Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Moving Testimonial

I know I'm a broken record, but I can't urge you strongly enough, now that the weather is good, to keep your children outside.  It's critical for their mental and physical well being. 

I have a friend and colleague who knows a great deal about alternative medicine, both from a professional interest and a personal one.  She has a son with ADHD.  A few weeks ago, I emailed her a question about using aromatherapy techniques for improving a child's ability to focus in the classroom.  I had to laugh when I read her response:  "Essential oils are good, but intense exercise is even better.  My son joined a lacrosse team and has been doing great, especially on the days when they have practice.  I make sure he gets outside to play every single day now, and it's made a huge difference in his ability to do his schoolwork."

There is a profound correlation between the lack of movement and exercise children get these days and the issues so many of them face in the classroom.  I'm not only talking about the fact that they don't walk to school anymore, that recess is now considered a frill, and that instead of going outside to play in the summer with their friends, many children now sit alone in front of the television or the computer.

I'm also referring to the fact that instead of actively clinging to mom on her hip, and then roaming and exploring freely once they start to crawl and walk, children are increasingly strapped into carriers and strollers as infants, toddlers, and beyond, and are passively wheeled and carried around everywhere.  In New York City, it's common to see six and seven year old children squashed into strollers with their knees grazing their chins.

Every time we strap a child into something, force him to be passive, and prevent him from moving his body, we are interfering with his neurological development.

Why is movement so critical to the ability to perform in school?

Most of the children I treat have depressed vestibular functioning.   The vestibular nerve is responsible for not only informing us about where we are in space, it talks to the extensor muscles in the body {the ones that keep us upright against gravity} and to the part of the brain that is responsible for our levels of alertness, arousal, and attention.

 In a normally working nervous system,  a small amount of movement will cause the nerve to fire and set off a reaction in the body to tell it to sit up and pay attention.  For instance, I'm sitting here at my computer, and I notice that I am slouching, and that my attention and energy are beginning to flag.

I pause for a moment, stretch, lean over, reach for my cup of tea and take a sip.   That will cause the  vestibular nerve to fire.  My back muscles straighten, and my brain wakes up.

 This small action is enough to allow me to refocus and continue.  I'm back to sitting up nice and tall and being alert enough to continue to think and type.

But what if that small amount of input doesn't have any impact on my vestibular nerve?  If the nerve's threshhold for response is very high, stretching and reaching for my cup isn't going to cause it to fire.  I gave it some information, but I'm still drooping and unfocused. The underresponsive nerve  needs much more intensity than just that small, discreet amount of movement before it will do its job.

 If I have no other options available to me at the moment, I can't do anything to get that nerve to fire and to wake up my body and brain.  So my ability to sit up and think and focus is going to become increasingly compromised, and I'm going slump and space out.

This is one of the reasons why children with poor postural control and attentional issues can't stay present in school.  We insist that they sit still, and don't allow them to move, or to fidget, or to chew gum, or to employ any strategies at all that would help them get that nerve to fire so that they can keep their backs straight and their brains awake.

I'm oversimplifying a bit here, because there are all kinds of other factors involved in a child's inability to keep focused in an academic atmosphere, but one of the easiest and most profoundly effective ways you can help him is to keep him moving.

Take him to the playground for 20 minutes before he starts school and have him play on the swings and slide.  Organize a group of children from his class to come early {believe me, yours is not the only one with the problem} and play tag, Red Rover, or a quick game of statues, dodgeball, or touch football.  Run them around until they are out of breath, then give them a big drink of water.  Repeat until the bell rings.

Activities that encourage the child to move his body with his head in all different positions are the best.  Games that require a lot of heavy input, like wrestling, dragging large, heavy items, or jumping from a height of a few feet, are very calming and organizing to the system.

What else besides movement makes the vestibular nerve cause us to sit up and pay attention?  Novelty, intensity, and the unexpected.

 I can see this in action when I watch my cat, who almost always snoozes in the chair next to me while I am working.  Any unexpected sound, if it's loud or sharp enough, will cause him to sit up and look around. 

 Good public speakers  instinctively vary their tone of voice and the media they use to present information to keep their listeners engaged.  Joseph Hayden, the 18th century composer, was so annoyed at the audience's tendency to fall asleep during his concerts that he wrote "The Surprise Symphony" to jolt them back into awareness.

Teachers need to be made aware and be part of the solution when a child needs more movement built into his day.  The child can be sent on errands when he is flagging, or discreetly instructed to go and do some jumping jacks and get a quick drink of water.  Sharp tasting candy, like Warheads or Tear Jerkers, can provide intensity and novelty.

You can sit down with the child and talk to him about some strategies for staying focused while he's sitting still. Ask him about what works best for him and make a list of discreet options for helping him stay alert and focused in class.

Some ideas:

Stretch, change position, run an errand for the teacher,  drink water, suck a hard candy, discreetly play with a fidget toy, squeeze a therapy ball, doodle, rub the upper tips of the ears between the thumb and forefinger, sit on a Disc-O-Sit cushion.

If the teacher habitually attempts to manage the child's behavior by cutting him off from recess, this practice should be stopped immediately.  He needs to move his body more in order to be able to meet the grownups' expectations, not less!

Nor should the child ever be punished by not being permitted to go outside to play.  Find another consequence.   Time spent outdoors should be sacred.

And in addition to exercise, make sure  your child is getting plenty of sleep, lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and water!

1 comment:

Amy Waldhauer said...

Exercise is very, very important. I teach martial arts and I have seen it at the dojo. We have had amazing results with ADHD kids. You mention lacrosse and those great playground games, but a good martial arts class with plenty of movement and discipline is also very good.

Observation: You write "Nor should the child ever be punished by not being permitted to go outside to play. Find another consequence. Time spent outdoors should be sacred." I think a perfect punishment is to take away TV privileges. It is a partial cause of the problem so you kill two birds with one stone.