Introduction to Learning and Vision Therapy: Clinically Speaking Part IV

Learning Therapy: Focusing Attention and Improving Awareness

Introduction

The point of attending to children who struggle with reading, learning, and classroom behaviour problems is to assist them and their parents in getting them on track at home and at school, and keeping them there. Learning difficulties have no single cause and no single solution, so the best solutions will be multi-faceted and respect the child’s full developmental needs. Furthermore, where possible, parents and children must be taught techniques that promote helpful behaviours in daily living, behaviours that accelerate outcomes and serve to maintain any gains achieved.

Learning therapy, then, must promote health in and strong develop of all areas that are necessary for success in school. It must also facilitate intrinsic motivators while promoting independence from extrinsic supports. Areas of concern include cognitive skills, with examples such as sorting ability, vocabulary, memory, reading, and mathematics, as well as techniques and guidance to develop self-concept, self-control, and self-awareness. Finally, assistance with lifestyle is also required, especially for management of nutrition, sleep, and exposure to electronic media.

Self-Awareness as a Skill

Modern Western education is in a hurry to get to the end, to reach reading proficiency as quickly as possible; this rush to reading begins in Kindergarten and comprises a large part of curricular emphasis in Grade 1. This emphasis places a unique focus on training that discards other areas of guided development that are perhaps of greater relevance to the early learner, such as motor control and coordination, coding skills, and emotional intelligence. Of great importance is capacity to be self-aware and recognize how this impacts upon one’s own behavior. Very young children have next to no knowledge of other peoples’ own self-concept and only limited capacity for empathy. This is obviously something that develops to some extent over time, but it is possible to provide an excellent foundation of self-awareness through training in the same formal way mathematics or language can be taught and developed beyond what is immediately obvious to the child.

Attempts to instruct a student in reading or mathematics is predicated on the child’s cognitive ability to manage the associated constructs and symbols. However, if the child is closed emotionally, or overly distracted, he will be unable to make best use of the instruction offered.  The child that is self-aware is more thoughtful and reflective, and will not behave as rashly or with the same emotional lability as the child who is unaware of the workings of the mind, the emotions, and the environment. Children who are well centred emotionally, spatially, and physically, will show greater confidence and will be less hesitant to challenge themselves, to see the consequence of actions. Mental focus is improved, as well as the capacity to direct actions in more meaningful ways for longer periods of time, and can better control consumption of non-productive goods, such as electronic media and unhealthy foods. In other words, they learn to behave in conscious and meaningful ways, rather than simply reacting to stimuli or impulses.

Programming Self-Awareness & Self-Control

The drboulet.com program currently supports four streams of therapy in the development of self-awareness and self-control.

Core Therapy: Essential management of health, visual perception, and visuomotor responses. The simple fact of carrying out these activities requires a level of  participation that requires development of awareness and control of personal responses.

Meditation: Simple and effective children’s meditative techniques are taught to promote quiet self-reflection and the ability to ‘centre’ oneself when emotions seem uncontrollable. Children learn to prepare their minds before therapy to set the stage for maximized outcomes, but the same techniques are useful when they need to refocus themselves in class, or when they are having difficulty getting to sleep.

Yoga: Yoga plays a complementary role to therapy and meditation in that it encompasses elements of both in way the child can own. Children’s yoga provides individualized activities for children that they can continue on their own during therapy, and for the rest of their lives. Yoga promotes strength, flexibility and balance, but also helps the child to learn about their bodies while controlling their impulses. It is generally preferred over many other sports (with the exception of swimming) in that it answers the specific needs for training strength, stamina, bilateral integration, balance, laterality awareness, and impulse control. There is also very little cost associated with yoga, it can be done alone (not requiring a team), and provides a much more rounded physical exercise regimen than most other sports.

Personal Health: This includes instruction on managing sleep and nutrition. The goal is to get the child to realize that they will become whatever it is they envision in their lives. We commonly use a car analogy –

  • Ask the child what their favourite car is – suggest some nice options like Porsche, Lamborghini, Ferrari, Jaguar, whatever.
  • Confirm with the child that it is important to put good fuel in the car and to take regular care of it. Perhaps another lesser car, maybe a Gremlin or old beat up pickup truck would not need the same attention.
  • Suggest to the child that they are just like that awesome car, and they need to start taking good care of themselves as though they were just as valuable, if not more so.
  • High-end cars not only need good fuel and maintenance, they also need to be driven/operated regularly in order to stay in optimal running order.

Management of Media

A necessary part of modern learning therapy is the conscious control of exposure to electronic media, and to help the child understand how too much of a good thing can be a problem. This is especially clear in a time of virtually unlimited distraction through media where a new stimulus is required several times in each minute. This behaviour is self-reinforcing not unlike addiction. The child is rewarded cognitively and emotionally each time an interaction with the device yields the desire result, and generally the interaction is simple, requiring little effort beyond reflexive responses.

Media consumption is not required for a child’s academic growth, and overconsumption of empty activities will eventually impact upon a child’s performance and behaviour. If child were eating too many bags of potato chips, most parents would recognize that this would lead to illness and the behavioural effects of mal-nutrition. Media consumption, is similar in its effects on health and behaviour and must be monitored and limited.

Denying games, TV, and hand held devices is one option, but is not likely to occur without a fight. It is best to explain to the child that too much exposure is not healthy, but it will be allowed on a limited basis as a privilege, not a right, and only when reasonable expectations regarding other duties have been met.

Use of smart phones in the classroom should be disallowed during school, study, and therapy time. Technology exists that allows parents to track and control computer usage in great detail, even locking out users after their allotted time. Frequency of texting can be monitored and limits can be set, with phone use restricted beyond that limit. Social media is of little value for development, and in-person social experiences are preferred. It is reasonable for a parent to restrict access to media, all media, leaving the child to decide how they want to spend their time.

Sleep

Sleep recharges physiology, and consolidates learning. A child with broken sleep will find classwork difficult, and will not be able to pay attention or sit still as well as his well-rested classmates.

Children need regular good sleep, regardless of age. It is true that younger children sleep more than teenagers, but teens also need quality extended rest every day. Children’s schedules should allow for 8 hours of sleep and enough time to prepare in the morning, including breakfast. Scheduling should be adjusted so that mornings are neither rushed nor stressed.

Televisions, computers, and electronic devices in bedrooms should be discouraged, and no media interaction should occur after a set bedtime, with the exception of judiciously chosen books. The sleeping environment should be free of clutter and environmental distractors, such as cold breezes or cigarette smoke. Bedtime is bedtime, and even parents need to lower the volume on television or other activities in order to promote meaningful sleep.

Warm milk, music, and background noise can all help in soothing a child to sleep. Child appropriate meditative techniques are also helpful. Regular exercise and limited exposure to media both assist in calming the mind, allowing the child to let go of the day and drift off. Recent research has shown that the viewing of violent programs on television will also interfere with sleep.

Nutrition

There is ample clinical and domestic evidence that diet can and will impact upon behaviour. Children struggling with learning must be managed from the ground up, including proper nutrition, if they are to succeed in the short- and long-terms.

Parents need to be encouraged to engage their children in shopping and in food preparation. Small children especially benefit from the multisensory experience of picking, peeling, and chopping vegetables, including some excellent visuomotor practice.

When parents get a child involved with their food, the child learns to respect what they eat and choose more wisely what they bring into the house. Shared food preparation is an excellent opportunity to teach a child to prepare lunches and snacks in advance, and to plan for ‘special’ nights where perhaps a little junk food is allowed.

Junk food for its part provides nothing of value to the child and should not be called a ‘treat’. The real treat is good food. A child who has become reliant upon high fat, sugary, and salty foods poses a particular challenge for the therapist as both the child and parent will resist change. The bottom line is that a hungry child will eat, and substitutions of junk food or heavily processed foods should not be allowed. Parents need to be clear about when junk is allowed, and limit its availability in the house – including what they themselves eat in front of their children.

Eating in the hours before bed should be discouraged. Consumption of sugary or caffeinated beverages, should be strictly forbidden. So called ‘energy drinks’ are also contraindicated and should never be put in school lunches.

Evening or weekend preparation of breakfast can assist in avoiding stressful mornings and in promoting good nutrition. Cold cereal, toast, and processed microwavable foods should be avoided as the basis of the morning meal.

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