I recently sat down with the parents of a high school student who has managed to barely get by in school. When we finished an in depth testing process we discovered he has a serious learning disorder. His parents told me with aching regret, that in the past, they had punished their son and taken things away because they had been told that his poor performance in school was due to “laziness and a behavior problem.”
Have you ever seen one of these kids that look lazy?
Maybe they always have their head on the desk. Others just never seem to be able to get started. Or maybe they just seem tired all the time, moving slowly, working slowly, barely able to muster any energy until it’s time for recess, P.E., or lunch. When asked about homework, they might say they didn’t have time, or didn’t have the right book, or maybe even say they just didn’t feel like doing it.
When teachers have gone “above and beyond,” done all they can do and the student doesn’t appear to be trying, lazy is often the only obvious conclusion left.
What we know about students is that if they could do the work, they would do it.
Not doing work is really embarrassing, and no student wants to be embarrassed.
So what is it with these lazy-like kids? A Learning Disorder usually has its root in one or more areas of inefficient processing or thinking, which are interrupting expected academic development.
Believe it or not, the developmental foundation for learning begins in utero. There is a developmental continuum that depends on each skill/ability building on the group that develops before it. If there is interference in this development, even at the earliest levels, it can affect school performance.
Let’s take a look at just one of these interferences.
The Central Nervous System is the control center for all development and learning. Its job is to facilitate a person’s ability to move well, speak fluently, play, and develop skills for living and learning.
Primitive survival reflexes, or automatic movements that occur without thinking, begin as early as 9 weeks in utero and are fully present at birth. These reflexes are necessary to help the baby with the birth process and with survival during the early months of life.
As the nervous system and the brain continue to develop after birth, new neurological connections are made and higher functions in the brain take over. The primitive reflexes are no longer needed and in fact, get in the way of the child’s thinking and learning if they remain active.
Remember, these reflexes are automatic (like a baby becoming startled or grasping your finger). They occur without thought.
Efficient learning depends upon more complex voluntary controlled movements and higher thought processes, so primitive reflexes need to become integrated and inactive. This should occur naturally by about 9-12 months of age.
When primitive reflexes are retained, they can cause neurological interference that affects motor control, sensory perception, eye-hand coordination, and thinking, producing anxiety and causing the person to have to work too hard and with less efficiency than would be expected. This is called neuro-developmental delay.
Dr. Lawrence J. Beuret, M.D., of Palatine, Illinois has developed an NDD checklist, clues that a delay may be occurring, which includes these risk factors:
Pregnancy and Birth:
- Complications with pregnancy, labor,or delivery
- Low birth weight (less than 5 pounds)
- Delivery more than 2 weeks early or late
- Difficulties for infant at birth: blue baby, difficulties breathing, heavily
- Difficulties for infant at birth: blue baby, difficulties breathing, heavily bruised, low Apgar scores, distorted skull, jaundice
- Feeding problems in the first six months
- Walking or talking began after 18 months
- Unusual/severe reactions to immunization
- During first 18 months: Illness involving high fever, delirium, convulsions
- Reading/writing difficulties
- Learning disorder
- Motion sickness
The following learning challenges can be related to neuro-developmental delay:
- Dyslexia or Learning Difficulties, especially reading, spelling and comprehension
- Poor sequencing skills
- Poor sense of time
- Poor visual function/processing skills
- Slow in processing information
- Attention and concentration problems
- Inability to sit still/fidgeting
- Poor organizational skills
- Easily distracted and/or impulsive
- Hypersensitivity to sound, light, or touch
- Poor posture, coordination, balance, or gait
- Poor handwriting
- Clumsiness/accident prone
- Slow at copying tasks
- Confusion between right and left
- Reversals of letters/numbers and midline problems
- Quick temper/easily frustrated/short fuse
- Can’t cope with change/must have things a certain (their) way
- School Phobia
- Poor motivation and/or self esteem
- Depression, anxiety or stress
Behavioral, self esteem and motivational problems are associated with this list.
Core Learning Skills Training
Movement is an integral part of learning. The kinds of movements needed for learning are intentional and controlled. For example, visually following an object with the eyes, holding a pencil, moving the mouth to form sounds and words, or kicking a ball all require intentional control of the muscles. According to Dr. Samuel Berne, O.D., “when this neurological control of the muscles follows an unconscious reflex instead of following intention, the movement pattern becomes confusing instead of becoming an automatic learned skill.”
In order for comfortable learning to occur, basic physical skills such as balance and being able to use both sides of the body (right-left and upper-lower) together in a coordinated fashion must be in place. With stimulation through specific kinds of movement activities, primitive reflexes can be integrated so that the neurological and motor systems are more available for higher level movement and thinking tasks.
We frequently have students who have great difficulty maintaining good posture while sitting in a chair. At first glance, it looks like a motivation or attitude problem, but our work with reflex integration and core learning skills training has shown us that these students simply don’t have the muscle control to do what is asked with any consistency.
What Can Be Done
In a clinical setting, we have developed a program called Core Learning Skills. It focuses on the integration of five primitive reflexes that are core to efficient learning and functioning. It also includes activities for vestibular stimulation, motor development, visual skills development, attention awareness and control.
As students participate in Core Learning Skills Training, we see that they begin to appear more mature, motivated, and attentive because they are no longer battling inefficient movement patterns and are gaining automatic motor control.
In a classroom setting, there is a series of movements you can use with your students. These can take as little as 5 minutes and help prepare the brain for learning. While these are not specifically for reflex integration, doing these movements will give students greater focus and ability to use the skills they have in a more efficient way.
The program is called Brain Gym by Paul Dennison. You can find this resource at www.braingym.org.
Becoming a Successful Student
Being a successful student involves many skills. When a child is struggling in school and a little extra support isn’t making enough difference, it is likely that there is something in the developmental learning skills or underlying processing skills and such a learning disorder is interfering with academic success. In most cases, these skills can be developed so that efficient and comfortable learning can take place.