. Invite children to notice everything in the neighbourhood that needs fixing or changing. For example, a lawn might need mowing; a house needs a coat of paint; a roof needs fixing before the rain; flower beds need weeding ….
  • Go on a ‘what’s good’ walk, and encourage children to notice things that are pretty and pleasing. This is a good way of increasing a child’s observation powers and sense of aesthetics.
  • Try a ‘never-seen-before’ walk. As you traverse a very familiar route, look for ten things you’ve never seen before. This could be anything, from cracks in the pavements to the way potted plants are arranged on a stoep.
  • If it has recently rained, try a ‘puddle walk’. Look at different puddles and make predictions about which will dry up first. Why?  Measure the depth of puddles with a stick.  Check your predictions the following day.
  • Play ‘who lives here?’. Try to guess what the different homeowners do for a living. Use clues such as the car in the driveway, or whatever is clearly visible through the windows (but don’t stare too much!)
  • Draw a map of the neighbourhood as you walk, noting the street names and the number of houses in the streets. See how accurate the maps are by following them.
  • Seek out the cats! Look sharply to count all the cats in the neighbourhood, sitting on roofs and sleeping on stoeps.

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