Stop! Are you putting the cart before the horse?

Stop! Are you putting the cart before the horse?


You have a child in your classroom.  He seems to be bright: speaks well, has good general knowledge, can be quite cheeky and shows a keen sense of humour.  His school performance, however, is below average.  He struggles with schoolwork and in spite of his obvious intelligence, is unable to read, write, do maths or spell at required grade level.  You refer him to the Learning Support Teacher and she begins to give him individual instruction in weak areas. After a while, she reports that he is not responding well and he continues to fall behind.  This is a case of putting the cart before the horse.  Trying to solve learning problems with academic work seldom succeeds.   What is needed is an understanding of what may be underlying the academic difficulties.


Obviously there could be many reasons for his school underperformance but one that may be interesting to discuss here is a bilateral vestibular problem.


The vestibular system is located in the inner ear and those of you that follow posts put out by Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) will have read about this tiny system before.  It may be very small but it is strongly implicated in our ability to cope with just about everything we have to do in the world!  Certainly ILT practitioners will tell you that the majority of learners referred for help show signs of irregular vestibular function.


There are two types of vestibular problems that influence learning and behaviour.  As a result of vestibular irregularities, the brain either over- or underreacts to vestibular input.  This can be compared to a TV that is not properly adjusted. The vestibular acts as the tuning control and should adjust the incoming signal so that the picture and sound are clear and neither too bright or dull, too loud or soft.  When the brain’s powers of functioning are not balanced as a result of efficient vestibular activities, the information sent to the brain from the various sensory organs cannot be easily interpreted.  If not correctly interpreted, responses to such information are usually inappropriate. Think of yourself trying to view a programme that is not properly tuned to the signal but instead leaves the screen with a confusing mess of zigzag lines with a shrill, ear-shattering soundtrack.


The symptoms of a bilateral vestibular problem are difficult to pinpoint. Learners with this problem are often considered by their families as completely normal until they go to school. Then the puzzling signs appear and they fail to keep up with their learning peers.  Often their problems are diagnosed as dyslexia or alexia.  Others may offer the opinion that the problem is of an emotional nature.


Signs that may point to the actual underlying problems include:


  • Faulty eye movements resulting in difficulties following a moving object or to move attention from one thing to another
  • Poor posture; the child has difficulty keeping her head upright while sitting or will tire easily when playing
  • Difficulty learning to ride a two-wheeled bicycle
  • Are not good at sports and lack the self-confidence to take part
  • Although they show normal coordination, they may be clumsy
  • He seeks out movement – enjoying merry-go-rounds, spinning or rolling endlessly
  • The two sides of her body are not well integrated – she has trouble coordinating the right and left hands with each other, showing poor bilateral coordination
  • Is easily confused by direction, especially if not given much time to think; confuses right with left side
  • She becomes confused when trying to clap, walk or beat a drum to a rhythm
  • May show midline problems
  • An underactive vestibular system interferes with specialization of movements. This results in the child developing individual skills with each individual hand and brain hemisphere instead of using one hand for fine motor movements, like writing and using equipment. She will, for example, try to use her right hand for tasks on the right side of the body and her left hand for tasks on the left side. This may result in her seeming to be ambidextrous but she is not skillful with both hands as is a truly ambidextrous individual.
  • When lying on her stomach with her arms stretched out forwards, she is unable to lift her trunk, head, arms and legs and hold them for 30 seconds.
  • She tends to reverse letters, for example, ‘d’ and ‘b’ and also tends to read words in the incorrect order.
  • She cannot handle stress well and becomes easily frustrated.


The bottom line is to try and gather clues that can help you identify what may be underlying a child’s learning challenges.  Teachers often are the first to refer parents for help.  Parents become frustrated and disheartened when they find themselves following through with advice but then seeing little improvement.


Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) offers teachers training courses to equip them with the knowledge to recognise the real reason for learning problems.  This doesn’t mean that teachers have to become practitioners but it does mean that they are in a position to refer to the helping professional best able to offer effective help.


Visit our website www.ilt.co.za to learn more about our approach and to find practitioners around the country to help.  The website also outlines the attendance and distance (correspondence) course we offer teachers.  If you need more information, contact us at info@ilt.co.za.


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