AD/HD and the Learning Process

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(The following was excerpted from a class given to students in the Enki Teacher Training Program.)

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. The term is often tossed about as a possible diagnosis when children have difficulty in school. But what does it actually tell us?

Any parent or teacher can tell you when a child is having trouble maintaining an appropriate quality of attention. Maybe they stare off into space and it seems nearly impossible to get them to do anything. Maybe they can’t sit still and seem always to be fidgeting or rocking or darting about. Maybe they pay very close focused attention, almost obsessing for a period of time, and then become irritated and irrational at the slightest provocation. Maybe it’s just a feeling that they are never quite with you. It could even be that they keep complaining that they are bored and seem constantly in need of new and jazzier entertainment. Clearly they have an attention issue. But the term AD/HD is really more of a description than a diagnosis. It doesn’t actually tell us about a cause, nor does it tell us anything about a cure, or even a way parents and teachers might be able to handle it.

To begin looking at these issues, we must first understand what is needed to develop a healthy and dependable learning process. We spoke earlier about the foundations of intellectual development. (Editor’s note: see prior article Foundations of Intellectual Development.) However, even a foundation must sit on solid earth. What makes up the ground for the learning process? No matter who we are or what our special issues may be, in order to learn – that is to meet the new, engage with it, and grow – two things are required. They are a healthy neurological system and an environment that supports the process of learning over the product or outcome. Without these, a child may begin to display that range of symptoms now known as Attention Deficit Disorder. The first of these, the development of a healthy neurological system, is the focus of this article.

Healthy neurological development is quite straightforward and easy to understand if we compare it to how we are physically nourished. To begin with, we eat healthy food. Then we digest it and break it down into useful material and waste. Finally, we are ready to use the transformed food as energy. If there is a problem in the digestive process, however, we can take in wonderful food and be unable to break it apart for assimilation and discarding or unable to discriminate what we need. Then we are left without the energy we need to live well; we remain malnourished regardless of the value of what we have taken in.

Our neurological system works the same way. We have to be able to take in and work with the rich sensory nourishment that life offers us. We have to filter out extra noise, discriminate between that which is harmful and that which is nourishing, connect different sensations into a meaningful whole and apply what is useful.

If we cannot do this, then all sensory nourishment, however wonderful, becomes a source of irritation and distraction. If you imagine eating something that gives you a low-grade case of hives, invisible to the eye but constantly itching, you may get a feeling for children who have difficulty paying attention! Now imagine that every new thing in the environment is irritating that itch. Would you not seek relief? Would any of us not either run around like a balloon letting out air, or shut down and tune out, living deep within but not feeling? This is what it is like to experience life with a poorly functioning neurological system. For so many of the children currently classified as having AD/HD, this appears to be the situation.

According to Dr. A. Jean Ayres, developer of Sensory Integration Therapy, and Dr. Paul Dennison, developer of Educational Kinesiology, and a host of other occupational therapists, researchers, and physicians, healthy movement is the base food for the development of all aspects of the neurological system. Unfortunately, in the last twenty years there has been a real breakdown in the opportunity for healthy movement. Children no longer spend the bulk of their time in real physical activity – walking to school, running in back yard sports, riding horses, hauling water, chopping wood and so on. Today most children spend the bulk of their time, both in school and out, sitting. Sitting listening to teachers. Sitting doing assignments. Sitting playing video games and watching TV. Even in sports, instead of running around freely, children spend so much of the time waiting, discussing rules and arguing. As a result, the vast majority of children do not get the sensory and physical experience they need to develop a healthy neurological system. Thus, they are not learning up to their potential. Nor are they thriving – bursting with confidence and enthusiasm.

What can we do? At home, many, many things can be done. A quick glance shows opportunities found throughout our normal days: adding physically demanding chores, limiting time spent in passive visual activities (computer games, TV and video activities); simplifying an over stimulating environment, establishing a calm, dependable and safe rhythm or routine to your days. The opportunities are nearly endless.

As well, we can do some things that have proven to be effective right in the classroom. These center on work with movement. In Enki classrooms, they work with movement activities very specifically to nourish the neurological system AND to strengthen integration of this system. Based on the work of Ayres and Dennison, specific, strengthening movement activities are a part of each and every day, integrated into every content area, from kindergarten right through high school. Whether in the playground or the classroom, in an Enki program you will find special equipment and special activities woven into the curriculum content. For the most part, children do not have separate classes for movement work or remediation. Rather all the children join together in movement activities in the context of their other studies.

You might find kindergartners are learning about the “Lazy Lion.”

“Lazy Lion wakes at dawn
And growls with a toothy yawn.
Stretching up to meet the sun,
He knows another day’s begun.

Reaching forth with mighty claw,
He opens wide his fearsome jaws.
Stretching up from tail to mane,
His roar resounds across the plain.”

As they move like the lion, they are strengthening core muscles and their entire proprioceptive system (the muscle and joint system which tells us the speed and pressure or force of how we are traveling in space and how we are interacting physically with other beings and objects). You might also find the sixth graders juggling as they recite, “When factors split up anything there’s nothing left to spare. And if it is divisible, remainders just not there,” and laughing freely as all bags drop to the floor when saying “remainders just not there.” Maybe you will find fourth or fifth graders doing specially designed “sit up – cross over” patterns to strengthen the communication between the two sides of the brain as they recite their times tables. Or you might see the same skill strengthened through complex “clap and toss” patterns done with songs and sticks, as part of a cultural study of Polynesian games. The result is that everyone develops more fully and learns the content more deeply. Throughout the day, meaningful, educational movement is woven into all we do.

Over many years of working with little ones, I have seen how powerful this work is. In the last few years, when I have been working in other kinds of school programs, I have been shocked to see the movement handicaps and the accompanying learning difficulties spread through so many children, and I have been thrilled to see that even fourth, fifth and sixth graders who are having these kinds of problems respond remarkably quickly to the movement work. Soon, as many more parents discover their children benefit from occupational therapy and movement work, all schools may include this as a part of their curriculum. Our goal for all children should be to ground them with a strong, flexible neurological system so that a healthy and dependable learning process can develop. Therefore, integrating meaningful movement into all we do is both vital and nourishing to the development of confidence and enthusiasm.