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A perspective on LEARNING AND LEARNING DISABILITIES

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Dr Ian Galbraith: Lilyfontein School

What is becoming increasingly obvious are the growing incidents of learning problems, learning disabilities or lately barriers to learning occurring in the school context and most of us teachers are not fully equipped to deal with this phenomenon. This phenomenon often referred to generally as Learning Disabilities (LD’s) requires serious attention from educationists and schools. This document is a collection of information to serve as awareness to raise our understanding of children with LD’s or Learning Barriers (LB’s) so that these children are not seen and treated as though they are Learning impaired.

The impact of learning barriers (LB’s) are life-long and pervasive. They affect academic, social life, family life, self-esteem and even the employment field. This resultant stress leaves the LB’s feeling tired, unmotivated and overwhelmed. It also leaves many parents and teachers feeling pretty much the same.

It is therefore important for us as educators to understand some theory behind learning so that we are able to recognise and deal with Learning Barriers (LB’s) with confidence and in a professional manner.

BUT… we need to keep things reasonably simple to understand and not get into time wasting debates on different theories and names. However we need to know a little more about the important elements involved when we are learning: When we consider the following elements we are moving towards understanding children in our classes who’s progress at school and in later life are influenced by the various barriers to successful learning like ADD, ADHD, CD, ODD, like Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), High functioning autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Development Disorders (PDD’s) Depression, Bi-polar Disorder to name a few.

SCHOOL is an area of exploration, learning and success for most young children. When a child enters primary school, the aim is to enable that child to become proficient in the five basic skills which are necessary for entering high school. These are reading, spelling, maths, writing and speech. By the end of primary school these skills should have become virtually automatic so they are used for the extension of further learning, increasing the child’s scope and depth of knowledge and skills.

This happens because …

  1. Our learning equipment works … The brain,
  2. What we are learning about … types of knowledge, skills and emotions.
  3. How we process and store this information and
  4. How we use the information to behave/act from input to output …BUT
  5. Sometimes this process is Dysfunctional.

1. THE BRAIN:

Our learning equipment is our brain and our understanding of this organ is about the whole brain, which allows us the interactive use of our entire brain in a holistic and integrated approach to learning.

Some anatomy and physiology to set the spark!

Our thinking brain (neo-cortex) consists of trillions of cells called neurons and this unique anatomy assures us that our brain’s physiology provides us with an unlimited capacity to learn. Our brains cannot run out of storage space and with good nutrition and use will last forever under normal conditions. Between the intricate dance of brain cells, chemistry, electrical charges, neurotransmitters, proteins and synapses our brains are constantly in a state of growth and rejuvenation in the quest to make sense of information. In other words the universal quest to learn.

More about the brain

Anatomically the brain consists of hemispheres or two parts often referred to as the left and right brain separated by a bunch of nerves called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum enables these two brain sides to integrate, compare information and ‘talk’ with each other to make a more meaningful picture for the brain’s owner. The brain’s left and right sections have in the past been attributed with certain dominances. The left brain has been attributed with more logic, analytical, mathematical, language orientations and is concerned with the specific parts of the whole. The right brain on the other hand is said to be pattern based, creative, imaginative, does the daydreaming part and is concerned more with synthesizing and the big picture.

But the brain is more than just two horizontal divisions; it also has vertical components in three forms that are claimed to reflect the evolution of the brain (known as the Triune Theory of the Brain). In the middle and oldest part of the brain called the brain stem (reptilian brain) which emerges directly from the spinal column the very basic instinctive responses like hunger, sex, survival and territorial instincts are controlled.

Surrounding this structure is the Limbic system or Mid brain (mammalian brain) consisting of organs like the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus which are responsible for the control of emotions, sexuality and pleasure. Regarded as the emotional centre of the human (see section 9)

Finally the neo-cortex (thinking brain) that controls our intellectual processes. This is our upper brain (so called modern brain) and is the thin layer (+-3mm) that covers our two hemispheres and is divided up into parts (called lobes) with special functions. Frontal lobe (cognitive thinking, problem solving). Parietal lobe (sensory information) Occipital lobe (vision). Temporal lobe (hearing, language).

It is important to understand that all these areas work together holistically. No part operates singularly, there is not a separate academic and a separate creative side. Both sides and the mid sections need to be used in conjunction with each other. In order for us to learn successfully we need to be in a safe and comfortable place (reptilian brain). We need to be in an emotional state that is conducive to learning; we need to be motivated (mid brain) and then we need techniques for our neo cortex to assist thinking during our learning.  Certainly we do not all learn in the same way, our styles of learning differ as we uniquely and unconsciously combine all of these brain components into our own dominant way of thinking and learning.

All the above is the quest to collect and process information. Information is knowledge so we as teachers need to know about the ‘stuff’ we are hoping our students will learn.

 

2.  TYPES OF KNOWLEDGE:

 

2.1. Declarative knowledge (factual) means that information can be transmitted symbolically in speech, written words, mathematical notation, gestures, sign language. It is acquired from reading books or listening to lectures and discussions. This is usually done in the formal setting of a school or university. It refers to facts and not meaning. It is imperative that the student build a coherent macro structure of the information and this is done most effectively through producing an accurate summary of the information. LB or LD students have great difficulty in producing a summary as their working/ short term memory just retains too much information or info is so jumbled that it cannot be used properly. 

2.2. Procedural knowledge (skills): Procedural knowledge is a sequence of actions that are largely unconscious and automatic. It has come about as a result of extensive practice and intense effort is required. Procedural knowledge includes three phases, (1) analysis,  (2) practice to the point of automaticity and (3) attention management (keeping up practice to maintain the skill).

3.3. Conceptual knowledge and learning is an inductive process. This means that knowledge is formulated through examples and experience of things (doing) and NOT through declarative instruction (talking or reading). When everyday experience or events happen a form of learning through discovery occurs (categorical knowledge) but this process also involves structuring new schema by combining old and new info to make sense of the new (schematic learning).

2.4. Analogical knowledge preserves the physical pattern of what is known just as an image does. It is not actually learned it is rather acquired instantly and automatically through the activation of the senses. It includes images in “your mind’s eye” what you already know. ADD, and ADHD individuals do not realise what they know. This knowledge is very individualistic in nature, like the image that you have of your mother’s face. A vivid experience may also cause long term imprinting.

2.5.  Logical knowledge. Differs from procedural knowledge because it rises from one’s own reasoning capacity and NOT an automated, practiced skill.  It is the ability or capacity to reason out new and unfamiliar challenges. Usually this ability stands one in good stead to cope with maths, language and problem solving tasks.

2.6. Meta-knowledge/cognition: Commonly referred to as ‘thinking about thinking’. This meta-cognitive level goes beyond thinking. It is not some strange esoteric power, but a very real, hugely complex, neural network that dominates everything one does.

It entails the operation of specific mental processes by which the individual can organise and monitor their own thinking. An ability to self appraise, self monitor, self reflect, re-plan, problem solve, make decisions. Knowing when you are wrong or right, or how to study or knowing when you understand or know something is critical to effective learning.

2.7. Wisdom: Socrates said that the knowledge of wisdom cannot be taught but only known directly.

How does learning happen?

 For the purpose of our exercise we will look here at the human information processing system in the brain.

 3. PROCESSING INFORMATION

There are three to four major structures or stages that happen when we deal with information. They should not be seen as separate entities but as a continuously interactive system. In simple terms… knowledge comes in INPUT, is FILTERED then into short term MEMORY then INTEGRATED with older stored info stored in long-term MEMORY and then an ACTION happens OUTPUT.

The diagram below gives a little more detailed view of how a normal mind works.

 how_the_normal_mind_works

INPUT

WORKING MEMORY

INTEGRATION

OUTPUT

* Pick up system, scans the world.

* uses sensory devices, eyes, ears, skin , hands processing and interpreting  info.

* Incoming info is held briefly (millisec) by a buffer system.

* visual buffer, auditory buffer, tactile buffer and kinaesthetic buffer.

* This is a filtering system (lacking in ADHD or LD learners)

* Take in what you need and discard the rest.

*Tuning in to what you need and encoding the information

SELECTIVE ATTENTION

# Executive region of the brain

# makes snap decisions on the info

# need to keep or discard

# Only maintains certain amounts of information / chunks at a time.

# working memory assembles mental programmes

Stores info and has to retrieve to compare to make changes, rehearse or trigger behaviour.

 

 Knowledge is integrated 

 

Retrieval  and then used 

* Connecting old information, comparing drawing conclusions, planning and storage. Integrating the different kinds of knowledge which are:

 Declarative:  Procedural:  Conceptual:  Analogical:  Logical:  Meta knowledge / cognition

* STORED into bites of information

 

.

and then stored

 

for daily functioning

This stage is the proof that we have learned something. Expressed through language (talking, communicating) or muscular activity (motor output) writing, drawing, running, etc.

4. DYSFUNCTIONAL LEARNING

A learning disability (LD) or learning barrier (LB) means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involving the use of language, (spoken or written) and may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations. This may also include directional confusion, sequencing and short term memory retention problems.

A learning disability (LD) is NOT due to handicaps like visual, hearing, motor, mental retardation but LB’s also include emotional disturbance, environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages that effect learning. An individual is considered to have LD or LB’s if achievement is not commensurate with age and ability levels in one or more of the specific learning experiences.

The cause of LD’s has not been conclusively determined but the current view is that their is biological-neurological cause relating to an imbalance of the brain’s neurotransmitter chemicals some of which are nor-adreneline and dopamine. Research shows a high genetic influence with both the LD’s and ADD / ADHD’s. This state of affairs is influenced and accentuated by psychological and social factors (home, school, peers and a poor self-concept)

QEEG studies show that the temporal and parietal lobes are implicated in reading, spelling and comprehension while the basal ganglia is involved in co-ordination, writing, using scissors, building small models, colouring in. 

5. PROBLEMS AT THESE STAGES:

5.1. Dysfunction at the INPUT stage

At the input stage the information is perceived through the senses, such as visual, auditory, tactile and kinaesthetic perceptions. As the information comes along, our brain buffer system holds the info momentarily and the working memory decides if the info is useful for the immediate need. If so it will bring the info into working memory if not will ignore the info. This is a filtering process which is a problem with ADD and LD individuals as they are unable to filter effectively and therefore have an over load of information from their immediate context… short-term memory.

Disabilities result here when the information is misperceived or distorted in spite of not having hearing or visual problems of a physiological nature. So it is not about what you see but how you perceive it. It is a “short circuit” or dysfunction in the circuitry but again needs to be emphasised that LD is not due to visual impairment, hearing impairment, motor impairment, emotional disturbances, environmental issues or economic issue and it is also obvious that the individual’s achievement is not in sync with their ability or age.

5.1.1       Sensory Integrative disorders

Tactile (input from the skin)

Proprioception (input from muscles)

Vestibular (input from inner ear)

All these interfere with body awareness and position in space

Sensory Integrative Disorders.

  1. (i)Tactile sensitivity. May be tactually defensive and resist being held or cuddled. Complain about clothes being uncomfortable, belt too tight.
  2. (ii)Proprioception deprivation causes confusion of the body in space- also poor muscle tone, posture, balance, running, jumping. Even buttoning and tying laces.
  3. (iii)Vestibular perception. Position in space, handle gravity how fast one is moving, running or walking?

5.1.2. Perceptual disorders lead to inaccuracy and inconsistency leaving the person confused and anxious.

5.1.2. (a)  Visual perceptual disabilities.

  1. (i)Difficulty in organising the position and shape of what is seen. They may reverse or rotate letters, numbers, words and even sentences. Headings never done in the same place, use a b instead of a d or p in place of a d.
  2. (ii)Difficulty with figure-ground (focus on an irrelevant aspect) and thus unable to track left right. They may place the answer in the complete wrong place when doing work sheets.
  3. (iii)Individual may misjudge distance or depth or position in space… appear clumsy and uncoordinated when visual perception is the problem.

5.1.2.(b).   Auditory perceptual disabilities.

  1. (i)Sounds or phonemes. Confuse words like ball and bell, can and can’t.
  2. (ii)Auditory figure-ground. Unable to pick out sounds from other sounds. In class may not actually hear the teacher’s voice.
  3. (iii)Auditory lag. Inability to process sounds as fast as others can. Re-asking of questions, stalling an answer for time to think. They may only have heard part of what was said.

5.2.Dysfunctions at the MEMORY stage.

There are two types of memory, Working memory and Long term memory.

5.2.1. Working or short term memory seems to analyse; experiments show that short-term memory involves primarily electrical activity in the brain. While long-term memory seems to synthesise and involves mainly chemical processes.  Working memory has been defined as anywhere between a few seconds and 24 hours.  Working memory consists of a few forms relating to the senses; visual memory, auditory memory, tactile, olfactory, taste and kinaesthetic memory.

5.2.2.  Information coming into the working memory needs to be rehearsed often so that it may be taken up in to the long-term memory. This may take anything from a few minutes to over 24hours. This is dependent on how interesting or meaningful the information is to the individual learner.

5.2.3. In LD individual’s memory disabilities are more likely to be in the working memory. Most LD’s have good long term memories as usually the ‘subject’ is of intense meaning to them.

5.2.4. Working memory Dysfunctions show in that a child may understand their homework and then forget how to actually do it the next day at school. At home they get all their spelling correct but the next day at school only get one correct. Trying to retrieve information that you know you know but just cannot is psychologically demanding.

 

5.3. Disabilities in the INTEGRATION stage.

At this stage in the learning process understanding of the information is critical so the inputs from the senses needs to be integrated. This requires ordering information to make sense (sequencing), inferring meaning from the words or symbols (abstraction) and then the information must integrated with previously learned information (organised).

5.3.1. Sequencing disability

Information is received from the senses (visual, auditory) but is distorted.

A student with sequencing problems might have trouble recounting a story in the correct order. Spell words with the correct letters but put the letters in the wrong order. Sees a maths problem as 18-6= in the book or board but write it as 81-6= on paper. They may be able to memorise days of the week or months of the year but unable to use the sequence. They may not be able to tell you what comes after Wednesday or after 19 without going through the entire sequence.

5.3.2. Abstraction disability

Inability to generalise and misinterpret actions of others taking things literally, not being able to understand  jokes or humour based on words. Words seem to have limited meaning for them and therefore cannot find the right word to express their thinking or emotion.

5.3.3. Organisational disability

They can take in a series of facts but cannot answer a question using those facts. They are unable to pull multiple parts together as a whole, “gestalt”. Desks, folders, books, bedrooms, are usually in disarray. A poor sense of time results in poor time management.

5.4. Disabilities at the OUTPUT stage  

5.4.1. Language disability

Language is perhaps the most complex and difficult of all learning tasks. Language problems place a person at risk of failure at school and even in the work and social situations.

In preschoolers the misuse of sounds, words, grammar is normal when learning to speak. It is only when these problems persist that there is a cause for concern.

(i)  Speech and language disorders:

     (a) Developmental articulation disorder. Difficulty in controlling rate of speech, lag behind in making speech sounds.

     (b) Developmental Expressive disorder. Child often calls objects by the wrong name or has difficulty answering a simple question. Sometimes they are able to talk on and on but freeze when asked a question about what they were saying.

     (c) Receptive language disorder. The child’s hearing is fine but will hand you a bell when you asked for a ball. Often ask you to repeat as the word they heard does not fit in with the situation.

     (d) Developmental Reading disorder (dyslexia). Brain may not recognise sounds, may not connect the sound (phoneme) with the written letter of combinations (grapheme) Sound-symbol correspondence.

(ii) Motor skills disorders:

     (a) Gross motor: problems in co-ordinating large muscles (arms, legs, trunk). Appear clumsy, fall easily and bump into things. Running, climbing or riding a bike is very ungainly.

(b) Fine motor problems are more complex and frustrating. These usually show up in the LD child when using utensils, colouring in, using a scissors, writing… the time when the child needs to get their muscles co-ordinated to cope with these tasks. Often an awkward pencil grip, writing is slow, muscle force is obvious and therefore very tiring. Hand writing is messy, in shape, size, spacing and positioning of letters. The harder they try the worse it becomes.

(iii) Visual-motor problems:

Often a person with visual perceptual problems has motor problems as well this is referred to as visual-motor disability. When the brain receives information that is misperceived and incorrectly processed then the muscles will be misinformed which will affect the  eye-hand co-ordination. Copying from the board in class or even copying from a text book onto another sources can be a massive challenge to the LD. They have to first look at the word (visual perception), retain its image in the working memory and finally write it on paper (fine-motor activity). Because LD’s battle to retain the visual image in their short term memory they have to copy one word at a time and in some cases a letter at a time, no surprise that they never complete their work.

This frustration, confusion and insecurity are often the causes of the resultant negative behaviour patterns that emerge from children/ adults with learning disabilities. These behaviours then intern exacerbate the learning problems…”catch 22”.

5.2. SUMMARY:

 5.2.1. Reading disability (dyslexia).

 5.2.2. Writing disability (dysphasia)

 5.2.3. Maths disability  (dyscalculia)

 5.2.4. Non-verbal Disability

 

6.  INTERVENTION STRATEGIES

6.1. Identification / Recognition

Learning disabilities that occur on their own are highly remediable if subjected to the correct intervention strategy. Remember we are not talking here of intellectual impairment, LD is NOT a sign of low intelligence. They therefore should not be treated as such.

As specialists in the learning field we as teachers need to be well informed so that we are able to recognise the signposts. Once we are sure (through discussions with other teachers and the remedial person) then bring the parents on board (not always easy).  As teacher we need to lead the way to convince the parents to take the matter further to the professional learning experts for testing, opinions and feedback reports. The objective here is to ensure all the significant people in the child’s development, teacher, parent and professional engage in discussion in order to plan a way forward for the child.

6.2.   Some characteristics of Individuals with learning disabilities

  • Reading and spelling not at age level.
  • Weak oral language
  • Inability to understand cause and effect.
  • Inability to tell a joke.
  • Unable to respond to explanations given in language. Prefers to be shown.
  • Weak reading comprehension. Cannot recall what they have read.
  • Need to re-ask questions.
  • Weak expressive language.
  • Messy hand writing.
  • Delayed speech.
  • Impulsivity.
  • Poor at following directions (Weak auditory memory)
  • Poor at following more than one instruction or multiple information..
  • Loses attention quickly
  • Poor organisational skills.
  • Difficulties with table, and mental arithmetic.
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Depressed mood or mood changes.
  • Weak sense of time.
  • Weak sense of direction.
  • Confusion with left and right
  • Poor at judging distance and size.
  • Poor sequencing, Cant get started.
  • Slow reaction time
  • Poor co-ordination, gross and fine.
  • Poor peer relationships, often fights
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Behavioural problems- acting out or withdrawing.

6.4. Treatment

  • Teachers need to be aware and recognise symptoms through up-to-date information.
  • Teachers need to understand the aetiology of LD’s in that these children are not intellectually impaired.
  • Teachers may need to alter their style of teaching and presentation of subject matter to accommodate more learning styles.
  • Use multi- sensorial resources and keep a firm but fair class atmosphere.
  • Use a variety of assessment strategies.
  • Encourage plenty of rehearsal, use of meta-cognitive thinking and teach learners how to learn.
  • Always preserve the child’s dignity to grow their self-worth.
  • Once a teacher suspects a problem then consult with the heads of sections, other teachers, parents and keep the child in the picture at their level.
  • Interviews with parents are essential so that they are part of the process.
  • Child need to see the psychologist for assessment.
  • Plan together the way forward.
  • Keep detailed records of meetings and agreements.
  • Make feedback contacts with parents.

7. BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS

LD, ADD and ADHD learners are at risk in terms of behavioural issues but do respond to clear unmoving boundaries that are seen to be fair to all. 

Research and articles show that there are many possible LD combinations.

  • Some children are ADD with attention and short term memory problems but also display behavioural features of hyper activity, impulsiveness, low frustration threshold and inflexibility.
  • Some have very few behavioural problems and seem to fit in yet lack of progress is obvious possible hypo-activity.
  • Some are ADHD and do not really have a learning problem but their hyperactivity or inattentiveness creates situations where these children are disruptive in the class and home situation.
  • Some are daydreamers and appear to ‘switch off’ to what happens in class

On rarer occasions these behavioural condition which are manageable in themselves spill over into more serious disorders in the form of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and the very serious Conduct Disorder (CD). When these condition co-occur with LD or ADHD they are referred to as co-morbid conditions. Below is a very tentative sketch of these two very serious conditions.

ODD: children are impulsive, unthinking, negative, defiant, disobedient and hostile towards authority figures. Common features are short temper; easily angered; argumentative; provokes peers, parents and teachers; is vindictive, stubborn and always externalises blame for their own mistakes, they are denial experts.  This child is power hungry and will not stop to get that power.[We will not discuss the psychological or chemical reasons behind this point.]

However the ODD child is usually remorseful and through anger management and focussed involvement can be helped, but on the other hand …

The CD child is one behaviour a parent does not want to see. Lying, cheating, stealing, cruelty, violating the rights of others, disrespect, destruction of property. There is a malicious, sadistic intent to their behaviour and they show no moral regrets at all. There is a definite hereditary link in Conduct Disorder and this is exacerbated by poor and hostile parenting, marital discord and the poor early treatment of ADHD.

8.  Some indicators for early identification

One of the dangers of sign posts is then seeing LD’s behind every desk. But awareness of certain features that do affect learning is helpful.

  • Attention span – easily distracted, daydreaming, on another planet.
  • Activity level – restless, fidgety, cannot sit still, over active.
  • Impulsiveness – do not stop to think, often leads to lying and stealing.
  • Co-ordination – clumsy fine motor skills, tying laces, buttons, holding a pen, handwriting, hopping, skipping, jumping, kicking or catching a ball.
  • Short-term memory-greatest disadvantage of ADD’s especially retention of auditory / verbal information (short-term memory)
  • Inflexibility-dogmatic and do not like change of environment or routine.
  • Speech- early speech problems may lead to language problems later on

9. Other causes of Learning Barriers.

9.1. Bipolar affective mood disorder:

9. The part played by emotions in learning.

The limbic area or system of the brain is a very important part of the human’s learning system as it is directly related to the emotions. Emotions play a significant part in building good or bad memory. If you are afraid your limbic area will secrete chemicals that will not assist efficient memory retention and as a result create a state of confusion and disjointed memory patterns. A negative emotion can very easily be stored and affect future learning. The amaygdala (two almond shaped structures at the bottom of the limbic ring in the brain) stores the emotional perceptions of memories and this affects what our brains regard as true or believable. This small centre is so powerful that it can very easily overrule and disrupt the thinking or intellectual side  (neo-cortex) of us humans. So if the emotions are not right for academic learning this learning cannot happen, emotion and thought need to be in harmony. A kind of Emotional Intelligence sometimes referred to as Emotional Quotient (EQ) is a popular and helpful concept in creating ideal learning situations.

Emotional Quotient

Daniel Goleman (father of the concept of EQ) talks about this brain package we received from the mix of our parents and this consequent genetic lottery which determines our temperament at birth. He defines temperament in terms of the moods that typify our emotional life and that it is biologically based. However, Goleman does say that through specific reinforcement of action and mental processing we are able to alter our basic biological temperament. Temperament should not be destiny.

What is temperament?

Temperament is generally regarded as the characteristic style of approaching or reacting to people and situations. Temperament is defined as the HOW of behaviour.

Jerome Kagan at Harvard University posits that there are at least four temperamental types; namely; Timid, Bold, Upbeat and Melancholy and each is due to a different  pattern of brain activity.

A simple understanding of these types is important to the further understanding of the objective of using self-challenging activities in a learning experience. We must also appreciate that in each of these types a range of temperament occurs, e.g. a Timid person may be just a little shy to someone who is socially inept due to shyness or The bold person may range from some reservation or fear to being totally fearless. The upbeat person can be such that nothing ever worries them to just a little worry while the melancholy person can range from just being down in the dumps to chronic depression. This range spans the continuum of positivity to negativity.

According to Kagan children who are overly sensitive and fearful may well grow into shy and timorous adults who fear the new, change, social situations, morbidly afraid of giving a speech or performing in public and who’s thinking becomes rattled in the large group. On the other hand a child with confidence, is at ease in large groups, able to think clearly in anxiety provoking situations is more than likely to grow up into an adult with such qualities. Terms like “easy child’ or ‘difficult child’ or ‘slow to warm up child’ are often used to describe temperament.

The difference between these two extremes is according to Kagan in the neural circuitry of the amygdala in the brain. People who are born with a neuro-chemistry that makes these circuits easily aroused creating high brain activity suffer from anxiety while those with a higher threshold for amygdala arousal and therefore less brain activity are less frightened and more easily outgoing.

The encouraging news is that Kagan’s studies show very clearly that this over excitable amygdala can be tamed with the right kind of experiences. What makes the difference are the emotional lessons and responses children learn as they grow.

Kagan’s conclusion according to Goleman is:

       “ It appears that mothers who protect their highly reactive infants from frustration and anxiety in the hope of effecting a benevolent outcome seem to exacerbate the infants uncertainty and produce the opposite effect. In other words the protective strategy backfires by depriving the timid toddlers of the very opportunity to learn to calm themselves in the face of the unfamiliar and so gain some small mastery of their fears. At the neurological level, presumably this means their prefrontal circuits missed the chance to learn alternate responses to knee-jerk fear.”

A further consequence of a parent/teacher short circuiting the learning process by interference and not allowing the child to solve their own problem (within developmental common sense/ maturity level) is that a child who has to then solve a problem on their own at sixteen may well still be developmentally stuck at the three year old mark where parent of teacher created the protective cocoon in the first place.

The Lilyfontein experience

In our intra-curricular component of Life Orientation that we call our adventure days the learning objective is to put the children into controlled situations that will challenge each child’s level of fear and independent thinking. Through encouragement and mediated guidance by the instructors and leads by peers the child who does the activity experiences a feeling of overcoming a fearful situation and completes the task. If the children are able to learn self-talk and work their way (with non invasive support) through their own fear they are effectively using their neo-cortex (thinking brain) to tame the over excitable amygdala (emotional brain) and so handle and control their levels of anxiety.  Children who are given opportunity to practise and master these technique become adults that are able to ensure that fears or anxiety does not inhibit their daily functions or competencies. In this way a more independent and self-confident individual grows.

Through our students being exposed to adventure day activities and the important part played by the teachers to observe and debrief the experiences we strive to lead our students into emotional competence. Meta-cognition is regarded as our awareness of our own thoughts and meta-mood is the awareness of our own emotions. Simply it is about creating self-awareness and building confidence by using thinking techniques to deal with life’s everyday surprises. Either coming to grips with different situations be it the self-challenge of heights or a social context, the students is helped to manage this intimidating experience.

Being able to self-regulate one’s own emotional state is the key skill to successful learning, relationships, social activity and work place dynamics. 

 

List of References

Boon Rosemary: (2007) Learning Disabilities in Optimal Function and Well being. Australia

Goleman Daniel (1996): Emotional Intelligence. London

Green  Christopher: (1997): Understanding ADHD.   London

Leaf  Caroline: (2005) .Switch on your Brain   South Africa

Papalia Diane and Olds Sally (2000) Human Development. New York

Rose Colin(1987) Accelerated Learning:  New York

Serfontein Gordon (1996): The Hidden Handicap. Sydney

 

 

 

 
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