How to Encourage Neurodevelopmental Movement in the Classroom

by Patricia S. Lemer, M.Ed., NCC, Chairman of the Board, Epidemic Answers

A while ago, I observed Steven, 6-1/2, in a class of 12 students.  He has been identified as “unready” for first and second grade.  A lovely teacher directs the children, while an aide admonishes, “Sit still,” “Take your fingers out of your mouth,” “We’re not on that box,” and “If you can’t keep up, you’ll miss recess.”

One child lies with his head on the desk.  Another taps her pencil.  The room is quiet.

The teacher says, “We’re going to play “Find the Intruder.” On each desk is a xeroxed sheet with four items, one of which does not belong to the set.  On the blackboard, the teacher demonstrates the classification task by sketching an apple, watermelon, banana, and carrot.

One student identifies the teacher’s clumsily-drawn carrot as an “ice cream cone” and says it doesn’t belong.  He can’t explain why. Another child mistakes the teacher’s ambiguous “cookie” for a “rock.”

“Nope!” says the teacher.

Children are then instructed to take out a pencil; some have stubs, others, whole pencils.  It takes 45 minutes for everyone to complete the lesson.  Steven “gets it,” and he beams.  Nobody else does, but the teacher stamps a star on each paper, anyway.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Superficially, this looks like a well-run class with a developmentally appropriate, pre-academic lesson.  Unfortunately, it is not. How could the teacher and aide enhance learning?

Instead of the negative term, “intruder,” they could use “families and visitors.”  They could help the children use the basic senses, such as touch and movement, to facilitate listening and looking.  Comprehension of the lesson will improve markedly.

They could also. . .

Use Manipulatives

Classification is most understandable on a concrete level.

  • Have children invent ways to identify the object that doesn’t belong, by color, shape, or size.
  • Provide actual fruits and vegetables.  These children still need the real thing.  Those who really “get it” will progress to non-tangible, abstract categories.
  • Try another classification exercise, using attribute blocks of different colors, shapes, sizes, and thicknesses.  Each child should have a set.

Encourage Oral Stimulation

Oral-motor stimulation is the most basic, primitive road to focus one’s attention.

  • Let children bring their fingers to their mouths; this organizes their ability to listen and look.
  • Preferably, offer non-candy items, such as rubber rings or tubing, crunchy foods, or gum, for kids to chew, bite, or suck while working.

Encourage Large Movements to Make Small Ones Easier

The body needs to organize large motor skills before concentrating on complex small motor skills.  Incorporating active movement into lesson plans is key.

  • Have kids push or carry chairs before sitting down.
  • Let kids move.  Have them roam around the classroom to find each objects that make a set with a “visitor,” to trick the teacher.
  • Assign extra recess, with organized and supervised activities.

Encourage Fine-Motor Skills

  • Therapeutic fine-motor activities help the hands and eyes develop as a team.
  • Let kids fidget.  They fidget because they must.  Provide fidget toys, such as Koosh balls or Theraputty.
  • Play tracking games that use the eyes.  Have pairs of children use flashlights to play “tag” with the beams.
  • On worksheets, provide visual cues, such as “green light” dots to show where to begin, or arrows to indicate what comes next.

Encourage Touch

Connecting touch with vision is essential.  Feeling and seeing actual objects make it possible, later, to recognize representations such as pictures.

  • After identifying which object is “different” by sight, ask children to do the same activity with yes closed or by feeling objects hidden in a bag.
  • Use objects of different weights and textures as well as size and shape.

Encourage Whole Body Control

Engaging the whole body keeps children focused and alert.

  • Use a slant-board to angle papers up to the eyes.  Children who slump in their chairs need to work sitting on a therapy ball or “Move’n Sit” cushion, or standing at an easel or blackboard.
  • Provide big writing implements – chunky crayons, markers, or big pencils that little hands can control.  Children ready for pencils can use grippers to adjust their grasp.

Encourage Positive Feelings

Following directions, understanding concepts, and completing tasks are intrinsically rewarding.  Stars are an artificial reward.

  • Say, “Good guess!” when children err, or “You got it!” to help children feel good about themselves.
  • Assign homework: “Teach this game to your family.”

Neurodevelopmental movement and basic sensory processing should be the core of the curriculum for “unready” children.  Weave in language, cognitive, and fine motor components.  Keep learning fun!