By: Lisa Hebert

Assistant Clinical Director of Intervention and Learning Services

People are often left questioning whether there is an increase in learning disabilities or if the increase in numbers is related to better diagnostic practices.  This is a very good question and research supports the former.  There are definitely more children with learning disabilities in our classrooms and participating in our activities than in past years.  What is leading to this shift in our children’s learning?  Humans have discovered so many things and have developed in so many ways, why are so many having increased difficulty with the tasks at hand and with efficient learning?

Contrary to what you may believe, the body develops the brain and not the other way around.  It is through movement and exploration that the brain develops.  We all start out with primitive reflexes that are based in survival, our bodies know what to do from the womb to survive.  These reflexes integrate as infants start to develop and get traded up for higher level thinking and body processes.  For many individuals, all these reflexes do not become fully integrated and are considered retained, they get in the way of us doing the things we are wanting to do.  There are characteristics of retained reflexes in movement and development, sensory integration, vision, behaviour and emotional stability, and academics.

Have we changed our bodies and how we use them?  One definite change has been in physical activity.  When you think back 30-40 years as to what kids were doing for fun and entertainment to what they are doing now, there is a huge difference.

Up until the electronic age, kids played.  Kids imagined, they built, they explored, they destroyed, they ran, they jumped, they climbed, they did it all.  There were games of “Cops and Robbers” with no fear of them pretending to shoot at each other and what that could lead to.  There were games of “House” where every player shared the different roles and pretended to be whomever they chose.  There were summers spent outside exploring the nearest wooded areas, the swamps out back or at the local playground on equipment that would now require seat belts at a theme park.

Over the past 20 years there has been a shift in parenting, helicopter parenting has become a constant conversation topic.  The constant need to help or do something for a child because they may hurt themselves is actually stopping them from using their body and is impacting brain development.

In speaking about physical activity and brain development think of the simple example of climbing a tree.  As kids, we all climbed trees, and climbing a tree has so many invisible brain events that go into doing it.  It is truly amazing the effect of something so natural and fun!  “when a child chooses to climb a tree, they are first motivated to try it by a brain chemical called dopamine, then in order to pull themselves up each branch they must use their small (hands and feet) and large (arms and legs) muscles which require alternating messages from the corresponding brain hemisphere that involves communication (the corpus callosum) between the left and right side of the brain, they will use their vision to navigate up the sporadic branch pattern to determine distance and reach of the next branch, they will use frontal cortex to plan the route, the vestibular system to maintain good balance during the precarious climb and lastly adrenaline (another brain chemical) that will hit when they discover the have climbed too high.  Then they are required to make the right decision to stop, and find a way back down that too requires an incredible orchestra of mental and physical coordination.” – Brain Hemisphere Integration

That is some serious brain development happening there.  How many of your children have climbed a tree?  How many of you will be running out to the forest to get your children climbing this weekend?    Are you asking yourself is it too late?

With what we know about neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life, says it isn’t.   Those reflexes can be integrated, those disorders can be changed, get active, get out there.  And for the individuals with real struggles it may take more but it is possible to build the underlying skills so learning can be easier.  Work smarter not harder.