We used to believe that motor skills developed in a very linear fashion and that most movements were pre-programmed in the brain. Now we know that the brain constantly shapes our movements, before, during and after they occur, so that we can be successful in all our tasks. We also know that motor skills are based on processing of sensory information: muscles, vision, hearing, vestibular and proprioception all combine to inform the brain about movement. In some children with motor challenges however, the brain may not process this information as efficiently and this leads to difficulties with posture, balance and motor skills. But there are ways to help. Here are some practical suggestions:
1. CALM THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Increased stress/anxiety interferes with the “just right state” for learning motor skills. Strategies to calm the nervous system include:
Umbrella breathing: have the child sit or lay in a comfortable position. Encourage them to take a deep breathe, expanding the sides of their lower rib cage (more than their upper chest or belly). Let them breathe in and out easily, relaxing with the breath. The iPod/iPad apps iBreatheFire and Balloonimals are fun for helping kids with a bigger breath out (that means they had to take a better breath in!).
Imagery: Develop a very short story using an image that is calming for the child. Make the story multi-sensory; feel the warmth of the sun on your face, the squish of the sand under your feet etc. Re-tell the same story periodically and pair it with umbrella breathing for a calming effect.
2. SUPPORT THE VESTIBULAR SYSTEM
The vestibular system is a powerhouse of the brain. It assists in emotional self-regulation, anti-gravity muscle tone, central stability of the body, visual tracking and balance. Difficulties with the vestibular system are common in children with motor challenges. We can help to prepare for balance and motor skills by providing input to the vestibular system prior to movement.
Linear movements: large and small movements forward/back, side to side or up/down stimulate part of the vestibular system that is associated with muscle tone. Running, swaying, or even head nodding/shaking can prepare the body for movement.
3. OPTIMIZE VISUAL INPUT
We’ve just talked about vestibular input but also visual input has a huge impact on balance and movement. We use vision as our primary sense for balance until age 6 and many children with motor difficulties continue to use this sense as a primary source of information. However they may also have difficulty using their eyes together and may also not be able to process visual information well. Colour changes what information reaches the brain from the eyes. Some children can benefit from using colour to enhance the visual information available during balance and movement tasks.
Coloured glasses: these are available in a rainbow of colours. You can find them on the internet (www.colorglasses.com gives you a range of options) but you can also often find some colours at your local dollar store. Experiment with what colour your child likes. Children who are sensitive to bright light tend to prefer the blue/purple end of the colour spectrum and children who are sensitive to visual input in general tend to prefer the red spectrum. The child can use these glasses when learning a task to assist with processing visual information for balance and when dealing with moving objects (throwing and catching balls).
4. INCREASE CORE STRATEGY
Many people talk about core muscles however our understanding of core stability has progressed a great deal in the past few years. We now understand that 4 inner core muscles are wired to work as a team before movement begins; they prepare a stable trunk for all movements. One of these muscles is the breathing/respiratory diaphragm. When children don’t have a stable center they substitute breath holding to create stability.
“Blow before you go”: using the breath to support central stability is key. Cue the child to take a breath in and then begin to blow out before they start to move. In this way, they are helping the body to use the inner core muscles for central stability rather than compensating with breath holding.
5. PROBLEM SOLVING PROMOTES LEARNING
Engaging more areas of the brain in the learning of a motor task assists with processing of more information. Asking questions rather than giving solutions promotes this process.
Ask open-ended questions when learning motor skills: rather than providing solutions (“let’s try it this way”), ask questions that help the child think through the skill and consider the pieces that can be changed (“did the ball go where you wanted it to?”, “how did standing on one foot feel?”, “what could we change to see if that could work better for you?”).
Multi-sensory input movement usually works best, because this is how the brain is meant to function. The key to success is finding the combination of inputs that works for each child as they learn about their posture, balance and movement.
For more information about Shelley, Physical Therapy for children with motor challenges or workshops for professionals, visit Shelley at www.heartspacept.com
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