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Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology

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 paying attention.

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)

  • 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.
Symmetrical tonic neck reflex (STNR)
  • 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.
Tonic labyrinthine reflex (TLR)
  • Poor balance and muscle tone.
  • Poor standing posture.
  • Balance related problems, such as a tendency to motion sickness and spatial problems.
  • 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 programme.

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 are built.

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 was developed.

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established in 1975 by Peter Blythe PhD
INPP pioneered research into NeuroDevelopmental Delay (NDD) and its impact on specific learning difficulties including dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD, ADHD & DAMP

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