Embodied Learning in children: Why the mind needs the body to increase attention span & alertness.

Sometimes we focus too much on the need to ‘fix’ things, people or situations. What we don’t realise is that quite often they may just need tweaking or looking at again with a fresh pair of eyes!

Let’s set the scene: It’s 11.30am on a Thursday morning for a typical Year 2 Primary school class. (The principles remain the same regardless of age and the points discussed later can also be applied to children of all ages). The kids are working independently and in small groups. The classroom is busy and there is an amazing smell of food wafting in from the school kitchen. It must be close to lunchtime! 🍕

Now let’s focus in on three children as they go about their school day:

Ali

Ali has his hands in his pockets and is walking around in the classroom. Sometimes the teacher asks him to grab the activity book from the bookshelf and choose something from it that he feels like doing. Other times she asks him to join a small group of other children sat around a table. They are doing some cutting and colouring exercises. He decides to pick up a random activity book and comply. But as soon as the teacher is not looking, he continues to walk around aimlessly.

Brendon

Brendon chose his activity himself; a picture book. He decides to isolate himself in a corner of the classroom and proceeds to turn the pages. He isn’t aware of any other activities that are going on around him. The teacher rings the bells to get the class’ attention. Brendon does not even look up.

Charlie

Charlie is sat at a table with a few of his peers. They are engaged in trying to complete a jigsaw. During this activity, they’re talking about their favourite football players and what they did at the weekend. The teacher is walking around the classroom to see what everyone is up to. When she reaches Charlie’s table, they look up at her briefly. She tells them they only have a few minutes left before lunch break. Charlie quickly nods and gets back to the jigsaw. When they complete it, Charlie puts it back into its box and returns it to the shelf.

Which child do you think was more engaged? Ali, Brendon or Charlie?

Ali found it difficult to focus in the noise and chaos of the classroom. This meant that he struggled to engage in goal-oriented behaviour. 

Brendon was able to focus on his own solitary activity. But this meant completely shutting himself out from everything around him to the extent that he was not able to hear the bell when the teacher wanted to get everybody’s attention.

Charlie was able to display the highest level of attention. Regardless of how much chaos or noise there was in the classroom, he managed to engage in several high level tasks whilst being aware of what was happening around him and responding appropriately when required. This is an example of ‘Cognitive flexibility’. This can be described as the capacity to shift or switch one’s thinking and attention between different tasks or operations.

Before we consider external support, are there things we can do to help children to thrive in a school (or home) environment?

There are some basic needs that may help them to manage the challenges of a busy classroom environment, sit for extended periods, curb their challenges and help them to focus on the tasks at hand. And it isn’t rocket science….it’s bare basics that we may sometimes overlook whilst trying to ‘fix’ the problem.

  • A strong, stable body and trunk that provides good, natural support against gravity.
  • Good vision. Unfortunately, many children have undetected visual impairments or issues with their sight. Below are a few signs that may warrant further investigation:
    • A child who rubs their eyes
    • A child who is struggling to copy from the board
    • A child who slumps down over their work
    • A child who has a short attention span for table-top activities
    • A child who is resistant to doing written work
  • Sleep. It is so important for children to get enough sleep. Their brains transform subconsciously learned material into active knowledge while they are asleep.
  • Suitable nutrition. It’s common knowledge that if you put the wrong grade of oil in your car then it won’t run very well! Likewise, the wrong grade of food into a child’s body will have the same effect. It won’t run very well. A child cannot be at their best on a diet of salty, sugary, chemical-laden, highly processed food. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins along with water, provide the nutrition necessary for the body’s ability to support learning and to grow and develop.
  • Good respiration. Shallow breathers and children who are chronically stuffy may have a hard time concentrating as their brains may starved for oxygen.
  • Enough exercise has many benefits. These include developing  and strengthening of the nervous system, cardiovascular health, promoting healthy digestion and the manufacturing of neurotransmitters that support learning.
  • Efficient, reliable sensory processing. This refers to the way that the brain receives, organises and responds to sensory input in order to behave in a meaningful & consistent manner. When children are efficient in their processing, appropriate responses to the environment around them occurs and is demonstrated by appropriate skill mastery, behaviour, attention and self regulation (controlling their physical  activity, emotional and cognitive responses). Children are able to sit and attend to the important pieces of information in a classroom and therefore have a good chance at achieving their academic potential. 

A child who regularly wanders around when it’s noisy, tunes everything out and can’t keep up because they can’t pay attention needs support in addressing these issues in order to facilitate learning.

If the physical issues outlined above are all addressed and revisited but the child continues to experience issues at school, an Occupational Therapist can help! We are perfectly placed to support children within an educational or home environment and can help teachers and parents better understand and help these children succeed with everyday activities.

If you feel that I may be able to support you or a child or you’re just after some advice, feel free to get in touch with me! I am based in Nottingham and I am available to come to you if needed. (Find out more here) 😊

Much love, Manisha 😊

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