When I talk with parents for the first time, they often have questions about why their child can’t read, comprehend, remember math facts, follow instructions and why they aren’t excelling in the classroom. They know something is missing, but they can’t put their finger on what. I often have moms and dads tell me, “I know my child is smart, but I just don’t know why they aren’t reaching their potential.”
As I begin asking questions, I try to first focus on the educational aspects of reading, writing and spelling, but as the conversation continues, I then veer off in a different direction, asking questions that seem unrelated to learning. I ask parents if their child has sensitivity to light, texture or sound; if they fidget in their chair or if they ask “huh?” or “what?” when the teacher asks them to work on an assignment. We talk about how athletic the child is and if they can skip, bounce, run and cross the monkey bars. We also ask about the child’s birth and if they crawled as a baby and reached all of theirdevelopmental milestones.
Many parents often find it curious when I ask these types of questions and are even more surprised when they come to our center and see all the bouncy balls, balance beams, hula-hoops and jump ropes. As I see the wheels turning in their head, I’m sure they often think, “How is this going to help my child to read, write and listen to their teacher?”
Unfortunately, in today’s world, there is a lot more pressure on our children to excel at higher academic levels than what their brain and body is prepared for in the classroom. Children are now expected at younger ages to be experts at subjects and topics that even just 10 years ago wasn’t required. Many schools have even limited recess or have removed recess altogether from their curriculum and kids are now expected to sit still in their chairs, listen to the teacher and learn at a faster pace.
Now why is this a bad thing? “We just want our students to be better prepared,” most educators would say. The problem is, we are beginning to see more learning challenges like Sensory Processing Disorders (SPD), ADHD, Autism, Dysgraphia and Dyslexia because we are taking away play-based movement from our classrooms. I’m now seeing more and more children with poor posture, deprived vestibular systems (balance and coordination), sensory overload and above all, almost no core muscle. Sitting inactivates these muscles and makes them weaker or or leads to developmental delays. Many researchers are now finding that children in mainstream schools have immature motor skills, which is directly related to educational achievement.
Poor Core Muscle
While many exercises can be used to help your child’s brain and body work together, as you may have already read in our “Crossing the Midline” article, we also want to make sure our children build strong core muscles in their neck, tummy, legs, eyes, arms and fingers. Each body part plays a key role in triggering the brain for higher learning concepts. For example, I hear parents tell me that their child struggles with copying information from the chalkboard to their paper, only to find that their child has poor muscle strength in their neck and shoulders and they struggle with hand-eye coordination activities. They can barely do a sit-up or collapse when I ask them to lie on their back and lift their head to look at their toes.
Another problem I am often asked about is why their child can’t attend and focus in the classroom. Usually they are clumsy, they run into walls or furniture, they fidget in their chairs, lean over their desks, and they can’t process what their teacher is saying because they are focused on other distractions in the classroom. These can all be issues related to their vestibular system, which is their balance and coordination. When we see these issues, we know the child isn’t getting the movement they need to help improve their inner ear and core muscle. To perform well in an educational environment, kids need to strengthen their motor skills and core muscle to manipulate a writing instrument, control their eye movement to track words on a page, and calm their bodies so they can attend and focus on the instructions the teacher is giving.
Another problem I am now seeing is that many of these children who struggle with poor core muscle and learning challenges often like video games. While there are many video games that are educational and great for kids, too much sitting causes the muscles to become weak.
These children are at risk of under-achieving in school, not because they aren’t bright, but because they don’t have the physical skills and core muscle strength needed to support their intelligence in the classroom. Plain and simply, their motor skills are under-developed.
Another issue we see with children who have poor core muscle strength that affects learning is retained primitive reflexes that stem from birth, which could cause toe walking or children sitting in the W-position or bed wetting, but we will discuss it in greater detail with more exercises in later articles.
Miracle Grow for the Brain
In a recent Washington Post article, there is a school where teachers and educators are getting their students moving in the classroom with play-based activities to build their core muscle while working their brains.
I couldn’t have put it better when one of the teachers said, “There is another neurotransmitter that is directly connected to muscle movement in the body. That’s like taking miracle grow and putting it on the brain. And what we need to do as teachers is plant the seed in that well cultivated brain. And, that well cultivated brain comes about by movement and exercise.”
Core Muscle Activities
Now that we know how important core muscle strength is and how it is connected to learning in the classroom, what can we do to test for poor muscle strength and what exercises will help improve our child’s core for higher learning?
How to Test
Testing for core muscle strength isn’t too difficult. Here are some easy ways to check:
- Can your child move their head from side to side and up and down without moving their whole body?
- Can your child hold their breath for a long time or is it too difficult?
- Do they grip their pencil correctly?
- Do they have poor handwriting?
- If they are standing still when you slightly push them, do they remain standing or do they fall over?
- Can they throw a ball or kick a ball?
- Do they spend too much time playing video games causing hyperfocus?
- Do they use both legs and arms in sports, or do they only use one side of their body?
Strengthening the Core
Now that we have completed some quick checks to test your child’s core muscle, let’s talk about some fun and easy ways to strengthen your child’s core. All exercises should be completed at least 10 times for 20 minutes a day.
You are probably all familiar with the superman, but it is a great activity for helping your child build the muscles in their neck, tummy, arms and legs. Have your child begin on their stomach. Count to three and then have them engage their tummy muscles and bring their legs, arms, and head off the ground just like Superman. Have them hold this position for as long as they can (10 to 20 seconds) before coming back to the ground.
Wrong way or what to watch for
If your child cannot bring both their legs and arms off the ground because their core muscle strength is not yet ready, first have them lift their arms and head only while leaving their legs on the ground. When they are ready, add the legs. If your child wobbles or if they can’t physically lift their head, position yourself on your knees in front of your child and help keep them still or hold their head straight until they develop the muscles to complete the exercise on their own.
This is a great activity to not only help your child build core muscle, but to also help them cross the midline (to see why this is important, click here). Have your child begin in a plank position with their arms extended and legs straight. Then have your child bring their right knee to their chest and cross it over their body to the left side. When they have crossed over the body, have your child bring their leg back to the plank position. Switch sides and have your child complete the exercise for the left leg.
Wrong way or what to watch for
Some kids tend to do this exercise too quickly and rush through it. Help your child use slow and controlled movements. This will strengthen the core and help them properly cross over the midline. If they cannot cross their body and tend to do same arm to same leg, help them cross their knee to the other side. If they fall over, you may need to help steady their bodies.
Leg and Arm Reach
This exercise may be a bit tricky for kids so you may need to help them. First, have your child begin on their hands and knees. Then have your child extend their left arm straight in front of them and lift their right leg straight behind them and hold for about 10 seconds. Remember to use opposite arm with opposite leg. After 10 seconds, have them return to their hands and knees and then lift their right arm and left leg.
Wrong way or what to watch for
This is another exercise where your child may wobble or lose their balance. You may need to start them out with arms only or legs only and then add them both together as they build their core muscle. You may also notice your child using the same arm with the same leg. This doesn’t engage their core as well so you will want to ensure they are using opposite leg with opposite arm.
Now these aren’t just your normal every-day crunches. You will be watching for a few other things. Have your child lie on their back and place their hands behind their head. As they lift their head to do a normal crunch, have them look at the ceiling and engage their tummy muscles. You want to help them hold their head still and also have them hold their breath for about 10 seconds. Release after 10 seconds and go back to the ground. The reason for holding their breath is to engage their core even more and it also helps with speech, language, anxiety and attention issues.
Wrong way or what to watch for
If your child’s neck muscles are physically not strong enough to lift their head, you may have to lift it for them at first, but eventually you want them to do it on their own. Make sure if you lift their head that they are still engaging their tummy muscles. You may also see your child want to lift their legs or feet off the ground. Make sure they are firmly planted.
This is by far my favorite exercise and one of the best for core muscle. You will need a medium-sized ball for this activity. It may be difficult for the kids at first, so you will probably have to help them. Have your child lie on their back, but prop themselves up on their elbows (children must be on their elbows, not laying flat on the floor). Have them bring their legs to their chest in the ready position. You will be standing in front of them with the ball. When they are ready, throw the ball toward their feet. They must kick the ball back to you with both feet. When they have the hang of it, complete this exercise at a faster pace.
Wrong way or what to watch for
You’d be surprised at how many kids can’t do this exercise. They may have a tendency to come up off their elbows or lie on the floor, but make sure they stay in that ready position. Some children will want to kick the ball with only one foot, usually with their dominant leg. We want to ensure they are kicking the ball with both feet at the exact same time. Your child may also have a tendency to kick the ball behind you or to the side. This is a sign of proprioception issues that we will discuss in later articles. Help your child kick the ball straight back to you, instead of to the side or behind you.
These are just a few exercises that can help your child build their core muscle, but there are many others. As a reminder, keeping your child involved in sports, gymnastics, swimming lessons and other fun activities all help their balance, coordination and muscle strength.