TEACHING KIDS HOW TO LEARN

It’s estimated that dyslexia and associated learning difficulties affect one in 10 people. The self-confidence of children
who find learning difficulty is battered by the constant frustration and disorientation they feel, adversely affecting their
social and academic development.  Much research has focused on how some children process information in different
ways, with the aim of developing alternative teaching methods, but there is also increasing interest in physical and
developmental factors. And evidence of the value of simple physical therapies has come from two unlikely sources -
Swedish massage therapists and a NASA space programme.

The Axelsons Gymnastic Institute (AGI) in Stockholm is the most renowned complementary therapy centre in
Scandinavia, and since the mid ‘90s has offered a training programme for people with learning difficulties. Developed by
Ann Chatrine Jonsson, a special needs teacher with 20 year’s experience, the programme combines co-ordination
exercises, acupressure and massage therapy. And now, a former student of Jonsson’s has brought the therapy to this
country.

Katie Losty recently returned to Ireland after six years working in Sweden. “Initially, I started going for massages
myself,” she says “as massage therapy is so popular there, and then, because I enjoyed it so much, I began to do some
courses.  I became convinced of the healing and positive power of touch.”

Though the therapy goes by the name of `dyslexia training’, it is beneficial for many types of learning difficulties,
especially where there are problems with co-ordination and concentration. The theory is that difficulties arise when
there is disruption or confusion in the signals between the brain and the muscles. As a result, the body doesn’t carry out
the proper or desired movement.  Losty adds that the problem may be compounded when the resulting movements are
misinterpreted as `fidgeting’ or misbehaviour.

“Research shows that co-ordination difficulties may also develop after a traumatic birth, for example, leading to what
may be described as some kind of imbalance between the two sides of the brain. Studies in Sweden have shown that the
majority of children with dyslexia also have mobility problems. For example, most of these children skipped the
crawling stage, the first stage where they learn to co-ordinate movement of both sides of the body.  Other researchers
have looked at what’s known as primary movement, a set of reflexes that babies normally grow out of by certain ages.
But some kids don’t, and as these reflexes can interfere with their co-ordination, their development is affected.”

The therapy consists of a 12 week programme combining the various elements according to each child’s needs.  “The co-
ordination exercises are basic things,” Losty explains, “such as jumping and swinging arms. There is also finger tapping
and pen movements to improve writing. Eye movements, such as tracking, are very important as they improve
focusing, along with acupressure around the eye area. Postural control and breathing exercises are also part of the
therapy.”

In between sessions, the children may practise some exercises at home.  Losty says that by week five of treatment,
most children have improved their co-ordination. “As well as the exercises being fun, the children can see the
improvements for themselves. And seeing their progress gives their self-confidence a huge boost.”

The massage element of the therapy is equally important.  “It’s amazing how children will settle down for a massage,”
says Losty.  “It’s very calming and makes them more grounded and aware of their physical space.  It makes them more
relaxed and cuts down on aggression and anxiety.”

Losty emphasises that the therapy is not about replacing any other treatment a child may be getting, such as remedial
education.  “I’m here to enhance, and complement any other help the child is getting. The aim of this therapy is to
facilitate learning, and improve confidence.”

Sophie Kelly is nine years old and has just completed the therapy programme with Losty. Her mother Amanda says
the changes in her daughter are amazing. “Sophie had ear infections constantly from the age of three months, and was
always in and out of hospital as a baby.   Her hearing was very badly affected and therefore so was her speech. She
didn’t speak until she was five years old, so school was greatly affected. Sophie went to a special school for a couple of
years before moving into mainstream education two years ago.”

Because of the problem with her ears, Sophie’s balance and co-ordination were affected. “She used to fall a lot when she
was younger, and she skipped the crawling stage, which I now realise is common in many kids with learning
difficulties,” says Amanda.  “When Sophie started the therapy, she couldn’t do any of the exercises without falling
over.” Three months later Sophie is now perfectly poised, balanced, and co-ordinated, and has even started doing
gymnastics.

But there are other benefits too.  “Her confidence has greatly increased,” says Amanda, “and she is much more content
in herself. She is sleeping much better, and homework time is reduced because she has better comprehension of what to
do and better concentration.  Her spelling, reading and writing have all improved, also cutting down on homework time.”

Losty is encouraged by the results she’s seen with children like Sophie, and says the feedback from other parents
indicates similar benefits.

The benefits of co-ordination exercises have also been discovered by an unlikely source - Nasa.  Astronauts returning
from the zero gravity atmosphere of space experiences postural and eye control problems not unlike dyslexic children.
NASA developed computerised balance tests and exercises to improve this temporary lack of stability and co-
ordination, and a clinic in Warwickshire, England is currently using these techniques to help children with dyslexia and
other learning difficulties.

The theory is that the astronauts suffer a temporary signalling disruption in the part of the brain controlling co-
ordination, and the exercises help the brain `re-learn’ to signal properly. For children with dyslexia and learning
difficulties, the brain may be developing these signal pathways for the first time. The centre in Warwickshire is so
enthusiastic about its results so far, it is predicting that within 10 years, dyslexia in the young may be a thing of the
past, and a rigorous evaluation of the therapy is now underway.

For Katie Losty, this research convinces her further of the value of her own therapy, and her ultimate goal is to train
others in the techniques. “The results I’ve seen so far are very encouraging, and although it’s hard to scientifically
quantify the boost it gives to a child’s confidence, it’s  an extremely important effect. Kids with learning behavioural or
emotional difficulties are really on a downward spiral. They can’t do homework, all behind in school, and their
relationships with friends are affected. It’s a vicious circle that has a huge impact on their future lives. With this therapy
you see the spiral coming backup again.


Articles