How rewiring the brain helps overcome learning difficulties
(Acknowledgments to Svea Gold and Sally Goddard)
For efficient learning, the brain has to be ‘wired to learn’. This means that the trillions of brain cells, or neurons, need to connect to each other in order to form a network. 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 things that can go wrong.
Thanks to research, 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.
This isn’t up-to-date news. Way back in 1996, a writer in an edition of Newsweek focusing on Your Child’s Brain wrote “…. There is new evidence that certain kinds of intervention can reach even the older brain and like a microscopic screwdriver rewire broken circuits.” I still remember my excitement! So today 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 stabilise 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.