Reach high, for stars lie hidden in your soul.

Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.” 

– Pamela Vaull Starr

Pediatric Occupational Therapy: Neurodevelopmental Specialist

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Is My Child Ready For School?

What our children need to be successful in the academic setting

When Expectations Exceed Normal Development

Over the last 20 years, our country has shifted the ideology of academics, from a time where play was learning, to a time where testing for accreditation is everything. This shift in the education ideology has had a domino affect on the upcoming generations, as children have had their childhoods shifted from the integral aspect of play, to the adult-like mentally of "work."


The innocence of creative play and the art of dreaming is something that is slowly disappearing from our children's early years, as the expectations for academic achievement increases. The demands on our youngest school goers has reached a level so great, that even those children that appear to hold things together, experience significant levels of stress that affect overall learning and development. 

The Generation That Never Learned To Play...

If you are a parent of a child in elementary school, I want you to try and think back to the time you were in Preschool, Kindergarten, or even 1st grade. 


I know when I think about these days, it is full of memories of swinging on the playground, playing tag, jump roping, coloring, and sitting at circle time learning about weather, letters, and numbers. There was no expectation to write letters legibly, to add numbers together, or complete a craft project from start to finish without any help. There was this feeling about school, this knowing that I could walk through the doors, without my parents, and be and feel successful. There were no major tests to memorize and learning was more or less at my own pace.


As I look at the country and our education system today,  it is apparent to me, that the expectations of our early elementary school children, is far beyond what their bodies are ready for and is creating a generation of children, who struggle both academically and emotionally. We have put such immense responsibility on the shoulders of our 3-8 year olds, that we have forgotten how important the play piece is to learning. The understanding of how imperative the activities of climbing, swinging, jump roping and skipping has fallen by the way side, as we try to front load academic input on immaturely grown neurological nets. 

What Kids Need To Be Successful In School...

Now, I talk about this next generation having expectations beyond what their bodies are ready for, but what does that really mean?


Through my time as an Occupational Therapist I have come across classes, research articles, and even other clinicians that have supported the fact that an immature nervous system will always create academic challenges in some way. I never understood what this meant until reading Susan R. Johnson M.D. FAAP blog articles and working with Maxine Haller, MOT, OTR/L. There is this missing link with so many of our elementary school children, and it is the link of brain integration. From studying their information, I have noticed there a several activities a child should be able to do, that will ultimately determine their academic success.


The following is a list of activities that determine readiness for reading, writing and spelling:


  • Draw a person with head, eyes, ears, mouth, body, arms, legs, fingers and feet. 
  • Sit still for at least 20 minutes
  • Gallop (w/fluidity)
  • Skip (w/fluidity and tension-free reciprocal movement)
  • Cross crawl in front, back, and R/L planes without unilateral tendencies
  • Sit in a low kneel or cris- cross pattern on the floor (No W-Sitting)
  • Visually track without head movement / eye jumping
  • Draw numbers, letters and shapes from tracing sensation on their back
  • Touch each finger to thumb without looking
  • Jump Rope 
  • Army Crawl (Bauer Crawl) with reciprocal cross lateral right and left shifts, and symmetry between upper and lower body effort. 
  • Balance on one foot for 10 seconds 

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If your child struggles with any of the above mentioned tasks, then they are demonstrating central nervous system immaturity; and if they are being asked to complete reading, writing, and spelling tasks at this time, they will likely experience difficulties with some aspect of academic success and/or feel unsuccessful. The reason that these activities are so important, is that they set the foundation that is needed in order to learn with purpose, not just memorization. For instance, a child that learns to read before they are able to gallop or skip, will learn to read by sight, instead of phonetically. This occurs because both skipping and galloping help to set neural net foundations on the right and left side of the brain, as well as across the middle of the brain. If they have not set these neural nets in place that do cross from one side of the brain to the other, a communication traffic jam occurs when it is time to process and/or motor plan for an activity. The right and left side of the brain will be unsure where to pull information from and which side to send it to. In the case of reading without appropriate right and left brain connection, children with inappropriate laterality will not always be able to distinguish between similarly shaped words, and will guess at what words are on a page (examples: Ship and Shop, Cat and Oat, Clap and Clay). Children may also confuse the inner pieces of words due to the need to look at the shape as a whole instead of the letters in between (example: Teh fox jmuped oevr the brwon dog). This kind of nervous system immaturity creates poor reading comprehension, poor understanding of spelling and frustration with reading activities.  


In most educational settings, when children demonstrate delays in reading, writing or spelling, the educational system will seek to improve these skills, by providing assistance in the academic setting with the focus on repetition of the tasks until mastered. Unfortunately, for children with central nervous system immaturity, the more a task that is difficult due to CNS immaturity is completed without the right foundation, the more the child will struggle. The more the child struggles, the more likely the child will learn to just memorize the task. In the case of memorization, the child will possibly learn to read, but never comprehend well, or will learn site words, but always confuse and/or misspell certain words (their, there, them, the). The idea of learning will become, "How can I memorize this?" instead of, "How can I learn this and apply it to other contexts." 

If we constantly teach children to memorize the tasks of reading, writing and spelling, how will they ever learn to branch off from memorizing and really feel what they are learning? How can we expect our children to be creative and spontaneous, try things, problem solve, if we are always teaching them that the best way to learn is to practice with the same rote memory tasks until they stick? This is where a shift can occur, and we can teach our children the foundational skills they need to be successful. 


I have learned in my 6 years of practice, that working on the skills listed above is what really matters. I have seen countless times, if you address crawling and visual tracking, writing improves without sitting at a table. If you address mid-line development and calm the nervous system down, body drawings improve. If you address skipping and perception/awareness of shapes, letters, and numbers that reading improves. All of this progress is possible, at a very fast rate, and without the need to sit and practice it. I have found that the less time spent working on the actual delayed skill, and the more play that is added to a child's day, is the key to building successful academic experiences


If your child appears to be lacking the skills needed to be successful in the school environment OR if they are receiving additional assistance in school and continue to struggle academically, an Occupational Therapy evaluation is highly recommended. Occupational Therapy focused on neurodevelopmental programs is highly effective and produces fast results, in as little as 12-24 weeks. 


The Information above was compiled from clinician experience, as well as courses, texts, and conversations had with Susan R. Johnson MD, FAAP (www.youandyourchildshealth.org) and Maxine Haller, MOT, OTR/L (www.cardinalcapers.com).