When we are sharing a book with our children we assume that they are seeing precisely what we are seeing. If they are struggling with their reading this is most unlikely to be the case.
Children who are slow to read will almost certainly be having trouble with their visual processing so that they cannot scan a line of print and see it in the way we do. This is nothing to do with their ability to focus, which is checked by an optician. It has to do with the way the eyes are able to move from left to right and work as a team, how quickly they can process visual information, whether appropriate eye dominance has been established and if the child can retain an accurate visual image of a word. A child may also be over-sensitive to light. These children may have trouble with all the usual eye-related reflexes which should be helping them to stay focussed, adjust the amount of light coming into their eyes or change their focus from distance to near-point appropriately.
Some children may learn to read the words easily, but have very little comprehension of the text. This may be a developmental problem with ‘brain integration’ which would be restricting access to the right hand side of the brain where the child gets a ‘picture’ of what the story is all about. The child can see the words but cannot see the story in their mind’s eye.
Other children may have had no difficulty with learning to read and understand the text, but don’t seem to be able to read quickly. They may also find they often need to re-read sections of text and struggle to read for long periods. These children will have visual processing difficulties too, perhaps with photosensitivity, eye movements and eye-teaming.
Children who are battling against visual processing difficulties when they are reading will sometimes develop a fear response, either conscious or subconscious. As a result of this, oxygen will be withdrawn from the cells required for the task and it will be even more difficult for the child to perform. This is easy to spot because the child will start to yawn. Beware of yawning – it hardly ever signals that a child is bored, more likely a time for the adult to stop!
Writing is a really complex task, dependent on maturity in a large number of developmental areas, appropriate teaching and also a lot of practice, so it is not surprising that many children struggle to produce neat handwriting. Children’s senses of touch and muscle tone need to be mature so that they can develop the right pencil grip and their spinal reflexes all need to be properly integrated so that they can develop a good writing posture and efficient action coming from the wrist. Their visual processing needs to be mature too, so that they see how their writing is supposed to look, with the right spacing, scaling and punctuation, and they have to be able to coordinate their visual and motor systems. Their auditory processing also needs to be well-developed, so that they can manipulate the sounds in words and sequence them in the correct order for spelling.
One of the most significant causes of handwriting difficulties is a problem with motor planning. This involves a problem with the connections in the brain that turn the intention to write into the physical act of writing. Children with motor planning difficulties will tend to write their letters quite slowly, find it hard to achieve full cursive writing and be very slow to commit their thoughts to paper. Some children will respond by writing rapidly and carelessly, with little thought to the content. It can be quite difficult to understand that an otherwise bright and very verbal child struggles so much to do any written work. Often these children are accused of being lazy and poorly motivated, but no child will be well motivated to do something which they find extremely difficult.
Some children do really well at most subjects in school but have a particular problem with maths. This is often to do with visual processing difficulties and the sort of visual integration ability that is tested in non-verbal reasoning tests, particularly Matrices. The reason for this is that maths concepts are primarily visually based and times’ tables facts and number bonds (for example, 7 + 8 = 15) are generally stored in the brain as a visual image. Children who also have auditory processing difficulties will struggle even more because it will be hard to compensate using verbal reasoning and memory skills.
Word problems in maths can present particular difficulties for children with visual processing difficulties because this aspect of maths requires visualisation ability. They need to ‘see in their mind’s eye’ an image of the problem presented so that they can understand what is required. Naturally, children with reading difficulties will also struggle with word problems because they may need to use so many of the brain’s resources to read the words that full comprehension of the meaning is lost.
Some children have a particular problem with their short-term memory, so although they have a good understanding of maths they find it hard to do mental arithmetic and lose pieces of information when they are trying to work something out. Others have difficulty with the symbols used in maths and can easily end up doing the wrong calculation.
Many children develop a fear of maths and this creates real difficulties because it blocks some of the processing they require for the task. Their brain integration, memory and visual processing will be affected and fear-based reflexes may take over, paralysing the brain circuits they need to use for the task.
Children who have fallen behind in maths really need to be taken back to work on maths concepts from a point where they feel secure so that they can experience success. Maths skills are hierarchical, with higher order skills dependent on a range of more basic building blocks. If any of these blocks are missing or deficient, progress will be increasingly impaired. For children using our programmes we do not recommend that this instruction is commenced until the processing on which maths skills are based is secure. Children need to experience success in order to progress and there is a danger of premature tutoring simply reinforcing failure.
Speech & Language
Speech development is very complex and depends on maturity in a number of areas of development as well as being given plenty of practice. First of all, a child has to be able to hear properly and any disruption to hearing in the first few years of life is likely to have an impact on the development of their language skills. But although many children with speech and language difficulties have had problems such as glue ear which might block their ears periodically, many others show no early signs of hearing difficulties.
It is often not understood that in order to develop mature speech and language skills, children have to develop their listening ability effectively. This is a complex process, dependent on a number of underlying skills. They need to process incoming sounds quickly, so that they can perceive every element of a stream of language without missing vital parts. They must be able to direct incoming sounds rapidly to their language centre, usually in the left hand side of their brain, and this depends on right ear dominance being established. They must then put together the information that enters each individual ear, compare it to what they have heard before and make sense of it. These skills are termed ‘central auditory processing’.
Memory skills are important too. If a child cannot remember what they have just heard they will not be able to recognise the words later, or reproduce them. Sequencing skills are required in order for the sounds and words to come out in the right order. Some children have problems with articulation. This can be caused by a problem with muscle tone, where the muscles used to produce language are not working perfectly and the child’s speech lacks clarity.
Some children have motor planning difficulties, which means they have difficulty in thinking what they want to say and the subsequent brain processing involved in planning all the movements and timing required. What they finally say may not be exactly what they intended. Motor planning difficulties can prevent children speaking at all, or cause a disorder in their language.
Some children seem to develop perfectly normally at the pre-school stage but are just a little clumsy. They are the ones who tend to fall over nothing and have a knack of knocking things over at the table. They may also tend to be ‘in your space’ too much or unaware that they are walking in front of you or across you. Once they get to school they may have unexpected difficulty with writing easily and quickly. Often they show little interest in sport, but some may be very keen and very frustrated that they do not do well.
Some children have a lot more difficulty than this. They may have been slow to develop motor skills such as dressing and seem ungainly when they run. They may be slow to get changed for games and struggle with fiddly fastenings. For them sport can be a nightmare, to be avoided at all costs. Fine motor skills are likely to be a problem too. Some will have had huge difficulty in colouring in between the lines and they will hate having to write or draw.
These children will have problems with their ‘body in space’ awareness and the brain circuitry which is involved in carrying out a planned motor task. There may also be issues with their muscle tone, sense of touch and sense of balance. Later in life they may carry a legacy from these issues. The most common problems are disorganisation, a slowness with written assignments, low self-esteem and anxiety issues associated with poor body-in-space awareness.
If people are having trouble with listening they are often referred to an audiologist for a hearing test. If no problems are found with their hearing it is generally assumed that they should also be able to listen effectively, but listening is quite different from hearing. The brain needs to do a lot of work to translate what the ears hear into an accurate perception and understanding of what has been said. This is referred to as ‘central auditory processing’.
Sometimes people are so slow in processing what they hear that each individual sound has passed by before they have had time to fully process what has been said. They are left to guess the missing sounds, a bit like having to interpret a code. It is no wonder that they get tired when they are listening. Others have difficulty with putting together what they hear in each individual ear quickly enough. They may have trouble with processing language, understanding and explaining things.
Strange as it may seem, a high proportion of people with listening difficulties actually hear too well. They notice sounds that others do not and are consequently very easily distracted by noises in the background. If children’s hearing is very acute they may find the noise in a classroom very upsetting and will respond by turning down the volume, making themselves effectively deaf when under pressure. This is a reflex response normally designed for protection against damaging environmental noises, such as pneumatic drills, but a child may experience the noise of the classroom as threatening in much the same way. If their teacher shouts or gets cross with them as a result of their inattentiveness, their environment becomes even more threatening and their response will be prolonged.
Some people can process what they hear perfectly well, but just can’t remember what they have heard well enough. They may have a very poor memory for instructions, for example, so they will find it really hard to do what they have been asked to do. This response in children can be very frustrating for both parents and teachers, but it needs to be understood because if a child is constantly reprimanded for something they cannot control it will make matters worse, as memory always suffers under stress.
Focus and Attention
We do not all perceive our environment in the same way. Some people are over-sensitive in some or all of their senses, so their world can be too bright, too noisy, too smelly and they can over-react to things they touch and taste. Where most children are developing their ability to use all their senses effectively, these children will be learning how to protect themselves from overwhelm and the problems do not necessarily go away in adult life. Over–sensitive people can be constantly distracted by stimuli in their environment that others would ignore and so they will often not be able to concentrate properly. This is particularly the case in the noisy and vibrant atmosphere of an infant classroom.
A classroom is a very noisy place. There is only about 15 decibels difference between the volume of the teacher’s voice and the volume of the background noise – and that’s when the children are working quietly! Classrooms are also very bright places, with lots of light and for young children lots of bright displays and pictures on the walls and this can be over-stimulating for sensitive children. Sitting on a plastic chair or on a scratchy carpet can be very uncomfortable too for a child who is over-sensitive to things that touch their skin – if they are squirming around there is probably good reason!
In order to be able to concentrate in a classroom or workplace environment, people must be able to screen out extraneous stimuli, listen effectively, use their eyes properly and connect up different pieces of information in areas all over their brains quite quickly. They need to be able to remember things too. If people cannot do some of these things well they may need to work so hard at concentrating that they can only keep it up for short bursts.
Some people have trouble processing what they eat and drink, and chemicals can be produced that affect brain processing or block vital nutrients. These metabolic problems are important too, but they do not usually exist on their own. There are nearly always other areas of processing which have been affected.
Young children are constantly on the move and we don’t expect them to sit still, but there is an expectation that children will be developmentally ready for periods of sitting still by the time they are about five years old. There are a number of reasons why children might not manage this.
Some children have a problem with the development of their vestibular system, which is associated with balance. Their listening and visual processing, which are dependent on good vestibular functioning, may have been affected as a consequence. These children will often start to move when listening or focussing on print in order ‘feed up’ information coming from their immature vestibular systems. You will see them begin to rock or be generally on the move as they start to focus their attention.
Other children seem to be particularly gifted at moving and thinking at the same time – this may be true of some budding ballet dancers and professional footballers, for example, and they simply cannot learn properly if they are not allowed to move. For them, being forced to sit quietly at a desk when they are being taught will make it very hard indeed to reach their potential academically. Unfortunately, if they then perceive themselves as failures, it may also prevent them from achieving at the highest level in sport or the expressive arts.
Some children have difficulty in isolating the muscle groups they need for a particular activity, so more and larger muscles become involved – you may notice that their whole head moves from side to side when they are reading, for example. If this is the case you may see a lot of overflow activity – unwanted movements such as fidgeting, drumming, rocking, tapping – usually associated with the child trying to listen or focus their attention on an activity.
There is a general expectation that children who are fidgeting are not attending properly and we frequently ask them to “sit still and listen!” For many of our children, “squirm to learn” is a far more appropriate approach.
There are three basic types of memory – auditory, visual and motor – all of which can be long-term or short-term. Many people are very good at some aspects of memory and very bad at others. These people will often learn to compensate in weak areas by using stronger skills, so they may translate a visual task into an auditory one, for example, or vice versa. For this reason we may not realise that they have a memory problem and be puzzled when they do not perform in situations where compensation is not possible. A good memory is assisted by having good associative memory ability, which involves connecting a target piece of information with one or more other things to make the memory stronger.
There are many different types of auditory, visual and motor memory as well. Someone may have a good ear for a tune but struggle to repeat a simple instruction. Some people may have a really good geographical memory but have no memory for the shape of a word for reading and spelling or number bonds and tables facts. Others will be very good at recalling what they have heard, but have a very poor visual memory for where they have left things or how maths processes are laid out on a page. Many people have motor memory problems, so they find it hard to learn to write easily or pick up technique in sport. And let’s not forget procedural memory, which involves remembering to put the tops back on felt-tip pens or to flush the toilet.
Memory is really important for learning, of course, but it is also damaged by stress. If children have memory problems we need to be sympathetic, help them to make associations with memory systems that work for them and make sure we teach to their strongest memory channel while the problems are being sorted out.
Problems with motivation are often associated with people feeling that a particular task is too difficult and they will not be able to do it very well. For example, a child who is good at maths but struggles with English will probably be well motivated to do their maths homework but find all kinds of ways to avoid tackling any English. They expect to be rewarded by doing well at their maths, but there is no reward associated with English homework
Motivation circuits in the brain work on either ‘reward’ or ‘punishment’. You do things either because you expect some kind of reward – like feeling good, pleasing someone, a sense of accomplishment – or because you will be in trouble if you don’t do it. Reward is a much more powerful motivator than punishment, but unfortunately for some people, work, leisure activities or school do not produce much in terms of reward. These people may need some help with their underlying problems.
Some people have metabolic differences in their brain in relation to the neurotransmitter that is responsible for the motivation circuits – dopamine. They may find it particularly hard to motivate themselves and may not respond to the ‘punishment’ motivator at all. If your child seems to be having these difficulties it may be worth trying to instigate some reward systems for things the child really has to do.
Many people are in fact specialists and can be extremely well motivated to do what is on their own agenda – they just find it hard to respond to anyone else’s. This may be a subconscious drive which gives them the time and space to develop skills to the highest level. It is easy to see children with this pattern as naughty – and adults as uncooperative- but this would be very unfair. They will be doing their best, and the ability to really focus on something that interests you and develop expert knowledge is usually seen as an advantage in adult life. The object of a child’s interest may be beetles now, but perhaps brain surgery as they get older!
Disorganised children can drive us mad. They never seem to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right equipment. It can be hard to get them to school on time with all they require and when they come home there are often problems with work not handed in, assignments not completed, notes messy or absent, books and equipment missing and a lack of clarity about homework. There are usually major difficulties with project work and revision. Children often underachieve and both parents and teachers can become very frustrated.
Organisational difficulties often persist beyond childhood and this can be a cause of significant stress. Essential paperwork may be hard to find, assignments may take too long, workplace performance may be under par and personal space disorganised. Domestic relationships may suffer too if the environment is chaotic and tasks are left undone. There can be endless procrastination and feelings of overwhelm and guilt.
Personal organisational skills are dependent on a number of aspects of brain development which can be delayed or disrupted by stress factors. However, issues with late brain organisation can also be indicative of positive brain differences rather than dysfunctions. It is no coincidence that a high proportion of disorganised children are actually very bright and very creative. That creativity may not always be in terms of art and construction, but in a tendency to be original and a little bit different in the way they approach things. These children may have an unusual plasticity in their brain development which will help their brains develop in a unique way which exactly suits their needs. They may be destined to do things a little differently from the way they have been done before and for them an early, rigid brain organisation might not be appropriate.
There are nearly always good reasons for organisational difficulties but to make the matter more complicated it is often the case that creative people can show surprising ability to organise in an area of strong personal interest. This does not mean that they are capable of organising in other areas, however. It is important to put support in place where organisation is a problem and to show understanding for the difficulties which disorganised individuals are experiencing.
One of the things that worries us most about our children is if they seem to be having a problem with making friends. This can be simply because they have lacked practice for some reason or find themselves in an inappropriate setting, but often there are particular developmental reasons for their difficulty.
Children who have difficulty from the time they go to nursery are often hypersensitive. They find their environment overwhelming and find it particularly difficult to cope in addition with other young children who can be loud, invade their space and do things they are not expecting. These children may feel more secure staying on the side-lines or playing by themselves.
Children who are slow to develop language will also tend to have difficulty socialising. They will probably be having trouble following what the other children are saying, as well as struggling to communicate themselves. The problems which have caused them to be slow with their speech are also likely to cause difficulty with reading body language, so they can easily misread situations and find it hard to mix in with the others. They may plunge in regardless, and put other children off, or they may prefer to hold themselves back.
Some children have real problems with social comprehension. They just don’t seem to ‘get it’. This is usually caused by problems with brain organisation, particularly the way the two halves of the brain are working together. Some children will tend to be obsessive, for much the same reasons. This may take the form of wanting to engage in a particular activity all the time, such as obsessively colouring, at the expense of engaging in wider group activities. Some may tend to go on and on about their particular obsessions, regardless of whether anyone wants to listen. This may cause them to become socially isolated.
Any of these problems can lead to a child being bullied and this can lead to the development of significant emotional disorders. Childhood difficulties will often continue into adult life, as an unwillingness to socialise, low self-confidence and self-esteem. All of these issues can be addressed by working to improve underlying sensory processing and sensory integration.
Processing difficulties which affect any aspects of our performance are always likely to cause us stress and the stress itself can do further damage to our sensory processing systems. Traumatic events can also have serious effects on our sensory integration and this is particularly the case with very sensitive individuals. Disruption to our brain biochemistry and the microbial functioning in the gut can result in neurotransmitter and hormonal dysfunctions and problems with the communication systems in the central nervous system which control emotional and behavioural responses.
The effects may show as anxiety, depression, withdrawal, lack of motivation, aggression and a wide range of other negative emotional responses. For some there may be behavioural difficulties, eating disorders, self-harming, drug or alcohol addiction. It is often necessary to address all of the causative factors in these issues in order to help people achieve optimal functioning.