As we can see in the visual to the right, learning develops in steps or phases, and academic knowledge is the culmination at the top. Successful learning in school is dependent upon strongly developed underlying processes. Although each of the processes, or rungs, are not learned in isolation, they do build on one another and weaknesses in the lower part of the ladder effect all the rungs above. Therefore, when trying to address issues in the higher levels, it is important to look more closely at the steps below to determine where more hidden weaknesses lie. Addressing these areas will support the development of the upper rungs, sometimes without ever directly doing interventions in those areas.
This means that there should not simply be one approach when helping your child. The school's typical response, especially in this day and age of high stakes testing, is to remediate by providing more instructional opportunities. This method works best when the deficit is that the child has missed educational opportunities for reasons such as a move, undiagnosed hearing loss that is now being corrected with hearing aides, or illness that may have kept the child out of school for an extended period of time. Sometimes the child has matured since the time of when initial learning took place and is now more developmentally ready to receive it.
Experienced teachers can attest that children who struggle usually have other identifiable characteristics, such as not being able to jump rope, having poor balance and coordination, no being able to sit still, constantly falling or crashing into walls, and having poor fine motor skills in writing and/or speech. Their learning struggles are deeper than needing more instruction. If this is the case, the intervention needs to go beyond simply providing more academic support.
The understanding of the role that primitive reflexes play in learning disorders has been absolute key in helping these children overcome their obstacles. To go into depth of how to identify and all the ways to treat primitive reflexes that have been retained is beyond the scope of this website, however it is so critical to learning outcomes that I felt it needed to be addressed in at least a basic way so that others are aware of their existence and can research this topic further and at the very least incorporate some basic exercises that can help address the integration process of these reflexes.
Essentially, primitive reflexes are automatic movements that are mediated by the brain-stem, begin in utero and are present at birth. These reflexes have a variety of functions, such as helping the infant wriggle out of the birth canal and being able to find the nipple to nurse. These reflexes are elicited by specific sensory stimuli. For example, at birth, if an infant is having trouble nursing, a midwife would know to stimulate the palm of his hand to, in turn, stimulate the sucking response.
There are many of these reflexes that should integrate and become non-observant after the first year of life. During this first year, babies engage in a variety of rhythmical movements that allow them to practice and wire their brain for the next step. For example, when a baby is on his hands and knees, she rocks back and forth. This practicing allows her to gain conscious control of her body. As the reflex pattern is integrated, the limbs are no longer tied together and movements can be done at will. “If the baby is unable to inhibit his primitive reflexes at the appropriate time they will delay his motor development making it more difficult to follow the inborn programme. Consequently, there is a stumbling block to the maturing of his brain” (Blomberg & Dempsey, 2011, p. 50), causing problems with gross and fine motor coordination and sensory perception (Goddard, 2005).
Many children do not have fully integrated reflexes. Correct crawling for at least six months, for example, is critical for the integration of the Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR). However, many children, myself included, skip the crawling stage and go right to walking. Walkers and other devices that encourage children to be upright before they are ready also prevent infants from receiving the appropriate movement and stimulation that helps them to integrate their reflexes.
Reflexes integrate, but do not fully disappear. Their job is to present themselves during a flight or fight situation. Some individuals who had originally integrated their reflexes may have experienced trauma at some point in their life that brings the reflex back out. This may have been some type of accident, illness, or even some vaccinations are said to cause this to happen. Most adults have evidences, even if slight, of some of our primitive reflexes, which are magnified as we age and our brainstem and basal ganglia begin to deteriorate. An example is when we are driving and as we look to one side of the street, does our arm, thus the car, follow the direction of our gaze? Adults who are active in sports but experience injuries are most likely experiencing the failure of one or more of these primitive reflexes (Bell, n.d.).
As primitive reflexes integrate, postural reflexes develop. These reflexes, controlled by the midbrain, are those that should remain present throughout our lives. One example of a postural reflex is the headrighting reflex. In fact, this is thought by some to be the most critical indicator of learning difficulties (Gold, 2008). This reflex helps keep a steady gaze, even when we move in different directions. To test to see if this reflex is present in children, while a child is sitting in a chair at his desk, direct his attention to an object that is in front of him at eye level. Gently move his body to the right and observe his head. If it remains in the vertical position, then the headrighting reflex is present. If it falls with the shoulder, then it is not. Move the child to the left, forward and backwards too. Sometimes the reflex is present in one direction and not the other. If the reflex is not present, then the child is sure to have difficulties in school.
Several research studies have been conducted in the past thirty years, which have demonstrated the impact that having retained reflexes has on learning and behavior. Studies have also showed that students make significant improvements, to the extent of even completely eliminating their symptoms and, subsequently, their diagnosis, when engaged in an exercise protocol that directly targets the specific reflex. One study in particular, which tested 109 boys from ages 7-10 found an indirect and direct relationship between the retention of the Moro, Asymmetrical Tonic Neck, Symmetrical Tonic Neck, and Tonic Labrynthine reflexes with ADHD symptoms and mathematics achievement (Taylor, et al, 2004). To read research summaries around primitive reflexes, see Sally Goddard Blythe’s book, Reflexes, Learning and Behavior.
When the child makes a movement that “replicates the earliest reflexive movements, we ensure that the information goes to the exact place nature intended it to go. Nerve Growth Factor is created every time we stimulate any part of the brain or body. An initial period of three weeks is necessary to make that connection” (Gold, 2002, para.5). The exercises in which the students need to engage should ideally be done daily, but at least 3 times a week can result in positive changes as well. Children should do them for at least 3 months, but it may take a year or more before the challenges are permanently gone, especially in those with more complicated issues. “If the exercises are not done for enough time, the new pathways in the brain may not have time to consolidate and some of the symptoms may reappear” (Blomberg & Dempsey, 2011 p. 23).
When we are looking at children from a neurodevelopmental point of view, we are considering how lower functioning levels affect higher ones. Piaget (1952) maintained that children have to pass through and successfully master lower level skills before being able to attain higher level ones, because deficits at the lower levels affect higher levels of functioning (O’Dell & Cook, 2004). This is why understanding and being able to detect the presence of reflexes is so important, because it is through these observations that we can notice on which developmental level children are functioning. “Whereas many other methods of intervention work from the cortex down towards the brain stem and work up toward the cortex to access improved cortical control by providing more efficient pathways,” (Goddard 2002, p. 124).
There is a close correlation between the child’s behavior and physical maturity. Therefore, does a birthdate really measure school readiness? Programs need to look at the whole child, especially in the early grades. In the United States,
“we push too hard and too fast for academic success, all at the cost of the childhood of our children (Oden, 2004).” I worked in a district that made kindergarten much too academic and, as a result, children were not developing their visualization skills, as well as their basic cutting, coloring, and gluing skills. John Rosemond, a family psychologist, wrote in a syndicated article in 1998, “alter the meaning of childhood, and you alter brain development and behavior.”
"Only by carefully watching how the child moves, how the child functions, can we get an idea of where in the brain the problem lies. Then, by giving the child a chance to make these movements which originally should have made all the connections in that particular part of the brain, we allow the brain to repair itself."
--Svea Gold, 2008
Interested in learning how to test your child's primitive reflexes? Click here to purchase the Primitive Reflex Tutorial. When you complete the tutorial and fill out the recording forms for your child, I will give you videos to address the top 3 reflexes that appear to be unintegrated in your child.
Bell, R. Novel Testing Methods and Clinical Applications of Primitive Reflexes 3/12/2013.
Blomberg, H. & M. Dempsey. (2011). Movements that Heal. Queensland: Book pal.
Goddard, S. (2005). Reflexes, learning and behavior: A window into the child’s mind. Eugene: Fern Ridge Press.
Gold, S. (2008). If Children Came with Instruction Sheets. Eugene: Fern Ridge Press.
O’Dell, N. E. & P. A. Cook. (2004). Stopping ADHD. New York: Penguin Group.
Oden, A. (2004). Ready Bodies Learning Minds.
Taylor, M., S. Houghton, & E. Chapman (2004). Primitive Reflexes and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Developmental Origins of Classroom Dysfunction. International Journal of Special Education. 19:1.
Lisa Ann de Garcia, MA, MEd.