With the New Year upon us, a desire to turn over a new leaf and our annual resolution for self-improvement in hand, ask any parent or teacher and their goal is to “do better”. Parents and educators both ask, “What’s going on with our children?” and “What does it look like to do better?”

As parents, we want to turn over a fresh leaf and support our children in moving toward independence in their day to day activities. Educators also hope to take a fresh look at their students and aim to motivate and develop independence in learning styles.

How can you help your unique learner move toward independence?

First, the child must have an innate, internalized, automatic sense of the physical world. In other words, they need to understand three-dimensional space and be able to navigate their physical body in, over, under, through, around, and other physical spatial relationships.

Navigating space seems simple to us because, with just a quick glance, we can easily see how to navigate to the restroom in a busy and unfamiliar restaurant. The visual sense of space comes from experiencing it physically. We may not remember learning this skill, but learn it we surely did.

Our children need to learn this skill too. They must learn the words to describe physical space and be able to separate themselves from that space. The ability to separate themselves then allows them to learn to observe the objects, people, places, and things that are in the space around them. This, in turn, develops into the ability to visually judge space without having to physically move around the room.

The unique learner who has difficulty sequencing, reasoning, and independently problem‑solving literally needs physical movement (often more beneficial than added homework) in order to facilitate effective thinking.

They’ve Got to Move It

A more typical student may seem to respond well to practice, practice, practice. A unique learner seems to respond better to practice, movement, practice, movement.

When we talk about physically experiencing the world around us, we are really talking about the sensory system that perceives movement in relationship to the space around us. This sensory system, the vestibular system, perceives the gravitational pull of the earth’s surface and creates an innate drive for balance. This drive informs the muscle and joint system that has its own set of receptors, called proprioceptors, that allow the body to smoothly respond to different shifts in the center of gravity.

We correct our balance while riding a bicycle by a small action of a specific muscle and joint system, the proprioceptive system. Sometimes, just tilting the head to the side is sufficient in overcoming any slight loss of balance when cycling around a curve. Cycling requires the integration of the vestibular system with the proprioceptive system.

If these two systems aren’t functioning properly, the brain will struggle to learn. They are foundational to learning as well as a sense of emotional and physical security.

This information can provide a world of understanding in providing the most effective support for children who are unique learners. The vestibular system needs exercising and the proprioceptive system needs exercising because the vestibular system and the proprioceptive systems are fuel for the brain.

The vestibular system provides an overall sense of calm and of emotional security and may explain why taking a walk is so pleasant. Movement, exercise, sports, martial arts, yoga, dancing, and juggling all offer excellent opportunities for the movement system to stimulate and help facilitate brain functioning.

Often unique learner’s performance is judged according to a standard metric of the speed of performance and accuracy of responses. However, now that you understand how foundational the vestibular and proprioceptive systems are to learning readiness, you can support your unique learner’s growth by embedding movement as a part of the fuel necessary to grow the brain.

Now that you can judge their performance based on problem‑solving skills versus the standard metrics of the speed of performance and accuracy of responses, you can support your unique learner’s growth by embedding movement as a part of the fuel necessary to grow the brain.

Understand What Progress Looks Like

Our children, and especially our children who are unique learners, need to be better understood. Their metric is different when indicating progress. These students need to assimilate the information around them, recognize patterns, and consider alternative explanations before selecting the most likely. This type of problem‑solving not only needs to occur when performing reading, writing, and arithmetic but also on the playground and when driving home from school with siblings.

Now you understand your unique learner better. Your resolution to do better is already achieved because doing better, for these children requires a better understanding of their actions.

(Be sure to check out the exercises for the vestibular and proprioceptive systems in Strategies to Try.)

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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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