Interview originally published at:
www.abettereducationblogspot. May 2009
Sally Goddard Blythe is the author of several books on child development, including “The Well Balanced Child”, “What Babies and Children REALLY Need” and “Attention, Balance and Co-ordination – the A,B,C of Learning Success.” She is also a consultant in neuro-developmental education and Director of the pioneering Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester, England (INPP). Her work and the work of the INPP has shown a connection between the retained primitive reflexes we are born with and neuro-developmental delays that affect reading, writing, hearing, and attention issues among others.
What I loved about the title of your book, “The Well Balanced Child” is that it had more than one meaning: not only balance in a literal, physical way, but balance in the sense of harmony of the whole child. In all senses of the word, this is lacking more and more in the lives of today’s children. How does balance help a child?
Balance is about much more than the ability to stand on leg or walk across a tight rope. It is the first of the sensory systems to mature and in an essential player in how the brain interprets information from the other senses. How a child sees, hears and feels the world around him is all intimately connected to the functioning of balance. This is because balance is the only one of the sensory systems that does not have a special sensation of its own. We only become consciously aware of balance when faced with a particular challenge or when something goes wrong; motion sickness, dizziness, disorientation, visual disturbances and ringing in the ears are all examples of symptoms of disturbed balance. In other words, feelings associated with balance are hidden from view and “speak” through the other senses.
Balance provides the platform for the development of coordination, stable eye movements and visual perception – or how a child “sees” the world. These abilities are crucial to all aspects of learning, from being able to control the body at sports to being able to sit still, track a moving object at speed such as catching a ball, or more slowly to control the eye movements needed to follow along a line of print when reading. “Without balance we could not stand, walk nor run. We couldn’t see images in sharp detail as we move, or navigate without visual landmarks, or perhaps even think clearly” 1
Both physical security and emotional security begin with a child knowing his position in space. Ray Barsch wrote about this in the 1960’s when he described the young child as being a “terranaut” or, explorer of space on terra firma. He said that one of the first skills a young child must master is control of upright balance and posture, establishing a sense of “internal stability”. When the internal milieu is secure the external senses of vision, hearing and touch are free to process information from the external environment. If balance is insecure “thinking” parts of the brain remain over-involved in simply trying to control balance.
Balance is also important for emotional stability in order to feel secure, perceive the outside world as it is and to be in control of oneself. Disturbances of balance result in physical and psychological feelings of anxiety with no obvious external cause. Just as the balance mechanism itself is hidden from view, so the origins of anxiety, avoidance and depression can also have a hidden cause.
It seems that we focus almost exclusively on the cognitive and academic parts of our children, but in doing so we cause problems in that very arena and others as well. How can balance improve cognitive and academic achievement?
Children learn with their bodies before they learn with their minds. In my view, a healthy mind is the product of the brain and the body working together in perfect harmony. Brain and body learn to work together through physical experience. Movement is the primary medium through which this process takes place.
Movement is a child’s first language. Children express themselves through a combination of movement, gesture and alteration of posture long before they learn to speak. Everyone knows that children spontaneously jump for joy, crouch back in fear or stretch forward in expectancy. These simple gestures, which become more eloquent with time and practice, form the basis of non-verbal communication, which is estimated to contribute up to 90% of effective communication later on. They also help to train the pathways involved in control of the visual system (for reading), eye-hand coordination (writing) and postural control needed for sitting still and maintaining attention. This physical A,B,C – Attention, Balance and Coordination – is but the beginning of physical readiness for formal education.2
What kinds of programs or features can parents look for when choosing a school (from pre-school to high school) that shows evidence of balance?
Willingness to look at children’s physical development in terms of balance, eye movements, listening skills and coordination and if necessary provide relevant support if required. These tend to be schools that provide a wide range of activities to develop the “whole” child.
Children who are poorly coordinated will not necessarily embrace or respond well to physical education that is directly aimed at improving performance on the sports field because this is the very area in which the child feels inadequate. However, balance and coordination can be improved in a variety of different ways, through guided physical play with the very young child, developmental movement programmes in schools such as the INPP programme or through music and dance. One of the problems with the current education system (in the UK) is there tends to be an assumption that “one size fits all”, instead of looking at the developmental needs and abilities of the child and starting intervention from the point in development where the child is now.
Kids seem to like doing many of the exercises that promote balance. It not only gives them time to move, but it involves stories and pretending, like Bertie the Beetle swimming on his back or the Standing Statue. They don’t seem to realize the cognitive and physical benefits they are getting from doing it. How is balance therapy presented to students?
One imaginative teacher at a school in the north of England described the programme as “learning to move and moving to learn” explaining that movement helps to train the brain. In a short DVD produced by the Youth Sports Trust in Britain, children describe how “movement has helped me with my music by enabling me to spread my fingers out further on the saxophone”, “movement has helped me with writing as my fingers don’t get so tired and I can write for longer without stopping”. With older students (teenagers) they are told that it will make them look taller, improve their sporting prowess and help them in examinations.
All schools have commented that children’s concentration is improved in the lessons following the exercises, children’s behaviour towards one another is more considerate – they don’t bump into each other all the time, or get into fights in the playground as often – and “there is a dignity to these children that was not there before.”3
What kind of children benefit the most from this type of therapy?
Research to date4 indicates that the children who benefit most are those who show evidence of more than one primitive reflex still being active and who are also under-achieving at school.
Can you explain what you mean by primitive reflexes that are still active?
As the infant brain develops during the first year of life connections to higher centres in the brain become stronger and increasingly take over the functions of primitive reflexes. As this occurs, early survival patterns are inhibited or controlled to allow more mature patterns of response to develop in their place. Some children fail to gain this control fully in the first year of life and continue to grow up with traces of the primitive reflexes, which interfere with their development. These children continue to experience difficulty with control of movement affecting coordination, balance, fine motor skills, motor development and associated aspects of learning such as reading, writing and physical education. Retained primitive reflexes can also affect a child’s sensory perceptions, causing hypersensitivity in some areas and hyposensitivity in others.
How can schools or organizations provide training for their staff to implement such programs for movement and balance?
Teachers attend a one day training course led by an approved INPP trainer. Details of approved trainers in different countries can be obtained by contacting email@example.com
How can parents help their children? How can they identify the reflex abnormalities and remedy them?
Parents can observe signs and symptoms of immature reflexes in their child by reading any of the relevant literature. If they suspect that aberrant reflexes are a problem for their child I would recommend contacting a qualified practitioner for advice and not attempting to “treat” reflexes by themselves.
With younger children, simply providing an environment with plenty of opportunity for free physical play, “tummy time” while awake in the first 9 months of life, opportunity to crawl and creep, rough and tumble, song and games, can help to minimise the risk of reflex related problems developing. Additionally, engaging in conversation with your baby and reading to your child every day, do more to set the scene for reading than any amount of stimulation provided by expensive toys or electronic media. The good news is that some of the most important ingredients for a healthy childhood are free and a baby delights in the fact that engaged parents are its first teachers.
In general, are pediatricians aware of your work and do they specifically address these issues with therapies?
Yes and No:
Medically it is accepted that if primitive reflexes persist beyond the first 6 months of life they are sign of immaturity in the functioning of the central nervous system and indicative of underlying pathology. If primitive reflexes are fully retained, the child will usually be referred on for further investigations, diagnosis and if relevant to other medically trained therapists such as Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists etc.
However, if only traces of primitive reflexes remain, the child’s symptoms may not be severe enough to warrant medical investigation. This is what we describe as being a “grey area” where medicine has neither investigated nor identified pathology, and there seems to be a degree of “plasticity” in terms of helping the system to mature. These are the children we see at INPP – children who would otherwise “slip through the net” of professional services which should have identified any underlying problems. These are children who “good enough” to by-pass medical investigations but whose difficulties often go undetected.
What brought you to this kind of work?
A combination of factors: My original area of undergraduate study was History and Fine Arts. Part of the Fine Arts course concentrated on how the artist sees the world and how individual visual-perceptions can be different. I found this fascinating. My father was a classical musician and I had grown up with music being an essential part of life and learning but only started to understand how these things came together when I had my own children.
When I met Peter Blythe, the pieces of the jigsaw started to come together – two Psychology degrees later and I haven’t stopped since!
For more on the work of Sally Goddard Blythe and the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, go to www.inpp.org.uk
1 McCredie, S, 2007. Balance. In Search of the Lost Sense. Little, Brown and Company. New York.
2 Goddard Blythe SA. 2009. Attention, Balance and Coordination – the A,B,C of Learning Success. Wiley-Blackwell. Chichester.
3 Silvester E, 2004. Personal communication based on the use of the INPP Programme for Schools at St Margaret Mary RC School in Carlisle.
4 Goddard Blythe SA, 2005. Releasing educational potential through movement. Child Care in Practice. 11/4:415-432.
To read this interview in full, posted on the 20th May 2009, go to website: www.abettereducation.blogspot.com