After a long year filled with homework and tests, summer can be the perfect time to relax and unwind. But by the time school rolls around again, your child may seem unable to concentrate on areas like reading, writing and math.
For both parents and children, the dramatic shift between relative inactivity and intense concentration can prove a frustrating transition. And while it may seem like your child has forgotten how to learn, it is important to understand why.
The human mind responds to stress by shutting down areas which are involved in critical thinking and activating the part of the brain that stimulates action. Sometimes known as the “fight or flight response”, this reaction can render it nearly impossible to concentrate, create or perform higher brain functions.
For most of us, long hours, large workloads and overbearing bosses can often lead to mental meltdown.
Now put yourself in the shoes of your child: You have just returned from a relaxing summer, and almost immediately, you are thrown in to a rigid regime of math, science and reading on which you are tested three times per year.
In the wake of No Child Left Behind, this is the reality from kindergarten through high school. And for many children, it can be a prescription for disaster.
“Until around the age of 21, the human mind is still developing the ability to concentrate,” explains Dr. Carla Hannaford, a neurophysiologist and author of Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head. “The attention span of children in kindergarten through third grade has been be proven to be around 5-7 minutes, so it is no wonder they react in this way.”
Dr. Hannaford explains that around 83 percent of brain growth happens after birth. This growth is fueled by bodily movements which teach areas of the brain involved in functions such as awareness, concentration and memory to work together.
For younger children, this process begins with plenty of imaginative free play, which builds skills such as concentration, awareness and memory.
“By moving through space, we integrate with the world and new sensory experiences,” writes Dr. Stanley Greenspan in his book, The Child with Special Needs. “Movement stimulates brain function; it creates the nerve impulses that build mental pathways.”
An early example of this can be observed in children sucking their thumbs. A major nerve runs directly to the brain from the gum area of the mouth. This nerve is responsible for noise tolerance and organization. Massaging this area in the mouth helps children with organization, specialists believe.
To date, according to Dr. Hannaford, about 100 studies suggest strong links between movement and the areas of the brain which control skills such as memory, spatial perception, language, attention, emotion, non-verbal cues, and even decision-making.
These findings implicate the value of movement, play, games, physical education, and the arts (which all use coordinated movements) in boosting cognition.
As your child ages, these simple games and movements can boost the development of complex motor skills.
A recent study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic Medicine found that boys labeled ADHD significantly improved their academic test scores after participating in activities that improved motor planning, rhythm, and timing.
Pointing to yoga and tai chi as examples, Dr. Hannaford explains that slow, methodical movement helps to reinforce concentration and focus. But while these may prove be difficult for younger children, exercises such as crawling, patty cake or even touching the opposite foot are all excellent examples of “cross lateral” movements (movements which integrate each hemisphere of the brain) which involve the hands — which, she says, contain a large number of nerves connected to the brain.
“Anything that integrates both sides of the body (arms and legs) helps the two hemispheres of the brain to work together,” says Dr. Hannaford, who was recently invited to speak on the subject by National Association of Elementary School Principals.
For parents and teachers, she suggests beginning a study session with a few minutes of simple movement, followed by a 3- to 5-minute follow up every 15-20 minutes.
But you don’t have to be a child to enjoy the benefits of these techniques. Here are several exercises which both parents and children can perform during times of stress to help improve cognition and focus.
Cross Crawl: This exercise helps coordinate right and left brain by exercising the information flow between the two hemispheres. It is useful for spelling, writing, listening, reading and comprehension.
—Stand or sit. Put the right hand across the body to the left knee as you raise it, and then do the same thing for the left hand on the right knee just as if you were marching.
—Do this, either sitting or standing, for about 2 minutes.
Brain Buttons: This exercise helps improve blood flow to the brain to "switch on" the entire brain before a lesson begins. The increased b-lood flow helps improve concentration skills required for reading, writing, etc.
—Put one hand so that there is as wide a space as possible between the thumb and index finger.
—Place your index and thumb into the slight indentations below the collar bone on each side of the sternum (breast bone). Press lightly in a pulsing manner.
—At the same time put the other hand over the navel area of the stomach. Gently press on these points for about 2 minutes.
Hook Ups: This works well for nerves before a test or special event such as making a speech. Any situation which will cause nervousness calls for a few "hook ups" to calm the mind and improve concentration.
—Stand or sit. Cross the right leg over the left at the ankles.
—Take your right wrist and cross it over the left wrist and link up the fingers so that the right wrist is on top.
—Bend the elbows out and gently turn the fingers in towards the body until they rest on the sternum in the center of the chest. Stay in this position.
—Keep ankles and wrists crossed, and then breathe evenly in this position for a few minutes. You will be noticeably calmer after that time.
CHRIS KELLY is a NYC NASM-Certified fitness trainer, nutritionist, and editor of ‘The Spotter’, a webzine devoted to health and wellness for city dwellers. For more information, visit www.thespotter.net.