When was the last time you thought about thinking? Have you ever thought about how learning is possible?

Learning is kind of amazing when you think about it. Though learning something may require varying amounts of effort, the process that permits learning to occur usually happens automatically with little conscious effort.

The way the brain and body work together to allow learning is incredible. The brain processes (neuro), must connect properly with the body (physiology) for learning to occur. This is called the neurophysiology of learning.

Learning Basics

At its most basic, learning is the maturation of the neurologic system. The neurologic system includes all the sensory systems and how they function together. The sensory systems are:

• Visual – your ability to see
• Olfactory- your ability to smell
• Auditory – your ability to hear
• Gustatory – your ability to taste
• Tactile – your ability to feel sensations with your skin
• Vestibular – your ability to process gravity – i.e. your sense of balance
• Proprioceptive – your ability to move

The brain is the central operating station for incoming data from our sensory system. Though we are all familiar with the first five senses, it is the last two (along with tactile) that provide the foundation for all the other senses to operate properly.

If the vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems are not working well together, learning through seeing and hearing will be extremely difficult.

You can learn more about how these systems operate HERE on the Unique Learners’ website.

Here are the basics: We begin inside a buoyant environment within the womb, not appreciating the effects of gravity yet. From the very first instant when we are born, the vestibular system is activated. It can process movement early in development. The moment we move from the buoyant environment of our mother’s womb to the gravitationally dependent physical environment of the Earth’s surface, the vestibular system is activated. For the rest of our lives, we are grounded and connected to the gravitational pull of the Earth.

Processing gravity [vestibular sensation] and responding to it by lifting the head and avoiding difficulty breathing requires the vestibular system to work together (integrate) with the movement system [proprioceptive system].

Only then are the auditory and visual system in an ideal and safe circumstance to begin to process the external environment. Incoming sensations from the environment and from the body’s response to the environment are fuel for the developing infant brain.

Organizing and translating information from one sensory center to another allows observation, intelligence, and memory to develop. We continually test our observations by responding to the world and obtaining feedback for our actions, further modifying our actions until the desired response is obtained. This process occurs throughout life and alters slightly at each developmental stage.

The human, then, is born with an inner drive to develop and learn. Learning would seem, in this case, to act as a life force.

Similarly, our mind develops through these repeated experiences and our expectations, thoughts, and beliefs about our ability to act in the world. The beliefs become categorized into systems and lead to more expedient responses not necessarily having to “recreate” the wheel at each stage.

As the child’s sensory system develops and matures, the incoming sensory data is relayed to various portions of the brain and the neurologic system in order to produce flexible responses, behaviors, and actions. The integration (the combining and working together) of the vestibular and the proprioceptive systems will allow for the age-appropriate development of eye movements, postural tone, balance, and gravitational security.

This is how a child learns to do everything they will ever do. It is the basic concept of the neurophysiology behind learning.

The neurophysiology behind a correctly wired sensory-motor system allows successful handwriting, permits prolonged sitting, and provides for safety during playground activities. At every stage of sensory-motor development, the stepping stones of the prior level need to be in place in a relatively predictable manner.

Children who have glitchy vestibular and proprioceptive can’t use their other sensory-motor systems effectively. This creates a problem in the classroom.

In most schools, the curriculum tends to emphasize the student’s use of their visual and auditory sensory systems. Most school work involves looking and listening. The level of reading, writing, and arithmetic dramatically increases in complexity over time. The primary emphasis on the visual and auditory sensory systems becomes increasingly difficult for the unique learner who learns better with a multisensory approach.

All the strategies at Unique Learner Solutions, both on the website and in my book, are focused on helping the unique learner improve the way their vestibular and proprioceptive systems work together. Improve the way these systems work together, and you will improve how well the neurophysiology will allow your child to learn.

Vestibular, Proprioceptive, and Visual Sensory Integration Activity

In order for the brain to produce flexible responses, behaviors, and actions, incoming sensory data must relay properly to various portions of the brain and the neurologic system. When the vestibular and proprioceptive systems aren’t integrating (combining and working together) eye movements, posture, and balance are negatively impacted. You can help your unique learner by working to improve sensory integration. Sensory integrative intervention techniques utilize “backdoor channels” to help organize the brain. An organized brain is necessary for the neurophysiology of learning to take place.

Your child will best respond when sensory integration intervention is provided with a calm and relaxed environment. Do not use sensory integration methods unless you can be relaxed and fully concentrating on your child. When your schedule is too busy to allow for this, do other types of exercises with your child but not sensory integration.

The following sensory integration exercise is a high level, complete activity to promote integration of the right side and left side of the individual’s body. The visual-motor component of the exercise provides a considerable challenge and can easily fatigue beginners.

A piece of paper at least 2-feet wide is taped to the floor. Three dots, about 1-inch in diameter, are drawn on the paper, one at the left border, one at the center, and one at the right border.

Have your child get on their hands and knees and position them above the paper. Give them a crayon or marker to hold in their writing (dominant) hand. While resting on their knees and on their non-dominant hand, the child draws lines across the page through the dots. They can only focus on one dot at a time without shifting their eyes to another dot.

Part of the time, your child keeps their eyes focused on one dot with the other dots seen only in peripheral vision. Your child will draw a series of lines beginning at the dot on which they are focusing and ending on the far dot. Other times he keeps his eyes focused on the dots to which the line is drawn or on the center dot.

For example, your child will focus on the third dot but will start drawing the line at the first dot. They will be using only the peripheral vision to draw from the first dot to the center dot and finally to the third dot where their eyes have continued to stay focused.

Lines can be drawn either left to right or right to left. The task requires close attention to peripheral visual stimuli and often it is the peripheral stimulus which is overlooked in visual disregard.

This task is fatiguing and should not be pursued for more than a few minutes at a time.

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Suzanne Cresswell Administrator
Suzanne Cresswell is an occupational and physical therapist who has worked with unique learners for over three decades. Suzanne works to educate and provide proven solutions and strategies to those that parent, instruct and work with unique learners. By creating an understanding of unique learners and their learning behavior, she helps parents, teachers and the students themselves find the ability in learning disability.
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