Exercise can benefit the mind as much as the body. Crispin Andrews explains how certain movements improve children's concentration and co-ordination
Why do so many children have difficulty sitting still, listening, concentrating and ignoring distractions in the classroom? According to proponents of neuro-developmental delay theory, a question that has vexed teachers since the dawn of time has quite a simple solution.
In many children, so the theory goes, primitive baby movements or reflexes have not been unlearnt. The development of more advanced adult postural reflexes, which allow sitting still, standing upright, walking, grasping for objects and later the processes of reading and writing to be performed automatically, is therefore delayed.
So much energy is taken up with these simple movements that the conscious, thinking parts of the brain have not been freed to focus on the much more complex tasks necessary for learning.
To combat this, programmes of exercises designed to induce the emergence of adult postural reflexes are being used in a growing number of schools. Using principles developed by therapists attached to organisations such as the Developmental Practitioners Association and the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, regular routines of simple exercises allow children to pass through the important stages needed for the body and brain to get ready for learning.
Carol Howells, a teaching assistant at St Joseph's Catholic Primary School in Droitwich, Worcestershire, teaches the exercise programme every morning before school to targeted groups of key stage 1 and 2 children. "There have been major improvements in concentration, co-ordination, behaviour not to mention children's handwriting and their spelling," she says.
Exercises are usually done daily in short bursts of 10 to 15 minutes and involve simple repetitive movements such as rocking, crawling, jogging on the spot, windmill arms, slithering, pulling with arms and legs and standing stiff like a robot. To make them more enjoyable, the exercises can be accompanied by rhymes and rhythms.
It is also important that exercise programmes are not delivered in isolation from the rest of the staff. "I often do the theoretical part of the training with all staff so that everyone can see what we are trying to achieve," says Lynn Pardoe, a therapist and educational consultant.
Lisa Hayes, special needs co-ordinator at Merrivale Nursery in Nottingham, goes further by demonstrating the exercises during staff training and getting parents to try out some of the movements for themselves during specially arranged sessions. Some proponents believe that children with conditions such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and some autistic spectrum disorders can be treated through regular exposure to neuron-developmental therapy. Although by the time they reach secondary school primitive reflexes will have become more entrenched, it is still possible to unlearn them. Irene Cunliffe, special needs co-ordinator at South Bromsgrove High School in Worcestershire, runs an exercise programme with about 40 teenagers with special needs every week.
"Many pupils tell me that they feel more comfortable in their own bodies and are relieved that there was a reason for them feeling like they did, and that there is something that they can do to change things for the better."