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Retained reflexes and neurodevelopmental skills may be at the root of poor behaviors, attention challenges, anxiety, and struggles with learning. In this podcast episode, we'll discuss these critical underlying skills and tools for developing them to eliminate the challenges.
Take an in-depth look at Retained Primitive Reflexes and how using Core Learning Skills Training and Quantum Reflex Integration (QRI) helps with integration.
In this week's episode, you'll learn:
- An in-depth look at the Learning Skills Continuum
- How to dig deeper and develop the weak underlying skills in order to eliminate learning challenges
- Retained Reflexes and Core Learning Skills
- Quantum Reflex Integration (QRI)
"It is important to realize that the root of challenges with attention, behavior, anxiety or learning are so often in the underlying neurodevelopmental or processing skills."
- Jill Stowell
- Stowell Learning Center's Learning Skills Continuum
- Retained Reflexes and Core Learning Skills Information Page
- Take the Stone Out of the Shoe - Chapter 4: What Do Challenges with Core Learning Skills Look Like?
- At Wit's End - Chapter 8: Core Learning Skills
LD Expert Podcast - Episode #53
Anxiety, Attention, Behavior and Learning - Jill Stowell
Jill Stowell: If your child is stressed or anxious about school, you naturally carry that burden as well. Anxiety has come to the forefront of concerns that we hear from parents about their children and teens; right there along with worries about attention, behavior, and learning.
Welcome to the LD Expert Podcast, your place for answers and solutions for dyslexia and learning differences.
Today, we’re talking about some of the common roots to challenges with anxiety, attention, behavior, and learning and strategies for making real change.
I’m your host, Jill Stowell, founder and executive director of Stowell Learning Centers and author of Take the Stone Out of the Shoe, A Must-Have Guide to Understanding, Supporting, and Correcting Dyslexia, Learning, and Attention Challenges.
It used to be that the only time I heard the term anxiety in relation to kids was “test anxiety.” Now, anxiety, even in young children, is a very common concern.
This is a challenging, competitive world we live in, so there are many sources of stress for all of us, but I want to focus today on some of the underlying skills that can impact a child or teen’s sense of well-being at school and show up in symptoms of anxiety, attention challenges, behavior, and difficulties with learning.
The anchor that we always refer to to understand and address learning challenges is the Learning Skills Continuum. The Learning Skills Continuum is a hierarchy of skills that follows natural human development beginning with movement and self-awareness; increasing to include awareness, understanding, and interaction with the world around us; and finally, higher level learning and self-management skills.
If you think about learning like a ladder or a continuum, academics and school skills are at the very top. Many other skills must be in place in order to provide the supports needed to learn and function well with those academic and school skills at the top.
Imagine that you are doing a job at the top of a ladder but some of the rungs below are wobbly or unstable. Where will your attention be focused? Most likely, not fully on the job. Your brain will be much more concerned with not falling off of the ladder.
In the same way, compensating for weak underlying skills will divert attention and energy from the learning task. When the underlying learning skills, or skills lower on the continuum are weak, they may keep children and adults from learning and functioning as well and as independently as they should.
We all understand the top levels of the continuum because these are school skills: reading, spelling, writing, math, and other content areas. But those critical underlying skills are skills that are not generally taught or really thought about much. They’re just assumed to be in place. From bottom up on the continuum, these skills are:
Core Learning Skills, Processing Skills, and Executive Function
Core Learning Skills are basic movement, visual, and auditory skills that help children develop a sense of self, internal organization, and body and attention awareness and control. Challenges in this area might show up as:
- Poor posture
- Being awkward or uncoordinated
- Fatigue and low stamina
- Laying on the desk
- Confusion with directions, spatial orientation, and letter reversals
- A hard time getting started or following through
- Lack of organization – always losing or forgetting things
- Poor handwriting
- Can’t sit still
- Trouble getting self-going
- Meltdowns; short fuse
- Poor attention
- Rigid both physically and mentally - so having a great difficulty with change
- They may seem disconnected,or “spacy;” They just seem to “float” through life
Core learning skills start developing at birth with reflex movements and are foundational for all learning. These are our body control skills that allow us to move through space easily, to sit in a chair, hold a pencil, and move our eyes across the page for reading. These skills should be so automatic that we don’t have to think about them. If we have to consciously think about sitting still and being in control of our body, attention will be funneled away from learning.
Processing Skills, the next rung up on the ladder and a little higher level in the brain, are skills such as attention, memory, auditory and visual processing, or how we think about and understand things that we hear or see, processing speed, and language comprehension.
Problems at the processing skills level may show up as:
- Trouble sounding out words
- Slow or poor reading
- Trouble memorizing spelling words or math facts
- Can read but can’t remember or understand what was read
- Get very tired when listening
- Miss information when listening
- Trouble understanding the visual organization in math, charts, or planners
- Disorientation when reading, writing, or listening
- Can learn words for spelling tests but can’t remember the next week
- Poor attention
- Poor comprehension or memory
- Can do the work but they can’t “get it together” to get the work done and turned in
- Slow work
Weak or inefficient processing skills will stress the attention system and cause the student to have to work harder or longer than expected. You’ll often see avoidance behaviors or anxiety related to challenges at the processing skills level because students recognize that their efforts just aren’t paying off and they can’t seem to do anything about it. Certain kinds of tasks just feel too hard.
As we move up on the learning skills continuum, we have Executive Function skills. These are our self-management skills that guide and direct our attention and behavior. Executive function helps us reason, problem solve, organize, get things done, make decisions and evaluate how those decisions worked out.
With the framework of the continuum in mind, let’s think about what happens when any of these underlying skills are weak or inefficient and how that can play out in terms of learning, attention, behavior, and anxiety. In particular, I want to focus on the Core Learning Skills level today. Underdeveloped core learning skills can have a profound impact on attention and behavior, but they are often overlooked as a source of the problem.
We worked with a little 7 year old girl, Chloe, who couldn’t read, which was why her parents brought her to us, but behavior and attention were huge challenges for her. In the classroom she was very silly and she moved constantly. She wiggled in her chair and just randomly got up and walked around the classroom. She could not keep her attention on reading or writing tasks for more than a minute or two.
At home, Chloe was pretty exhausting to her parents because she put up huge resistance to homework, eating, and to getting dressed. She would only eat a very few things and she would throw a tantrum if her mom wanted her to wear something other than one particular pair of pants.
Chloe was dyslexic and had both auditory and visual processing challenges, but the root of the difficult behaviors was retained primitive reflexes and poor body awareness and control, which are skills at the bottom level of the continuum - core learning skills.
In order to get Chloe to be able to sit and focus on reading instruction, we had to address the body control issues. Often, children like Chloe who seem to fling themselves all over the place, who can’t sit in a chair without rocking, wiggling, or falling out, have very little awareness of what their body is doing. It looks like out of control behavior, and it is, but it isn’t intentional.
Learning gets its jump-start through the involuntary movements caused by the primitive survival reflexes that babies are born with. There is a normal progression of movement activity that helps a child understand himself and accurately perceive and navigate his world. Interference, for whatever reason, to this normal development through movement can impact a child's attention, learning, interaction, and comfort in the world. We call these foundational movement patterns and skills Core Learning Skills.
I have a little niece who is a year old now, and it has been so much fun to watch her develop and learn through movement.
Infants move all the time. These early movements are triggered by reflexes at first and then as the brain and body matures, you’ll see movement become like a trial and error experiment. Then it becomes intentional, and then automatic. At each little step - reaching for things, rolling over, crawling, standing, and walking, I could see with my niece how at first, everything that happened was an accident - triggered by reflex. But then you could see her making approximations of the same movements over and over. I felt like I could see her brain constantly adjusting and eventually reaching for something, or crawling, or sitting very intentionally. That’s what reflex integration and human development looks like.
Children with learning and attention challenges are often very inflexible. They’re disrupted by any change in routine, which, of course, is very disruptive in a classroom or to a family. They have only one way of doing things because they don’t have the physical and mental flexibility to feel secure trying something in a different way.
The mental flexibility and adaptability needed for ease in learning, social relationships, and general functioning begins at the core learning skills level. Retraining core learning skills can help learners of any age develop higher brain functions and mental control.
The primitive reflexes that babies are born with should integrate or evolve into more mature reflexes and controlled movement. If these reflexes continue to fire when they’re not needed, they cause unintentional movement, sensitivity, and stress on the system. We think of this like little neurological roadblocks.
Think about coming to a roadblock when you’re driving. It’s not that you can’t get around it, but it’s going to create stress and take more time and more energy to get where you’re going.
In a sense, this is what happens when primitive reflexes continue to be active when they’re no longer needed. They can cause the person to be overly sensitive and disrupt attention, memory, learning, and easy flow and functioning.
Chloe, our 7-year-old dyslexic student, had many retained reflexes. One, the Spinal Galant, is a reflex that helps in the birthing process. When the lower back is touched or stimulated on either side of the spine, it causes the hips to flex.
Before birth, this twisting movement allows the baby to nestle its spine up to the mother’s spine and start to hear sound through bone conduction. This is important in the development of auditory processing. In birth, the flexing of the hips helps the baby move through the birth canal.
If it is retained beyond nine months, the Spinal Galant Reflex can interfere with bladder control, causing bedwetting beyond age five. Children with this reflex often don't like tight fitting clothing around their waist, and when they have to sit in a chair, they are likely to fidget and squirm and wiggle. It is very difficult to sit still when you have a reflex causing your hips to flex every time you lean against the back of your chair. This reflex is always competing with the child's attention and short-term memory because the child is distracted by the need to be in a constant state of motion.
At the learning center, we test for and work with 17 different reflexes that can impact learning and attention.
Retained reflexes can increase a person’s overall sensitivity, causing them to be over-stimulated by bright lights or loud noises. They often don’t like strong tastes or different food textures, causing them to have a very limited number of foods that they will eat.
When Chloe finished her training at the learning center, she was reading at grade level and in fact was one of the highest in her class; but the really remarkable thing to her parents was that she would wear any of the clothes in her closet and would eat all of the foods they gave her. Life had totally changed at home.
To help students increase their body awareness and control, we do what we call Core Learning Skills training or CLS. This kind of training involves physical balance and movement activities to improve visual and motor skills, graphomotor (handwriting) skills, coordination, self-awareness, self-control, and attention. CLS exercises help integrate primitive survival reflexes and improve… interpretation of sensory input, physical and mental organization, and learning efficiency.
The goal with CLS exercises is not to train specific movements and get them “right,” but to increase the student’s ability to do activities effortlessly, independently, and with flexibility - going at a different speed; starting on a different side. Learning involves thinking, comparing, evaluating, planning, visualizing, and adjusting, and ultimately finding the best way to do things. CLS uses movement to develop these abilities.
Another tool that has been valuable in helping our students with various learning and attention challenges to integrate retained reflexes and strengthen neurological connections for regulation, learning, language and attention is QRI or Quantum Reflex Integration. QRI combines low level or cold laser therapy with sound. This is a passive therapy, so the student lays on a massage table, generally on their back, while the clinician places and moves the lasers through the prescribed patterns. This therapy tends to be relaxing for students, which is really helpful for our students who are operating in a high alert state or tend to be very anxious.
Low level laser therapy is based in the scientific literature of more than 3000 publications and more than two hundred clinical trials with positive results.
QRI has been a really effective tool for students of all ages including adults. One little girl, Shannon, was almost 6 when she started doing QRI. She was very bright and doing well academically, but extremely disruptive and always getting into trouble.
Shannon did a nine-week protocol of QRI. Unlike most of our students whose programming involves a number of programs and strategies, Shannon was doing QRI only.
At first she was very chatty and social, but very impulsive and strong-willed. She constantly grabbed at things and deliberately disobeyed, but was coy about it, watching to see if she was getting a reaction.
She was very wiggly. Her legs were fidgety at the beginning of each reflex pattern and then she would settle very briefly. She was not able to sustain for all of the repetitions and would pop up and start flitting around the room, picking up things at random and chattering. She could not sustain through the full 30-minute session.
Any kind of therapy or cognitive training has some ups and downs along the way. It’s part of the process of change. For Shannon, weeks one through four were rough both at home and school. Shannon became more defiant and her attention problems had escalated.
When she got into trouble at school, Shannon said, “My bones are not controlled. It’s my bones doing it, not me.” She told her mom that she felt out of control.
Shannon had a very strong Moro reflex (which is the fight or flight reflex), and we felt that we were witnessing Moro reorganization. The fact that she could verbalize that she felt out of control indicated an important increase in self-awareness.
Things started to turn around for Shannon at week six. There were no notable challenges at school, day care, or over the weekend at home. At the Learning Center, we felt that Shannon’s physical hyperactivity had dramatically decreased.
Here is what Shannon’s mom said after her initial 9-week protocol of QRI: “We are so thrilled with the results of QRI. Shannon is doing great! The last 3 weeks have been amazing. She is calm. She’s not impulsive. She’s telling the truth now. It’s almost scary good because it’s so not like her! Her aunt and cousin, who aren’t aware that we are doing QRI, noticed over the weekend that Shannon was so quiet and well-behaved. Shannon’s teacher said, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s an exemplary student!’ That’s just so amazing to hear from a teacher!”
I love this story about Shannon because it is such a good reminder of how important it is to realize that the root of challenges with attention, behavior, anxiety or learning are so often in the underlying neurodevelopmental or processing skills. If you're trying to address any of these issues and not getting the results you expected, chances are you need to work lower on the learning skills continuum.
At Stowell Learning Centers, we work with children and families just like yours - helping parents understand what’s going on when bright students struggle in school and what can be done to change that permanently. We understand that having a child with dyslexia or a learning challenge can be very lonely for a parent. You feel like you’re the only one whose child is struggling and you don’t know who to talk to. This podcast is for you. My goal is to equip you with knowledge and practical tools for understanding and helping your child. If this episode brought up any questions for you, go to stowellcenter.com and give us a call.
Next week, we’ll be talking to Marriage and Family Therapist, Jamie Roberts about teen anxiety. Jamie has outstanding strategies to share with you to help your teen. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out on any of our new episodes.
The struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences can be eliminated. Please help us get the word out by leaving us a 5-star review. Let’s change the narrative together.
- Episode 69: Embracing Differences and Building Social Emotional Health – Suzanne McClure
- Episode 68 – Executive Function Tips for Parents, Teachers, and Students + T.E.F.O.S. – Part 2 – Seth Perler
- Episode 67 – The Executive Function Online Summit PLUS a Special Message for Kids – Part 1 – Seth Perler
- Episode 66 – Auditory Processing and Managing Anxiety – Jill Stowell on the Re-Focus Podcast with Angela Stephens
- Episode 65 – “Smart but Struggling” – What Does it Mean? – Jessyka Coulter, Love to Learn 2023
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