Monday, 24 February 2014

ADHD, body and mind, and...sugar

What is ADHD? Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder - an amalgamation of attention deficit issues and hyperactivity.

Children - and adults - who are deemed ADD/ADHD are impulsive, hyperactive, and fail to pay attention for a long time. Its prevalence is growing affecting around 1.3% of children in the UK.

The condition causes its sufferers to become easily distracted often with a short attention span. Children with ADHD may also find it difficult to interact and play with other children as they don't exhibit safety awareness or courtesy when it comes to taking turns and often become aggressive. ADHD is directly associated with school failure, exclusion and poor future prospects. Counselling Directory UK

This commentary is not about the very small minority who present extreme symptoms and whose condition may be neurological (something chiropractors/osteopaths are often good at dealing with, especially when the child had a traumatic birth or who has suffered whiplash injuries affecting the spinal column, notably around the cervical vertebrae or to the cranium itself).

This commentary is about the 'normal' children who fall into being labelled as ADD/ADHD - children who have difficulty settling down 24/7, around the clock, not just sporadic bursts of hyperactivity which we all get at times.

Behavioural problems are certainly evident - they're not made up and can be stressful for parents and teachers. The cause - as with most illnesses and stresses - is not a single thing but there certainly are issues that cover the general problem that we as parents, tutors, teachers, coaches, etc. can deal with.

I asked a student once to define ADHD and explain it to me.
Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder...I have trouble concentrating. 
Okay...what about this text book? How long can you read this for?
Oh, about forty minutes, then I lose concentration.
I had to laugh. "My (academic, PhD level) colleagues can't take ten minutes of it, it's so dry!"

In the case of this student, it was her lack of study skills that let her down. Her note taking was unorganised, that's all. That meant that she could not grasp the major themes from the detail and was a bit lost. I taught her to sort out her notes and her marks went from a D to a B rapidly.

Yet someone had told her that she had a label. Ah, rip it off and start again!

Children are not designed to sit still

Some children I've met have a lot of energy. They're fit and healthy and bounce around and want to run all day and climb trees and play tag and chase each other. Quite normal. But then our schools expect them to conform and sit down behind a desk and concentrate on tasks non-physical. Is it surprising that the teachers' favourite kids tend to be the well behaved? I.e., those who have conformed and sat quietly for most of the term doing the work the teachers set. We expect that all the kids settle and conform, but we should be asking ourselves are we not asking the wrong thing of our children and thereby comparing the unsettled, energetic children on a false hypothesis?

Such children usually do not have a problem settling down to work on what they enjoy or do school work in a very quiet setting without distractions.

Indeed, there may be something to say for individual desks in rows and a commanding teacher who insists on quiet, focused attention. Some may struggle anyway, as being behind a desk is not natural to our evolved notions of motion and energy deployment, but in an environment that has an enforced quietude all pupils have a chance of getting on with concentration without their neighbour chatting away about what he or she did on the weekend: enough to drive any adult to distraction - and our kids are much less trained than we are in coping with external distraction and noise!

But there is also the issue of having children be quiet and still when it runs against our drive to act.
Again, we maybe labelling what is really natural as something unnatural or wrong merely from a desire to have children conform to the expectations of the classroom and school.

Wherein lies the value of conformity? There are many great values - leadership, innovation, creativity, energy, musicality, well as the core values of honesty, integrity, sincerity, generosity, kindness, discipline, and so on. But with children who can't sit still, it's not these values that are respected.

A very temporary student, aged 8 or 9, of mine (whom parents and I agreed was not ready for tuition...) had a very low ability to sit and concentrate for a few minutes. We managed 8 minutes I think but what was the point? Watching him run around with such an excess of energy was a delight in itself - and his humour and infectious smile will take him further in life than being a conformist. His skills lay with his hands and I was pleased to hear that he worked with his father a lot (a landscaper). A lesser mind may have diagnosed 'ADHD' and 'your kid needs to be on ritalin...' Gee.

The adult who looks at an energetic child and feels tired needs to change their perspective. Energy and the inability to conform to a desk job is not a bad things. We all calm down eventually but there's no rush to calm down as it were: we should instead be viewing children's energy as a source of joy and pleasure!

When we expect them to "calm down" and "behave" and be more sedentary we're imposing false strictures that can eventually repress their natural inclination to run around and be a kid.

On the other hand, is the child a victim of biochemical or environmental issues that debilitate him or her from concentrating at any task?

I have a few books on ADHD which give tips on dealing with the symptoms of the disorder rather than with the causes. The causes are wafted away as if they were an irritant or irrelevant. Because if you are in business to deal with the symptoms (a) you will find may symptoms that fit your bill (b) if you've got the taxpayers' credit card, you can always get more money for your corner by pitching a clever marketing campaign (lobbying for funds) by finding more clients and (c) by dealing with the symptoms and the causes, your clients will never get better. More worringly:

ADHD diagnosis is often made on the subjective observations of teachers or guardians, based on signs that nearly every child will display at some point. Aggravating factors, such as diet or home environment, are oftentimes overlooked entirely. - Dr Mercola

It is more economical, ethical, and rewarding (all in one) to aim for the causes of a problem than the symptoms. Sure, some symptom based procedures are highly applicable such as adjusting the pace of teaching or the media used (which in a one-to-one setting happens naturally - we know, as tutors, when the child's attention drifts and we can either encourage the stretch - that extra minute of focused work to train them to concentrate further, or change to a different task to rest the fatigued part of their brain. We see great results working one to one, because we and they can adjust and grow.)

But let's review some of the causes that can be easily adjusted in people's lives by looking at the body and the mind.

Body and Mind

If your body's under serious attack from toxins, if your gut is struggling to brain will suffer. The brain is the body is the brain - this is the view of integrative medicine which is finally catching up with what complementary therapists have been saying for centuries - what happens in and around your body will affect how you think ... and vice versa.

For most of the modern period, western medicine - fantastic at surgery - has tended to compartmentalise the body, so severing the brain from the physiology of the body. The blood-brain barrier has led many medical thinkers to decapitate the mind from the workings of the body and to dismiss the impact of diet on thinking or thinking on health. Yet when we think of pain, we can create pain; when we think of humorous things, we can laugh ... the placebo and nocebo effects baffle materialists who have forgotten that the mind is intricately embedded in the body, yet for those of us who take a more holistic or integrative approach, there is no mystery.

If you think you can't concentrate. Guess what, you're telling your body, "I'm the kind of person who cannot concentrate ... I just can't do it ... see what I mean?"

Think differently and you'll get a different result.

But now let's focus on the corporeal side of life and what bio-chemical factors may be hindering a person's ability to concentrate.


Probably the number one cause of erratic thinking and physiology - something that can be changed in a minute. CUT THE SUGAR!

Sugar does not just mean white process stuff you put in your tea or the horrid fizzy drinks or so-called energy drinks (read the label!)...sugar also means carbohydrates - bread, pasta, cereals, rice are all carbohydrates which raise insulin levels which in turn can cause hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar (because you've spiked the sugar levels in your body for a few minutes, they're going to come plummeting down): this can cause irritability, anxiety, and ... a lack of concentration.

Many adults go to work on a bowl of cereal (maybe with toast, orange juice, jam... yep, sugars!). Think about the adverts of the ideal home with the cereal bowl out and milk ready to pour - then wonder why they are hungry by 11am and need to grab a muffin (more sugar!) with a coffee (to keep awake as the pancreas works overtime) with perhaps a dash of sugar (or worse, an artificial nerve agent called a sweetener....very Orwellian marketing). Lunch? A sandwich with a chocolate bar...more sugar. Then a pasta (sugar) dinner with sauce (spot the sugar in the sauce)...

While adults may store the sugar in a higher than needed fat deposit around the body, children may just need to run around to burn off the extra carbohydrates flooding their body. Not going to do that well by sitting down!

Review the Standard American Diet (which is the same as ours and Europeans to some extent or less, but the abbreviation for the American kind is more obvious: SAD).

SUGAR, SUGAR, far as the eye can see.

The first thing to help perennially inattentive children is to look at their diet and to remove all sugars. Yep, they'll crave it...they'll demand it! They're addicted, you see.

John Yudkin was one of the first to outline the dangers of sugar in the 1970s. More recently, Candace Pert, a woman who just missed the nobel prize in chemistry, argues that sugar should be classified as a class-A drug, because it is so addictive.

Read labels - you'll be amazed what you'll find sugar in. It's in salad dressing for heaven's sake! Olive oil, bit of vinegar, herbs...and sugar.

So the first thing to tackle is high sugar level products and to change your thinking about what you're putting into your own and your children's bodies.

When I take my children around the supermarket I point out the names of the aisles: that's the diabetes alley (fizzy drinks), that's the dead food alley (crisps and sugary snacks), that's chemical alley...industrial cleaners for the home (which then bleed into the water table, rivers, and seas - ever want to see an effect of that? Look up 'the Mississippi dead zone').

Provocative thought - not of my making this time:

As explained by The Sons of Liberty host Bradlee Dean, who also writes for The D.C. Clothesline, ADHD was merely a theory developed by Eisenberg. It was never actually proven to exist as a verifiable disease, despite the fact that Eisenberg and many others profited handsomely from its widespread diagnosis. And modern psychiatry continues to profit as well, helping also to fill the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry by getting children addicted early to dangerous psychostimulant drugs like Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Adderall (amphetamine, dextroamphetamine mixed salts).

"ADHD is fraud intended to justify starting children on a life of drug addiction," said Dr. Edward C. Hamlyn, a founding member of the Royal College of General Practitioners, back in 1998 about the phony condition. Adding to this sentiment, psychiatrists Peter Breggin and Sami Timimi, both of whom oppose pathologizing the symptoms of ADHD, say that ADHD is more of a social construct than it is an objective "disorder."

Learn more:
Certainly that puts us in a spin...yet we still have to deal with behaviour hyperactivity and inattentiveness. So rather than put our children on pills (many of my pupils have come to me on heavy duty drugs which then affect their sleeping habits, so they need another pill...the drugs begin to affect their liver and hormones) look first and foremost at their DIET. Then I'd look at cranial-cervical issues before moving onto other environmental factors. Do your research, avoid the drugs except in dire medical emergencies (all medical products have a role).

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Why do teenagers use fillers? Like, uh, dunno, like, uh...

Like ... know...they kind of do.

Where does such behaviour come from?

Many language experts - who follow the use of language - explain that fillers are used by people (of all ages) to provide a pause while they are collecting their next thought. Such experts tend to be quite tolerant and egalitarian of teenagers' deployment of fillers in their speech. For them, it's all part of life's wonderful tapestry, and, implicitly or explicitly, we should not judge people for their use of fillers.

Others find the fillers annoying. To add in words such as 'like' and 'innit' into sentences grates on their aesthetic nerves: the use of ums and ahs by adults similarly demotes the speaker in the ears of the listener (or rattling change in the pocket while lecturing or public speaking!).

The egalitarian view - tolerant though it may be of people struggling to put a sentence together - is more indicative of linguistic nihilism, the belief that no greater value can be put on sounding educated compared to sounding uneducated. A true nihilist denies that there can be value in anything, so I may be exaggerating the claim here, for a linguistic nihilist would logically not be able to reject an ungrammatical sentence such as 'the sat on the cat mat'?

I had an infuriating conversation with a supposed epistemic subjectivist/nihilist once who insisted that 2+2 = 4 because "that's how you see it, and my opinion that it may be 5 is just as valid." Crikey, where to start with such a muddlehead...(you often find them at philosophy conferences by the way, usually postgraduates who have read that nothing can have any meaning and then run with the theory) I offered to pour her milk into her coffee, which she gladly accepted. "So you agree that I've just poured milk into your coffee?" I asked her, swiftly refuting her attempt to annihilate everything into meaningless statements. She blushed. (I've a PhD in philosophy by the way - and I'm quite sure that there are values and meanings out there!)

Back to language.

The acceptance of fillers encourages a demeaning of education and of the greater conversation that the mind is capable. It is analogous to accepting scribbles for finished artwork or belches for humour.

We all struggle to find the most appropriate word for our ideas, but that struggle should be taking place in the higher reaches of our cultural-linguistic ability, not in the realm of the most basic.

"You know, I kinda like, um, this sort of music, y'know, like, uh, duh, like ..."


Hesitation, mental preparation, forestalling, nervousness - there's a few excuses for um-ing and ah-ing and like-ing and y'know-ing, but they all come down to a mental laziness, a low vocabulary, and an acceptance of low values. Or with an older person, a refusal to think before speaking.

I've had pupils who used fillers. They have tended to be the ones who watch a lot of tv. So I keep a tally of their use and show them how many times they use the word like while speaking. They are often shocked! We then proceed - always with their permission - to see if they can reduce the number that they use. (I do point out that if they are in a job interview and their response is replete with fillers, they are not likely to get the position over someone who can speak fluently).

It has nothing to do with intelligence or academic ability either. It's all about whether the speaker accepts poor communication as being acceptable or not. Accepting poor communication is essentially saying that the speaker does not care about what he or she says.

Now the reasons as to why that may be the case could be many and deeply embedded, but the speaker  is in control of what he or she says. She can decided that the next utterance will not have any fillers. She can work on avoiding the fillers by just focusing a little on what she is saying and how she is saying it. I've turned pupils around very quickly with minor interventions. Adults who um and ah, can also change how they speak with a little training.

Training, as the Romans knew, can improve anything.

If we are truly stumbling for the words to express our thoughts, some suggest remaining silent until the word comes. Well, that doesn't help if you have an idea but no word for it in your vocabulary - far better to ask for help! Otherwise, try an alternative path of words to help communicate the idea. Pen and paper are often fantastic media for communicating ideas - draw. Or dance, as one of my pupils may note.

Egalitarianism - the idea that one person should count for one person and no more than one person - constitutes the political and legal underpinning of civilisation. However, that does not imply that all words are equal, that all deeds are equal, that all speeches are equal.

Would Lincoln have been remembered for this speech:

"Right, you know, um, it was sort of a long time ago, like, that our umm, fathers helped build, you know, this nation like. It was um made in liberty, like, y'know, and ah, dedicated, sort of, like, to the idea that, y'know, all men, like, are like created like equal like."

Or Winston Churchill:

"We will like you know um fight them on the beaches sort of..."

If you use fillers. Stop yourself. Just slap your hand or put a 5p in a pot every time you utter one. Think before you speak and remain silent if you've nothing to say. Then go and read some books and find something to say. Expand your vocabulary.

As Funk and Lewis say in 30 Days to a a New Powerful Vocabulary, "your boss has a bigger vocabulary than you." There's a lot in that. Lazy thinking doesn't lend itself to getting on in life. The philosopher Wittgenstein reminded us that our world is constrained by our vocabulary - so, the smaller our vocabulary, the smaller our world. Imagine that.

I love civilisation and as a philosopher, political thinker, writer, and educationalist, I'm sensitive to the intellectual trends that demean civilisation: when our minds cannot grasp higher thought, when we tolerate inconsistent thinking and blurred communication, we are looking at our demise: so stand up for the civil order, improve your mind and your child's - accept not lazy speech.

Our children and our children's children will be proud that we stood up for values rather than let them slide into a linguistic cesspit.

Recommended texts - if you want to think better and wider, Nagel's succinct introduction to philosophy is hard to beat. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Dyslexia...stress and labelling

Some academics dismiss dyslexia.

That seems silly.

Of course some people struggle to read and to learn.

But then some people struggle to sing a note, throw a ball, lift a weight properly, run a mile, draw a tree, drive a car, do mental maths ...We all have weaknesses and strengths.

However, when the skill is a vital one for engaging in commercial and social intercourse, the weakness requires attention and support. What that support constitutes can only be individually oriented - what one person learns from, another may not. But that is true of all of us at different times of our life, or even at different times of day.

I've garnered some feedback from parents and clients on what dyslexia means to them and it is interesting to review some of the key features identified. Most focus on the decoding of text but others also focus on decoding the world around them.

As a label, the term dyslexia means a disorder involving a difficulty in reading or interpreting words or other symbols. That's all. A difficulty in reading and interpreting. How we view the world or how we learn about something (dates, people's names, theories, plots in stories) is not the subject of dyslexia, which just describes an inability to read. If a person learns or describes a situation differently from another, that is what we call a cognitive issue. Philosophers have been dealing with such issues for centuries and have generally recognised that how you see an event can differ from how I see it: although the event objectively happened - our interpretation or recollection of it can differ.

Accordingly, how we learn things may have a unique twist. Within the remit of attempting to learn is the attempt to decode words and symbols - the struggle that dyslexics face. For some this creates a lack of confidence in learning anything or a series of coping strategies to learn about other aspects of life, and so the dyslexia becomes holistically impeding. Others claim that the 'handicap' in decoding words encourages other skills and intelligences to come to the fore (recall Gardner's multiple intelligence theory) which then compensate for the relative weakness in reading and spelling.

The symptoms of poor reading or cognition can be broad from mild to strong. But as a tutor working on a one-to-one basis, I am keen to get to the root causes of people's weaknesses and to encourage an improvement in their reading/writing/spelling/comprehension skills. I do not believe that any symptom cannot be improved upon.

One person reads capably when a coloured film is placed over the text, another when the line they are reading is singled out, another when they use their finger or pen to follow the words. There are similarities in the struggle, but are they sufficiently different because they demand different interventions? Some with dyslexic symptoms see their abilities improve when they engage in robust physical activity or actions requiring the use of increasingly fine motor skills, which then help train the eye muscles to work better. Others learn how to circumnavigate the difficulty with personally evolved coping strategies. Others fare better when they read out loud and then engage aural as well as visual skills... Many strategies may evolve to cope and to improve.

But then again, that's what 'normal readers' do when reading.

'Normal' readers (i.e., those showing no apparent difficulty in reading - and I would emphasise the word apparent there) have to train their eyes to follow the text, have to decipher the codes - the words and their associated meanings, and train themselves to focus on what is front of them. Some are better than others: I can read most passages swiftly and pull out the salient points and associations...until I read Kant, then I struggle, and Hegel, well, I weep. For others, their limit may be literarily lower of course. Our inability to decode may be relative across literature: one person struggles with Dickens while another struggles with a children's book. And again, such weaknesses are relative across subjects: someone else who struggles to read a literary passage and retain its meaning may easily understand and replicate a passage of music better than I, or to recall a speech better than I ever could without copious note taking.

As a relative or absolute weakness in the ability to proceed confidently, we should be keen to help.  Most difficulties can be surmounted to some extent or less - I can learn to swim faster, but I may not make the British team. We all have limits and some people's limits are different from others; what I am also concerned about is when the term is used a label that implicitly means not just a relative weakness but an inability to improve. 

As a label  dyslexia can be very powerful psychologically if it implies an absolute inability.

We all have limits and some people's limits are different from others. But when a label is cast into the learning pot, troublesome consequences may ensure, most notably the belief that there can be no improvement, that the label implies a comparison with others and thereby creates stress. All may result in a lack of motivation to improve.

The Brain is Plastic

Firstly, the brain is plastic. Neuroscientists are realising that our understanding of the brain as a fixed hardware is outdated - the brain shows immense plasticity and when exercised in tasks it 'grows' in the appropriate areas. That means that someone who is cognitively weak in an area can improve. They are not condemned to a life of relative or absolute inability. Cerebral nerves do regenerate and new indirect pathways can be formed where there has been damage even.

This implies that a relative weakness can be improved upon and not be allowed to remain at a low level. The overriding condition, I would add, is that there needs to be a motivation to improve. Now that is an awkward one: if there's no motivation to improve on reading and writing skills, why should the child exercise that area of his or her cognition? If I see no reason to play golf, I have no incentive to pop outside to hit a few balls. Some may see the analogy as frivolous but it's not: a child may see reading as frivolous and a chore or something they "just don't get." Their dyslexia reflects not a cognitive issue dependent on the right neurone firing as it were but a complete lack of a desire to improve or exercise their mind in that direction.

In my practice, I have often found this to be the major cause in students' relative inability in this area: they tell me - 'oh, I can just write it on the computer and it'll correct it for me' (i.e., no desire to improve as the machine will do it); 'I'm just not interested in why which is spelled w-h-i-c-h and witch is spelled w-i-t-c-h. How does it relate to my goals and life?' Or 'I find this completely boring. Why do I need to read a book when I can watch the DVD.'

Where there is no will to learn, there cannot be any improvement. We may cajole and insist on how important the skill is for their future development, job prospects and being a member of an advanced civilisation, but until the need hits home why exercise the faculty? One of my old pupils expressed his frustration in a recent employment test that left him feeling a 'prat': it was the first time his dyslexia had hit him. He's at university so he's no academic right off but it was an interesting comment - until that day (last week), he'd not really been bothered by it. So why work on the implied thought.

The lack of motivation is not to be underestimated.

As adults, we don't rush into things we're not interested in. Why would we? The key for our younger members of society is to dig deeper and find out why they may not be interested.

While the reasons can be legion, think of the distractions that young people grow up with today.

How does reading relate to the child? It's a chore, it's boring. I hear that a lot. I translate the word boring to difficult and try to find out why it is difficult.

Oh, I'm dyslexic. How often do you practice? Not often. Well, there you go. If you practised more, do you think you'd improve. I guess so.

Now how we should practise is another issue.

But again, I've been to many people's houses when I used to do home visits to help young people struggling to read/write/spell and the environment is instructive. You walk in and are confronted with a wide screen tv, a games console next to books, a tv in the kid's bedroom you hear, no books...mum and dad come home from work and invest several hours an evening in passive screen time. And little Rob's 'dyslexic' and gets extra help at school... Not surprised. Is he really suffering from a cognitive distortion here, or merely has not environmental support at home? Think about it - what's the first thing your kids see when they come home and then consider that people generally are keen on the path of least resistance. Reading is a skill that requires effort, patience, perseverance, and continued effort. If we remove the environmental impediments of easy tv, Sky subscription, a DVD collection at hand, games consoles and electronic doodads all around, and then replace them with books of all levels and subjects, we may create a more fertile environment for our children's reading abilities to thrive.

If you poison the spring, you'll poison the body.

The Role of Stress

Secondly, comparing children's performance is greatly injurious to their confidence, and if self-confidence collapses or is harmed, the resulting stress impairs cognitive function. Psychologists have known this for decades and continue to find the same results when they test people under stressful conditions.

A serious source of comparing is school targets and parental comparisons. Which came first does not matter. Both are destructive.

School can be emotionally painful on many levels for pupils and then they are expected to be performing in tasks not of their choosing or liking - a stressful environment at school is not conducive to learning at all. It need not be like that but for many it is - a subtle comparison with other pupils is made or, usually, an explicit comparison that 'you child is not doing as well as he/she should...'

Schools often insist on meeting certain targets...why? Because they are funded and must be accountable to either the government or to parents. Targets are not inevitable and do keep our schools somewhat accountable, but they are rarely related to the individual. I've met many students who 'don't like reading or writing,' who, when asked a series of questions, refer back to the pain of early years education - of having to read or having to write. The early pain holds them back later: too much, too soon has long lasting consequences for many who are turned off literacy. If they come to reading of their own accord, much of the stress can be avoided. If no comparisons are made, then the stress can be avoided too - does it matter that Johnny read quicker than Lizzie? Do we make such comparison when a pupil learns musical scales or draws a portrait? No. Imagine if we did. 'Now, Mrs Jones, you're William is not keeping up in portrait class. He's scoring a D and this will seriously impede his academic future...' If we wait for William's enthusiasm to spark, there may be no stopping the lad when he starts, but if we try to force it, we are creating problems.

But, you say, they need to be able to read and write, and as a champion of the civilised peaceful order of modern society I wholeheartedly agree. But when do they need to gain this skill? Does it matter if Sarah reads at six while David becomes fluent at ten? (Or that Eliza passes grade five piano at fourteen, but Edward passed it when he was eight?) What's the rush?

When a child is motivated, he or she will improve. Their brain is exercised just as a muscle is exercised. (We know that London taxi drivers learning The Knowledge experience an increase in the size of their hippocampus.) When motivation is lacking, we have a problem deeper than the shallowness of dyslexic symptoms.

Comparing creates stress: it makes us feel that we're not up to it. And children naturally magnify their emotions ... they may repress them creating other cognitive distortions. Becoming fearful, the very act of exercising their mind is stressful and under stress it becomes harder to think.


Loud enough?

When we're stressed (and not trained to deal with it), our cognitive functions are impaired. This is, in my opinion, another great part of the issue surrounding dyslexic symptoms: a fear of not attaining some reading level according to some scheme...a pressure to get things right...a pressure of peers or siblings or parental desires...I see much damage done by 'times table' knock outs that primary school children do - they have to stand up in front of their peers, and if they get one wrong, they sit back down, humiliated. Guess what? Most of these kids suffer from maths stress later on that some call dyscalculia.

Stress in turn demotivates. We then take the path of least resistance and avoid the pain involved. Not surprising really. Listen to any adult as to why they don't exercise, improve language or art skills, business acumen, and you get an insight into why many children don't see a need to learn X or to practise it regularly. We then force them for their own good...we tell them...yet we avoid doing the things that we find a chore. Kids smell hypocrisy quite quickly.

Many parents with dyslexic symptoms I have spoken to express their sheer fear of reading and cast in the term dyslexia to explain their inability, an inability that often went unnoticed and therefore caused more pain and stress in their youth.

Fear creates stress.

Take the stress away and funnily enough, we think better. We calm our cerebral cortex down so it stops listening to the primordial response of flight/fight/freeze ... and allows us to learn. When we are relaxed or having fun, we learn quicker.

When we are trying to perform against others - unless we are trained to do so like a performer or athlete - stress is inevitable and a decline in mental functioning is thus inevitable. Then out comes the label and the poor child or adult is saddled with the assumption that they can never improve.

An adult teacher or parent complains that a child is poor at mental math - I quickly throw in: ok, ten seconds, what is six times seven, divide your answer by two and take three and a quarter. It's instructive to see the reaction. Their brain goes into panic mode. Panic closes the free learning required to solve the problem. Panic is primordial and does not need the luxury of higher level of thinking.

Is all dyslexia related to stress? After removing the distractions of the paths of least resistance and the lack of motivation to improve (an ideal situation perhaps), personally, I think much of it is. We can never know how someone else's mind actually works internally - what pathways they create to read or calculate or remember facts or learn new ideas. But we can certainly see the effects of stress on children's performance:  Moira and I see it when children are playing the piano and have 'to perform' for mum/dad/sibling...if they're not ready and not trained in performing, the stress is palpable. The performance is stiff and they often give up piano.

No big deal, you may say...piano's a luxury. Hmm, but children will similarly give up reading, numeracy, history, art...if there's stress involved.

The pain for people showing dyslexic symptoms is certainly real and not to be dismissed. When we are stressed, we do not perform well until our actions have been internalised and we can perform under any conditions. That's what basic drill in the army is all about - drill until you can do the task without thought; that's what happens when we learn to drive - we internalise the skill. That's what we want when it comes to reading ... but if a child is caught up in stress and cannot think, a vicious cycle is created that requires a lot of patience and love and care to help them through it. Stress kills motivation and creates mental blocks. Mental blocks create frustration and stress and so it goes on until the cycle is broken.

Where there is a struggle, there is a struggle: and that, when appropriate and harnessed to a motivation to succeed or to improve, needs our attention (and relevant professional intervention) whatever the subject or skill.

If your child isn't reading as much - ask, according to what scale, or what social comparisons are being made...but also look carefully at what is attracting your child's attention: tv, games console, iPhone, iPad...

Read to them instead of worrying that they're not doing their three pages a night. (A bit like asking us to fill in a tax return nightly...stressful! Unless you're an accountant trained and motivated and passionate about it...)

Don't compare. Don't let others compare. Don't use any labels. See a relative weakness as an opportunity to work harder and learn more. Every weakness is an opportunity.

It can take several years to master a skill. Does it matter if some children take longer? If you think so, why do you think so? On what grounds and standards are we measuring performance?

There are some excellent resources for helping dyslexic symptoms which I have used in my practice, but really the best we can do is be patientencourage a reading culture around us by pulling the plug on all screen time stuff, leave books about, be patient even more, don't compare, and oh, and keep the kids off sugar!

Let's finish with Einstein: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

Resources I use that have been incredibly helpful with pupils of all ages:

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Selective Attention - when we look do we really see what is there?

As a philosopher and a tutor engaged in working with forty students or so of differing abilities, I am interested in how we look at things as well as how we may help people.

Close your eyes and think of the colour blue.

When you open them, psychologists tell us - and you can test this on yourself - you will see many incidences of blue in your environment. It is as if the blue things suddenly leap up for our attention, waving little flags to our consciousness.

You can try this for yourself with varying objects. You buy a green sports car - and then you spot them all over the place. You are interested in an empty shop for your business, and when your attention turns to do a reccy, there they are. All waiting for you - been there all along.

But it's not just physical entities we see more of when we turn our attention their way: it's also qualitative aspects - red is a quality, so too is anger or frustration. In the 1930s, American psychiatrists began exploring schizophrenia and to their delight (perhaps...), the numbers of schizophrenics found in their institutions jumped over the next two decades. However, UK institutions reported a similar percentage of patients displaying the symptoms, which leads to a debate (our A-level psychology students have to note) about what was going on: did more Americans become schizophrenic over the following twenty years, or were the doctors becoming selectively attentive and therefore found it in more people? At the same time, incidentally, the Yanks were hunting commies in all areas of life, and, tragically for the victims, finding them.

The problem.

Is it the case that when we're looking, we begin to fit more individuals into the category we're using, because we now know what we are looking for?

Or is it the case that we are squashing them in to our worldview as it were - seeing things that are not 'really' there but which fit out criteria?

(One of my teachers says, regarding stock market investments, if you do not see the set up for the trade in the first few seconds, then it isn't there - if you keep looking, you will see things that are not there, and you'll lose money. Yep, been there!)

This is what psychologists call selective attention: we can point to X and say, X! and you'll look, then look harder, and say, ah, that's what you mean by X! I really do see it!

I can show you a series of random dots and say, do you see the fox therein? And suddenly, you see the fox! Just as we see the plough in ursa major, or the face of the man in the moon. We find patterns...we make patterns. Illusions are a great way of examining our ability to perceive one thing and then another - or just be thoroughly bemused by what we see (as in the work of Escher).

If we look hard enough we begin to see. Or we look hard enough and we miss other things.

But then again, we often miss other things - if you've not seen this and related videos, check it out.

The provocation?

But that doesn't mean to say that what we are 'seeing' does exist.

Let that sink in.

Humans have often mistaken the world around them because of their thinking (think of ideological or religious crusades).

That's what the psychology of selective analysis about. It's not just about focusing on what exists, it's about seeing things that don't exist and about not seeing things that do exist (or change).

The misuse of knowledge has created witch hunts in our history (Cf: Monty Python's "She's a witch sketch!") and condemned millions to racial or gender or national stereotyping. And where has that got us but war and tension?

Turning to educational matters...

If I am told to look for patterns in children's academic behaviour, I will find them. If I am paid to find patterns in children's academic behaviour, I will be sure to justify my salary and find more instances...

I meet plenty of students who have been labelled as suffering from some form of dys-function, but
I prefer not to read teachers' reports unless there is something 'big' going on that we can help the student with. I prefer to withhold labelling until I balance the evidence and start looking for clues. Doctors - perhaps some should be reminded - are first and foremost teachers: that is what 'doctor' means - and that the first rule of medicine is first do nothing. Do not rush in with a label, that is. Hippocrates knew what harm it could cause.

This does not mean that we do not search, or avoid trying to guide our thinking and observations. For instance, currently, I'm clocking the use of printed writing and the correlation with poor spelling.

My interest comes from a theory that using cursive writing helps iron out many spelling issues. I like the theory, so I have a disposition to find what I'm looking for, which means that I am likely to reject the contradictions - no, he doesn't fit the bill, but this one! Ahah! Poor spelling and a printer of letters - gotcha!

Knowing the human disposition to see things that are not there, I am aware that I may be ignoring cases of pupils who can spell perfectly well but who struggle to join up their letters. So I have to maintain a sceptical vigilance and look for the outliers as well as those who 'fit' the thesis. Ultimately, though, I'm keen to help students improve their spelling - to take note of their errors and to make corrections.

But this informal research I'm conducting is motivated by a deeper and more controversial issue: what is the nature o f dyslexia? I could transplant other syndromes the modern educational world has cast our way to focus our concerns - ADHD, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, etc. The phenomena differ, but how we look at the issue can to some extent be predetermined by the patterns we're looking for, by what we're told to look for. And we need to guard ourselves against taking the easy path - symptom, diagnose, prescription...but if the symptom creates a debilitating label that assumes the mind is incapable of change, we may be causing harm.

I'm gathering more thoughts on dyslexia for the next article - any comments very welcome!

Meanwhile, here are some excellent resources to help those struggling with spelling and reading issues: