Releasing Intelligence through Movement
Sally Goddard Blythe explains how the body can teach the brain to learn
and how movement develops the potential for academic achievement.
An increasing number of children entering the school system are unable to
sit still, comply with instructions and, in some cases, express themselves
clearly through speech. While there can be many reasons why this increase
seems to be happening, the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology
(INPP) in Chester has concentrated on looking at children's developmental
readiness for learning and has compiled methods of assessment and intervention
that can be used by teachers in school. Intervention involves using a
programme of special physical exercises in school for ten minutes each day.
Movement as the basis for learning
All learning is connected in some way to the control of movement. Reading,
for example, depends on the development of stable eye movements. Writing
involves coordination between the hand and the eyes and copying requires
repeated adjustment of head position and focusing distance. Each one of these
activities taps into a different motor skill and postural ability.
Movement is also an integral component of behaviour. Just to sit still a
child must be able to inhibit movement to maintain stable posture or there
will be a constant need to fidget, squirm and change position. In terms of
social integration, up to 90 per cent of communication is based on the
non-verbal aspects of language such as posture, gesture, eye contact and
tone of voice. Children who have problems in controlling their own bodies
often have difficulty reading the body language of others and respond
inappropriately to social cues. This can antagonise adults as well as making
the child a soft target for teasing and bullying amongst peers.
The ability to remain still depends in part on a well functioning balance
mechanism. Good balance allows us to remain still over a narrow base of
support. When balance is unstable we tend to widen our frame of reference,
if standing, by putting the feet further apart, using our arms to assist
balance or increasing speed or amount of movement. Children can often
compensate for balance problems as long as they can perform at speed but
have difficulty or 'give up' on a task as soon as they are asked to slow
down. These may also be the children who have difficulty sitting still and
Developing posture and coordination
The first lesson in posture begins at birth when a baby experiences the full
force of gravity for the first time. It will take an infant an average of 12
months to develop the muscle tone, balance, and sensory-motor coordination to
stand on his own two feet.
The upright posture is not just an innate ability hardwired into the brain from
conception. It is also the product of countless movement patterns carried out by
the developing child in the first 21 months after conception. Many of these
movements carry within them traces of the movements of our distant evolutionary
ancestors from the fish like movements made in the womb through to crawling
(reptile), creeping (mammal) and 'cruising' (primate) on two feet. Every movement
helps to strengthen connections between the body and the brain. The experience
of movement helps to build the architecture of the brain by strengthening pathways
between nerves and association areas, which eventually provide a stable platform
for coherent perception.
What role does movement play in specific learning difficulties?
- Dyslexia – problems in the direction and sequencing of movement.
- Dyspraxia – difficulties with the visualisation, imitation and
organisation of motor output.
- Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) – difficulty with the
inhibition of movement
- Autistic spectrum disorders – lack of perceptual coherence, resulting
in part from poor sensory motor integration
Reflexes – trailblazers for later development
Many of the movements made in the first months of life are reflexive. Reflexes
are stereotyped responses to specific stimuli and are carried out without
conscious involvement. The first reflexes, known as 'Primitive' reflexes, such
as the infant grasp and sucking reflex, are gradually inhibited by the developing
brain in the first six months of life to be replaced by 'Postural' reflexes.
Postural reflexes provide the basis for unconscious control of posture, balance
and coordination in a gravity-based environment.
If the transition from primitive to postural reflex is not completed in the
first three and a half years of life, the child will experience problems with
balance and coordination. Retained rooting and suck reflexes, for example, can
interfere with the development of clear speech as control of the muscles at the
front of the mouth are affected, and tongue position and swallow pattern remain
immature. Retained grasping reflexes can affect pencil grip when trying to write
because the thumb curls under the fingers when a pen or pencil is placed between
the thumb and forefinger.
Other reflexes connected to the functioning of the balance mechanism affect
specific aspects of learning. The balance mechanism located in each inner ear is
connected to centres in the brain involved in control of the body, eye movements
and the regulation and modulation of motor output. A well functioning balance
mechanism is also necessary for the understanding of a sense of direction The
asymmetrical tonic neck reflex can affect handwriting, horizontal eye movements
and the development of laterality (preferred use of the same side for preferred
hand, foot, eye and ear). The symmetrical tonic neck reflex affects coordination
between the upper and lower halves of the body, is associated with poor muscle
tone and can often be seen in the child who has poor sitting posture and who
tends to slump on the desk when writing.
Under-developed postural reflexes, such as the headrighting reflexes, affect
not only posture and muscle tone but can also impair the development of eye
movements such as convergence and tracking, upon which reading and writing and
even catching a ball depend.
Fit for learning
The developmental movement programme devised at INPP has been designed to
target immature reflexes and correct them by harnessing the movements normally
made by the developing child in the first year of life – the time in development
when the reflexes are naturally integrated. This programme differs from many
other motor training programmes by focusing specifically on the reflex patterns
that precede the acquisition of upright balance and coordination. In other
words, whereas other programmes concentrate on practicing certain motor skills
and balance tasks, and others start at the crawling and creeping stages of
motor development, the INPP programmes spend eight to nine months building into
the brain and the body the motor vocabulary through which all more complex
forms of movement are articulated. While this may not be necessary for all
children, it is beneficial to those children whose reflexes remain immature.
The key to the success of any intervention programme is to tailor it to the
developmental capabilities of the child.
Signs and symptoms of immature reflexes in the classroom
Asymmetrical tonic neck reflex (ATNR)
Symmetrical tonic neck reflex (STNR)
- Writing problems.
- Homolateral patterns of movement when asked to march, walk or skip.
- Writing may change half way across the page or the child may be unwilling
to use the bottom of the page when writing.
- Child may sit or place work at an awkward angle.
- Discrepancy in standard of oral and written work.
- Poor integration in coordination of the two sides of the body.
Tonic labyrinthine reflex (TLR)
- Poor posture and muscle tone.
- Tendency to 'lie' across the desk when writing, to tuck the feet under the
body or to wind them round the chair when sitting.
- 'W' leg position when sitting on the floor.
- Slowness in copying.
- Difficulty catching a ball.
- Messy eating.
- Poor coordination between upper and lower body.
- Difficulty learning to swim.
- Poor balance and muscle tone.
- Poor standing posture.
- Balance related problems, such as a tendency to motion sickness and
- Eye movements necessary for reading may be poorly developed.
- Visual-perceptual problems.
The programme has been in use since 1996 and has been the subject of small
independent research projects in a number of schools. Each school has found a
significant improvement in the children's reflex status following the programme.
Several schools have also carried out controlled trials with a small number of
pupils who were identified as underachieving and who were subsequently found to
have immature reflexes. The studies revealed significant improvement in reflexes
in the experimental groups, compared to control groups following the movement
At Mellor Primary School in Leicester, the reading age of eight to ten year
olds in the experimental group improved by 2.3 years in ten months, compared to
a gain of 1.0 year in the control group. Similar improvements were found at
Knowle CE Primary School in Solihull, where children in the experimental group
made a gain of 14 months in reading compared to eight months in the control
group. Other schools have noted marked improvements in activities, such as
learning to ride a bicycle, kick a ball and sit still, as well as improved
behaviour in the playground.
Changes have also occurred in measures of non-verbal performance. St
Margaret Mary RC Primary School in Carlisle assessed all children using the
'draw a person test' at the beginning and end of the programme. The 'draw a
person test' has been shown to correlate with intelligence tests, as well as
providing evidence of a child's body and spatial awareness.
The children's drawings showed a marked improvement in the use of space,
proportion such as head size, and details such as neck, hands, fingers,
eyelashes and clothes. Some of the children made a gain of 50 points on the
percentile rating scale; interestingly, the most immature drawings were the
ones that showed the greatest improvements. This suggests that immature motor
skills can be a significant factor underlying underachievement.
Motor skills are the primary tools of learning. Attention occurs when there
is orientation to a particular stimulus – orientation is characterised by a
sudden stillness – stillness requires the ability to inhibit action, to have
control over reflex response. The fluent expression of thought, whether it is
through speech, writing or drawing, depends on control of appropriate muscular
activity, and muscular control begins with reflex maturity and control of
balance. Memory has its roots in the association between nerve cells which is
improved by repetition and practice. Even thought, in its many guises, begins
as an internalised form of action. In this sense, Attention, Balance and
Coordination are the primary A,B,C upon which all higher forms of learning
We live in a society which, in its fear for our children's safety and the
need to provide material wealth, threatens to suffocate the most fundamental
need of the developing child – the need to experience freedom of movement in
the early years. The cheapest and most effective playground for the infant is
the floor, yet we put our children into bucket seats and baby walkers so that
we know where they are. The best training for the balance mechanism is
learning how to fall over and get up again; to roll and slide down a grassy
bank, balance on a wobbly piece of wood and climb trees, but safe areas of
wilderness where children can play are increasingly hard to find. The best
way to help a child to pay attention is to exercise the body, so that the
child can sit still, and the easiest way for a child to understand the
meaning of size, weight, quantity, direction and time is to experience them
in a physical way first. The INPP programmes are just one method of helping
children to build this motor vocabulary into the brain by working with the
body. For the human brain was born out of movement (Mellilo and Leisman 2004).
Goddard Blythe, SA (1996) The developmental test battery and exercise
programme for use in schools with the children with special needs. Training
Manual distributed at INPP Training Course for Teachers. Chester, UK.
Mellilo R, Leisman G (2004) Neurobehavioural disorders of childhood.
An evolutionary perspective. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publications. New York.
Pettman H (2001) The effects of developmental exercise movements on
children's persistent primary reflexes and reading difficulties: A controlled
trial. Mellor Primary School, Leicester. Final Report: Best practice research
scholarship study. Department for Education and Skills.
Preedy P, O'Donovon C, Scott J, Chapman E (2003) Exercises for learning: A
beacon project between Knowle CE Primary School and Kingsley Preparatory School.
Staff, pupils and parents of children at St Margaret Mary RC School, Carlisle
Sally Goddard Blythe is director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological
Psychology (INPP) in Chester, where the programme described in this article