For most of my working life, I have focused on literacy or, as I prefer to call it, reading and writing. (I have never found a first- or second-grader who knows the word “literacy.”) Now, unexpectedly in retirement, I have begun to focus on movement and vision.
Both these areas, amazingly, are directly related to how children can learn to read and write. Makes sense that being able to see would have a connection to reading and writing, doesn’t it? Of course.
But why movement? Because neurological development, also known as neurodevelopmental patterning, is the basis for everything that makes us human. We begin in the womb, with small movements as a small fetus. We humans take nine months of gestation to arrive at a place where we can exist outside the womb, but we have made enormous growth while we are in there.
Sometimes the growth is not complete enough, due to a thousand possible problems. Then the child is born with what we gently call defects. But the work of the human body and brain to develop into a whole functioning human is not over at birth: it must continue for at least the first two years of life. There are eight developmental patterns the infant must achieve during that time; if one of the patterns is incomplete or unsuccessful the child will, most likely, have problems with learning (not to mention living).
Lately I have been working with some children in a Special Education classroom of old children, aged 11 to 13 -- way past age 2. How many of them might be able to cope with learning and life better if they had had a chance to complete their neurological development in a timely fashion? Impossible to tell; fascinating to consider.
But all is not lost. In spite of the nearly universal lack of understanding of neurodevelopmental patterns among the educators of this country, there are interventions, activities, and exercises that can finish a child’s neurodevelopmental patterns. (Sometimes even grownups can be successful at repatterning themselves.)
So now, after many years in many classrooms K-grad school helping all ages learn to be readers and writers, now I am volunteering here are there to help children finish the neurodevelopmental work they need to succeed in school and life.
In one school there are fifteen children who spend their days in two middle school classrooms separated from the rest of the school by a courtyard, working with a total of two teachers and three aides. There are more boys than girls in this group, but not by much -- the numbers are surprisingly even. (VERY generally speaking, based on my observations and others’ anecdotes over the years, more boys end up in special ed because their failures to learn are often accompanied by failures to behave.)
In these two classrooms there are black children, Hispanic children, white children, Israeli children, Muslim children, Somali children, including several for whom English is not the first language. One of these is a girl who speaks mostly German, which no one else speaks.
Jeremy is twelve and African-American; he is five and a half feet tall, about half that distance around, with a sweet, sweet smile. He is perfectly willing to do whatever I ask. I have worked with all the children individually during my first few visits to this class, and they have been puzzled but willing. Jeremy is no exception.
When I ask him to jump along an eight-feet-by-three-feet strip of linoleum, he nods and lumbers over to the end of the strip (he has watched some of the others do this) and heaves his 200-pound body upwards. His feet do not leave the ground, but I am not sure he can tell. He smiles as he takes a step further along the strip. Then he heaves his body again and takes another step, smiling. This is how he jumps to the end of the strip.
“Nice work, Jeremy,” I tell him.
“Tha’s hard,” he answers, still smiling.
“You’re right,” I answer. “ Now I want you to get on your tummy on the linoleum” – he has seen others do this also – “and move from one end to the other. You can use your arms and your legs.”
Jeremy gets down onto the linoleum, putting down one knee and then the other, balancing on his hands, then slowly lowering his body until he is lying on his stomach. “You can use your arms and legs,” I remind him. He pushes a little with his feet, then bends his right knee and pushes a little with that. His body moves only a tiny bit. He looks at me. I look at him. He moves in the same way, working hard, to about the middle of the strip.
“Nice work,” I repeat. “Now you can get up and we will do some other things at the table.”
Jeremy, on his stomach, cannot readily get up. After a minute, though, he turns onto his left side and heaves, then somehow gets one leg underneath himself and comes to a sitting position, then gets to his knees, and then, carefully, to his feet. He smiles. He does have such a nice smile.
“Thanks, Jeremy,” I say again. We walk over to the table, where I ask him to sit opposite me. Another sweet smile as I take out my paper eyeball – a flat one-inch paper disc with unlikely eyelashes drawn on it, glued to the top of a piece of stiff paper about one inch by six inches. “This is my eyeball,” I tell him. He nods. He has seen it before as I have worked with other children.
Slowly I move the eyeball across his field of vision horizontally, across and back three times. His eyes begin to glisten, but they do not wiggle or shift back and forth. His focus is steady. After the third pass he blinks.
“Makes you a little teary, doesn’t it,” I say. “Your eyes are working hard now! They are watery because they are tired.”
We stop. “Thanks for working with me Jeremy,” I say. “When I finish with Jose would you like to go outside and do some hopscotch spelling with me?” He nods, and smiles, and goes back to his regular place in the room.
Jeremy’s neurological development and his ability to access the world is severely constrained by those extra pounds he doesn’t need. I will hope that as I continue to work with him that he may feel more confident in his movements and become more able to hop, jump, crawl, and – maybe – skip.
A child who can skip and crawl is just about as neurodevelopmentally able as anyone can possibly be. When I do these activities in regular ed classrooms, though, there are usually about half who cannot do the tummy crawl that demonstrates a “finished “development. I suspect the percentages will be higher with Jeremy’s class.