How Our Educational System is Contributing to Attentional and Learning Challenges in our Children

Version II

Author: Susan R. Johnson MD, F.A.A.P.

Published: Feb 28th, 2009

Updated: Oct 4th, 2017

For almost 30 years as a Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrician, I have seen countless children diagnosed with attention deficit disorders and learning disabilities. Many improve miraculously when transferred from academic kindergartens to classrooms emphasizing movement and the integration of their sensory systems. Why? Because their bodies and their minds are not yet neurologically ready for academics. Pushing reading and writing early makes no sense for many young children who have not yet mastered the developmental progression that is a prerequisite for academic learning.

Sensory, Motor and Nutritional Prerequisites for Learning

Bodily movements, starting in utero, and continuing through infancy, childhood, and adolescence, form neural pathways that students later use to read, write, spell, and do math. Children integrate and strengthen their neural pathways by physical activities and movements and not through flash cards or electronic games. They need large movements, such as; walking, skipping, jumping, hopping, running, rolling down hills, playing catch, and jumping rope, as well as, fine motor activities, using their hands and fingers, such as; clapping, cutting, playing string games, digging, kneading, painting, beading, drawing, sewing, finger-knitting, folding paper airplanes etc.

Tactile, vestibular-balance, proprioceptive, bilateral integration, visual, and auditory pathways, all come together to allow children to feel comfortable in their bodies, remain upright, locate their bodies in space, sit still, remain focused, concentrate, discern the correct orientations of letters and numbers while writing, properly space letters and numbers on a page, tell right from left, make eye contact, read social cues, copy from the board, and easily track objects with their eyes.

The out-of-doors provides many natural opportunities for gardening, hiking, collecting specimens, and playing. In contrast, watching television or videos and playing computer games are extremely poor sources of stimulation for sensory-motor development. While the former promotes nerve myelination and brain development, the latter actually over-stimulates the “fight or flight”, sympathetic nervous system. A stressed mind can’t make neural pathways. The stressed-out bodies of children with overactive sympathetic nervous systems are sensitive in many ways. They over-react not only to stress, but also to the stimulant effects of sugar, chocolate, television, video and computer games. They are also particularly reactive to lack of sleep, hunger, and changes in routine.

Brain Development and Academics

Developmentally, the left side of the brain, typically the home of language, does not fully develop for reading until around ages 6 1/2 to 9 years of age, usually on the earlier side for girls and on the later side for boys. The right brain, which develops first (around 3 1/2 to 7 years of age) is more intuitive, and notices the overall shape of the word, and not the letters in-between. Pushing reading or writing before age 7 forces children to use only the right side of their brain when reading. In this case, they read spatially (i.e. by sight memory) and guess at a word’s identity, based on the word’s first and last letters and its overall shape, rather than sounding-out the word, phonetically (a left-brain activity).

In addition to waiting for phonetic-based reading to develop, children also need to develop the pathways which connect the right and the left sides of their brain together (i.e. bilateral integration). Children that get stuck reading and spelling predominately by sight memory often struggle with spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and writing in general (especially writing in cursive or doing form drawings). These same children also have trouble creating inner pictures and scenes in their minds associated with the words they are reading. Since their right brain is overwhelmed by the task of reading everything by sight, it is not free to imagine or create inner-pictures and scenes. Comprehension and long term memory now also suffer.

Signs and Symptoms Showing Lack of Academic Readiness:

Developmentally, children with difficulties learning to read and write follow a pattern. Here is what to look for:

  • label Mouth/tongue movements while writing (i.e. a retained Palmar reflex)
  • label Difficulties sitting still, focusing, listening, and having a strong need to move
  • label Cannot skip with their feet or if they can skip, their skip is homo-lateral (swinging same arm as leg) rather than cross-lateral (swinging opposite arm to leg)
  • label Difficulties balancing, in stillness, on each foot, for 8 to 10 seconds, while counting or spelling their name out-loud, with eyes open and then eyes closed
  • label Drawings of a person are like that of a much younger child (scribbles or stick-like without details)
  • label Have difficulties copying a triangle, rectangle, diamond, and crisscrossing lines
  • label Show a tense or fisted pencil grip
  • label Difficulties tracking and converging with their eyes so their eyes water and fatigue easily
  • label Hard time catching a ball or bean bag (may even show a retained Moro or startle reflex)
  • label Cannot jump rope by themselves, forwards or backwards, with two jumps for every single swing of the rope

Checklist for Academic Readiness:

Children who are ready to read and write are able to:

  • label Do the cross-lateral skip (swinging opposite arm with opposite leg) -jump rope by themselves, with a double jump for every single swing of the rope, forwards and backwards
  • label Do the cross-lateral skip (swinging opposite arm with opposite leg) -jump rope by themselves, with a double jump for every single swing of the rope, forwards and backwards
  • label Sit still in a chair and pay attention for at least 20 minutes, without needing to wiggle, sit on their feet, or wrap their feet around the legs of the chair
  • label Able to balance on each foot, in stillness, for 8 to 10 seconds, with eyes open and also eyes closed
  • label Show a relaxed pencil grip using a thumb with one or two fingers -easily copy various geometric shapes from the board without eyes fatiguing or watering
  • label Easily reproduce numbers or letters on a piece of paper, from “feeling” the figure that someone has drawn on the left and right sides, as well as, the middle of their back
  • label Draw a person with a head and neck, tubular arms, legs, fingers and feet, and dressed in clothes (i.e. a dimensional drawing)

What Parents and Teachers Can Do:

The essential nutrients for a healthy child include: adequate sleep; predictable rhythms and routines; turning off televisions, videos, and computers; wholesome nutrition (including omega 3 fatty acids); physical and soul warmth; harmonious, noncompetitive, and rhythmic movements; and most importantly, unconditional love. These essential nutrients help children stay in their relaxed portion of their autonomic nervous system which, unlike “stress”, fosters brain development and growth.

I believe that our current epidemic of attention and learning problems comes, at least in part, from our environment. Children are consuming too much sugar and partially hydrogenated (trans) fats, watching too much television, playing too many video games, spending too much time in front of iPads and computer screens, and being pushed to read and write too early.

Learning is not “all in your head.” Choose preschools and kindergartens that emphasize healthy movement, music, painting, handwork, while encouraging indoor and outdoor, creative and imaginative play. If preschools and kindergartens, and the laws that set the standards for education, can support healthy activities, and stop trying to teach our very young children to read and write, then I believe we will start seeing confident eight and nine year olds who can listen, focus, sit still, write, read, pay attention, learn with ease, and think in imaginative and creative ways.