The early reflexes or muscle movements of an infant are critical for the development of his or her brain functions, and ability to learn.
Under normal conditions, all reflexes will appear during the appropriate stage of a child’s development.
According to experts, when these reflexes are not initiated, integrated or inhibited in a child, they will prevent the natural maturity of the neural systems, leading to postural and behavioural problems, and learning difficulties in children.
Phoebe Long, an Educational Kinesiologist and consultant specialising in helping children with special needs, says the early childhood experiences of movement and play activate the brain and develop its neural networks.
She says that many children who do not have sufficient and adequate sensory experiences and physical movements during their childhood may experience learning gaps.
Many factors, Long says, can disrupt the normal progression of natural infant reflexes and developmental movements.
“For example, a baby delivered through a normal birth undergoes primary motor reflex patterns but when the child is delivered via Caesarean section, he or she does not engage these reflexes. “When a baby crawls, he or she develops connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, strengthening their corpus collosum. These movements develop the neural networks in the brain, which are essential to learning. Placing the child in a walker will hinder his or her natural progress”
She says allowing children to watch television for long hours or spend time on computers instead of interactive play with family members and friends may cause delay in speech and other developmental issues.
“The more we hinder a child’s natural developmental movements, the more we create a learning gap in the brain. The more a child moves, the better connected his or her brain is,” says Long who has been involved in teaching special needs children for more than five years.
In order for children to respond well to learning experiences, she says, the issue of retained reflexes should be addressed.
An approach that has gained recognition to deal with this problem, says Long, is movement-based learning.
According to her, movement-based learning approaches like Brain Gym, Rhythmic Movement Training and Sensory Integration have been widely used to support not only children with learning disabilities but also all children to discover their true potential.
Brain Gym, for instance, is based on the philosophy that the brain will develop via certain body movements. It emerged as a result of clinical studies since the 1970s by Dr Paul E. Dennison, an educational therapist who was looking for ways to help children and adults with learning difficulties.
(The Lazy 8s movement uses a drawing of a figure eight to increase integration between the two side of the brain.)
Brain Gym addresses three specific learning dimensions called Focus, Centering and Laterality, all of which serve as neural ‘bridges’ of the brain.
The Focusing dimension deals with the coordination of the front and rear brain, and is connected to the ability to focus and comprehend.
The Centering dimension is linked to the coordination of the upper and lower brain and is related to emotions, relaxation and organisation.
The Laterality dimension, on the other hand, deals with the coordination of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and is useful for activities such as reading, writing and communicating.
“These movements facilitate the connection between the key areas of the brain. It engages the whole brain. When the three dimensions work together, the whole system is balanced, allowing a person to comprehend, communicate and organise better,” says Long.
She says there are 26 basic Brain Gym movements. “All the movements and activities are introduced based on observing the postural and behavioural patterns in a child.
“The Lengthening activities, for example, may be done to help children with ADHD and autistic spectrum disorders who often have problems sitting still and staying focused. One of the exercises used is the ‘calf pump’ which involves stretching the child’s right leg backwards while the heel is held for about eight seconds. It is then slowly released.
“The movement is repeated with the left leg for about a minute to lengthen the tendon in the calf. This is done to discharge the fear reflex,” says Long.
Other preparatory exercises which may stimulate the brain and relax the body include the “Cross Crawl”, “Lazy 8s” and “Double Doodle”
The “Cross Crawl” involves taking the left arm of a child and crossing over to the right knee as it is raised. The same is done with the child’s right arm.
It is done to access both brain hemispheres and improve left-right coordination, vision and hearing.
The “Lazy 8s” movement uses the drawing of a figure eight to increase integration between the two sides of the brain, and the “Double Doodle” requires children to draw using both hands at the same time to improve visual perception and creative expression.
She stresses that for proper neurological development to take place, these activities must not be forced but incorporated smoothly throughout the day.
“The improvements in learning and behaviour among children are progressive and sure. However, it is not a panacea to solve children’s learning difficulties or cure neurobiological disorders,” says Long.