That midway through my teaching career students were beginning to struggle. During this time a greater number of students were being referred for special services, Title I or behavioral services. They experienced more difficulty focusing, had higher activity levels, and more behavior issues. In addition, they weren't responding as well to interventions.
Why were more students struggling in ways that I had not seen in the first years of my career? What had changed?
That in order for young children to develop a strong foundation for future learning, it is important for them to be able to move their bodies – unrestricted by baby gear and toys that limit the use of their bodies. Mother Nature's blueprint for the developmental needs of today's children is the same as those of babies in the Stone Age!
I began searching for an answer by attending workshops on brain research, Brain Gym®, S.M.A.R.T.* (a developmental movement program), Ready Bodies, Learning Minds* and Bal-A-Vis-X*. I discovered that children need movement in order for their bodies and brains to mature which helps them be more successful in school and in life.
* See Data for program description and results.
While preparing to attend a Brain Gym® class the summer after the KEY class, I read The Well Balanced Child, by Sally Goddard Blythe. The chapter on reflexes provided my first AHA moment. I realized that developmental movements
(i.e. creeping, crawling and rolling) were required to integrate reflexes, enabling children to fully access their skills and abilities.
Several factors may be impacting children to some degree or another. Some of these factors we have some control over, but others we do not:
* There are many more toxins in our environment.
* There are changes in the food we consume.
* Technology and media use have dramatically increased.
* Many children no longer spend extended time playing outdoors because of safety concerns and technology.
* Pregnancy factors such as illness, chronic stress, extended bed rest, multiple births may impact children's development.
* Birth issues such as C-section, breech birth, prolonged or very short labor may also influence development.
It's not too late! While it's best when babies get off to a good start from the beginning, life often presents challenges. The developing field of reflex integration is showing us how we can help our little ones meet their developmental needs, filling in gaps and helping them access their potential. And more good news, the “prescription” is basically lots of old fashioned play!
Because the human brain is the least developed of any mammal at birth, the early months are a critical time. Mother Nature provides the perfect plan to help infants' bodies and brains develop – reflexes.
There are two sets of reflexes at work in the early years. The primitive reflexes begin in utero, aid the baby in moving through the birth canal, and help the body and brain get “wired” in the first few months. As these reflexes do their job, they “integrate” or fade away, and the postural reflexes emerge to help babies learn to crawl, creep, stand and walk. While some of the postural reflexes are still at work until a child is three or four years old, the window of opportunity to integrate the primitive reflexes is the first 18 months of life. The amazing thing is, as babies move and integrate reflexes, they are also working on wiring their brains neurologically! Mother Nature has a perfect plan!
There is a lack of understanding about what children truly need to succeed. There is a misconception that the earlier children reach milestones, the better. However, moving through stages slowly enables children to complete each developmental stage, upon which the next stage will be built. Raising and educating children is not a race. Allowing children to move through each developmental stage will pay off in the long run.
Also our “twenty-first century life,” with all of its technological advances, does not provide enough of the activities they need. As a result, some children may not be able to easily utilize their abilities. They may experience difficulties in school, emotional regulation, sports, or even social interactions.
There are many handy time and energy saving devices that have come along to make our busy lives easier. We are learning that some of these things actually restrict children's movement and may delay their developmental maturation.
I look at this as a side effect situation. Asbestos was used as an insulator for decades before we discovered that it was bad for our health. Now we are realizing that there are side effects to some of the ways our society is raising young children. With this awareness, we can make different choices for our children.
If you are beginning to worry about what you may have already done, rest assured that I'm right there with you (as are many parents and grandparents ). As I read and study, I continually uncover my own misperceptions. My goal is to share what I have learned to help you make educated decisions in raising your children. Again, the good news is that we can get children moving in ways that will promote healthy body/brain development. And it's fun!
So how do the reflexes impact the brain? If you think of the brain as a computer, the body is the keyboard. However, the “body keyboard” not only sends input to the brain, but is also is the only way the brain has to demonstrate what it knows and what it can do. As the reflexes integrate, the brain and body are getting “wired” together, neurologically maturing, so they can do their jobs with ease. Let's take a closer look at the blueprint for brain development.
Brain researcher Paul McClean's Triune Brain theory looks at the brain in three parts: the hindbrain or brain stem (where the reflexes are located), the midbrain (where emotions and memory are found) and the cortex (where formal learning and abstract thinking occur).
People always celebrate the cortex and what children can do (how smart children are), but now we are learning that in order for the cortex to be at its best, it needs a well developed foundation. That begins with the hindbrain where the brainstem is located. When infants have lots of opportunities to wiggle and move freely, the reflexes are integrating and the muscles are developing. This continues as they begin to crawl on their bellies and learn to get on all fours to creep.
It's really important for babies to get enough time on the floor doing these things because it is developing the hindbrain which is the GATEWAY to the upper parts of the brain! Stephanie Johnson in her book Baby Bare: A Bottom-Up Approach to Growing Strong Brains and Bodies beautifully explains how the brain develops from the bottom up. In order for that wonderful cortex to do its best work (It is not ready for formal learning until about 7 years of age), it needs a strong, well developed foundation.
As infants become toddlers, they continue to need lots of movement and experiences. Gill McConnell and Cheryl McCarthy, the authors of A Moving Child is a Learning Child: How the Body Teaches the Brain to Think explain that the body has a lot to teach the brain in the early years. “Without automated movement a child will not be able to think”. In order for children to succeed in school, the body must have all of the experiences and practice it can to function automatically. That frees the cortex to think and helps the child learn with ease and joy.
When our little bundles of joy arrive, they are also bundles of possibilities. Will she be a scientist or mathematician? Will he be an artist, an author, or an athlete? To support our children in reaching their full potential, we are wise to follow Mother Nature's blueprint.