Oh, The Places You’ll Find Yourself — Spatially Speaking

Below is a TED Talk by Neil Burgess, a neuroscientist at the University College in London, who researches, as described on the TED website, “how patterns of electrical activity in brain cells guide us through space.”

Supplemental to the grid cells Dr. Burgess discusses are additional neurological systems that give us a sense of our surroundings. Dan Peterson, who writes a fascinating blog (Sports are 80 Percent Mentalabout the body-mind connection in sports, recently posted “Spatial Awareness on the Football Field” (where we found the above TED Talk — Thanks, Dan!) in which he writes,

Jeffrey Taube, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, has been studying our sense of direction and location. “Knowing what direction you are facing, where you are, and how to navigate are really fundamental to your survival,” said Taube.

In his research, he has found there are head direction cells, located in the thalamus, that act as a compass needle tracking the direction our head is currently facing.  At the same time, in the hippocampus, place cells determine and track our location relative to landmarks in the environment, say the football field sideline or the end zone.  These two sets of cells communicate with each other to guide our movement.

“They put that information together to give you an overall sense of ‘here,’ location wise and direction wise,” Taube explained. “That is the first ingredient for being able to ask the question, ‘How am I going to get to point B if I am at point A?’ It is the starting point on the cognitive map.”

It reminds us once again that strengths and affinities can be left at the door of our schools and classrooms if we don’t incorporate movement, action, and an intentional use of our bodies in our lessons and activities. Research continues to indicate that taking advantage of the neurological links between spatial ordering, graphomotor functioning, attention, and memory can help nurture achievement among a broader diversity of learners than the traditional sit-n-git approach (which leaves too many students itching for something more engaging).

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Addressing Sensory Needs in the Classroom

SensesThe following guest post is by Dr. Penny Cuninggim, Founder and Associate Director at New England Adolescent Research Institute (NEARI) and Director of the Brain-based Learning and Resource Center. You can sign up for NEARI’s “Smoothies for the Brain” Newsletter here

Imagine your child in a world where something as basic and reliable as the sound of the school bell or another person’s touch is perceived as something foreign or threatening. Imagine that when others climb and happily slip down the slide, your child cringes, feeling dizzy at the top of the ladder, and has to back down the rungs in shame. Or imagine that when other children are eagerly examining a dead frog your child is crumpling to the floor woozy from the smell. If this describes your child, then learning is not a fresh and rewarding experience. Instead, it is fraught with landmines of all kinds.

If one’s senses aren’t working properly, learning is no fun, and school is no longer a safe and secure place to be. 

LEARNING AND BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS

Many students with behavioral and learning problems in school are unable to focus because of sounds, smells, sights, tastes, or tactile sensations that take away their attention and increase negative emotions. In addition to the traditional five senses, a student might also have trouble sensing where his or her head and body are in space (the vestibular sense), or where and how various joints and muscles of the body are operating (the joint/muscle sense). These seven “senses” need to be working together in an integrated way in order for students to learn easily.

When these senses are not working together, one or more of the following behaviors are clues that a teacher might be able to observe:

  • Hypersensitivity to noises, touch or lights
  • Distractibility, hyperactivity, or irritability
  • Aggression, excessive talking, damage school supplies
  • Spaciness, withdrawal, anxiety
  • Poor speech development, learning disabilities, social problems
  • The inability to calm down, poor muscle tone, poor coordination

These dysfunctional behaviors are the result of a student’s inability to modulate, discriminate and organize sensations to adapt to classroom demands. In effect, these children cannot integrate incoming sensory information to complete learning tasks successfully. One student might be distracted from his math work by noises on the playground outside the classroom window, the teacher’s perfume, or the clock ticking at the front of the room. Another student might get stuck on a written assignment because of the intermittent giggling between two girls seated behind him or the collar of his new shirt scratching his neck. And still another student might be unable to either answer a question the teacher asks because she is uncomfortable standing to recite or role-play an appropriate social interaction with another student.

For most students, sensory issues can be accommodated by teachers as part of a classroom learning process. In a few cases, students may also benefit from additional work with an occupational therapist. 

CLASSROOM INTERVENTION

The goal of using special sensory supports in the classroom is to a relaxed alert state in the student. Teachers and parents can use many teaching strategies and sensory tools to help children compensate for their sensory dysfunction.

Examples of strategies include:

  • Reducing outdoor noises
  • Having fewer bright visual materials posted on the walls
  • Providing order for a messy art activity
  • Refraining from talking in a high pitched tone or wearing perfume or bright, floral clothing

Some tools include:

  • Camp cushions to sit on
  • Rubber balls and other fidget tools to fiddle with while learning
  • Pressure blankets to wrap around itchy limbs
  • Whisper phones to help students hear their own voice

These teaching techniques and tools may feel like luxuries in a high stakes testing environment. Nothing could be further from the truth. For these students, time on learning is critically enhanced through the use of specific sensory techniques that address their individual issues. It is a win-win strategy.

Photo Credit: TheNickster via Compfight cc

Summer Blog Series Post #7: The Role of Graphomotor Function in Handwriting

In last week’s post, we discussed the demands of revising written work.  Today, we’re going to focus on a different aspect of writing: handwriting.

Many people, adults and children alike, struggle with penmanship.  The ability to use computers to convey ideas can help minimize the need for handwriting and relieve handwriting-challenged individuals from the frustration of writing in some cases.  But even with the Digital Age in full swing, students – especially those in elementary and middle school – use this skill all day, every day, in their classrooms. 

Writing ideas or taking notes on paper requires us to form letters quickly and easily.  And in order to share their written material with others, students must also write legibly.  Some students find it easier to print than to use cursive writing. Printing requires that only 26 letter formations be remembered, while in cursive writing, every word is different. For other students, cursive is preferable because of the flow of movement when forming cursive letters.

As students progress through school, the demands increase – more details to track, greater language complexity, and growing vocabulary requirements. If students don’t learn to form letters with ease, they may need to focus so intently on their handwriting that they may find it difficult to produce the written work required.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

The process of writing places demands on a student’s memory (e.g., recalling the desired letters), spatial ordering (e.g., making a mental picture of each letter), and graphomotor function (e.g., having a comfortable grip and sending signals to the proper finger muscles to form letters).  In this post, we’ll focus on graphomotor function

Graphomotor function involves the coordination and control of the muscles at the end of our fingers. Some muscles are used to make a pencil move up and down, others to make the pencil move left and right, others to move it in a circular motion, etc. Since writing letters requires a combination of these movements, different muscles are used to form different letters. Some students have trouble getting their muscles to move in the correct way.  If one or more of these aspects are not functioning well for a student, he or she may write slowly and/or form letters and/or numbers that are difficult to read. 

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the graphomotor demands of writing:

The student …

  • writes letters smoothly, at an appropriate pace, and with consistent formation using a normal tripod grasp 
  • uses appropriate spacing between letters and words
  • forms letters without noticeable difficulty
  • writes without close visual monitoring
  • maintains appropriate posture when writing
  • applies adequate pressure to the pencil during letter formation

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the graphomotor demands of writing:

The student …

  • hesitates while writing or labors over individual letters, making writing a slow, laborious process
  • leaves as much space between letters as between words
  • makes frequent cross outs or erasures
  • shows a strong preference for printing over cursive writing
  • uses an alternative (e.g., fist-like) grip or uses wrists and elbows rather than small muscles and joints
  • keeps eyes close to the page while writing
  • is reluctant to write despite having good language skills
  • uses excessive pressure on the pencil, causing the hand to become tired or cramped

Strategies to help students struggling with graphomotor function:

  • Have students practice tracing shapes and letters. Gradually reduce the complete shape or letter to dots, so that the student can practice making the shapes or letters by connecting the dots. 
  • Encourage students who have difficulty simultaneously recalling letter formation, spelling, and their ideas to do writing in stages (rather than try to do these all at once). Graphic organizers are a great tool for this.
  • Introduce fun creative writing activities in which students can practice correct letter formation, for example: writing to a pen pal, creating an advertisement for a new toy or other product, designing a contest entry form, writing to request a famous athlete’s autograph, etc. 
  • When assigning a handwritten project, give students a choice of printing or using cursive writing. Many adults naturally use a combination of manuscript and cursive writing. 
  • Be aware that some students with graphomotor difficulties may also have difficulty learning to type on a keyboard. Guide these students through computer mastery gradually and without undue pressure. As a student is acquiring keyboarding skills, have him/her continue to practice handwriting. 

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies about handwriting
  2. Related research on graphomotor function
  3. Writing section of the All Kinds of Minds Parent Toolkit
  4. Newsweek article: Good penmanship is more than just a quaint skill. A new study shows that it’s a key part of learning.