Dexterity in the Modern World

dreamstime_m_22440341Susan called me to set up an appointment for her daughter Julie, age nine and in the third grade, saying that she was concerned about Julie’s cursive writing. Susan had overheard Julie arguing with her older sister about how to correctly hold a pencil, and realized for the first time how tense Julie was when she wrote. She knew that Julie was working hard to complete her handwritten math and writing assignments, but that she would really prefer to be hunting and pecking on a keyboard.

When I met Julie, I asked her to make up a sentence and write it down for me. I noticed how she held her pencil in a tight grip, thumb tucked under her fingers, making each “o” in a clockwise circle. She also sat awkwardly torqued, her weight toward her right side and her paper placed in the far right of her visual field. As she wrote “Today I went to school,” she paused several times, even in the middle of words, and twice erased letters to redo them.

Fine-motor hand-eye skills are done over time—ideally in a fluent, linear, sequence—with precision and dexterity. Through the years of a child’s concurrent sensorimotor and academic development, these skills support the maturity of higher-order thinking by developing laterality, including the abilities of both analysis and “big picture” thinking. Such writing makes a pleasurable developmental contribution when the thumb is relaxed and working with the fingers to create easy circles and loops to both the left and the right.

Since thought is much faster than movement—especially the disconnected movements of printing—fluent cursive writing is more conducive than printing to creative thinking. Cursive writing connects letters, connected letters make words, and to connect those words is to connect thoughts. Recording those thoughts by a fluid method helps them be expressed in a flowing and articulate manner. In my more than 40 years of working with thousands of learners, I’ve seen how well a relaxed hand position that allows for the reciprocal back-and-forth motion of cursive writing helps to stimulate the brain and creative thought.

When the thumb is stiff, or tucked under like Julie’s, it acts as a brake to the hand, inhibiting the back-and-forth motion needed for fluent handwriting. For a right-hander like Julie, ideally the writing would be driven to the right by the thumb’s precision; the fingers would naturally move into the counterclockwise curve of the “o“ in reciprocal response. Yet, having grown accustomed to her pencil-holding skills through the previous five years, Julie was effortfully “drawing” the “o” and “a” in a clockwise way, and wasn’t interested in learning a new hand position. She seemed quite happy to continue writing in her accustomed way.

Thumb flexibility and the precision grip it provides are gifts to be nurtured. The fine-motor skills it affords enable us to grasp and hold objects—to become comfortable interacting with and even changing our three-dimensional physical environment. Opposable-thumb development makes possible important human functions such as eating with utensils, cutting with scissors, and writing with an implement, and I see it also contributing to higher-order skills like choice making, transference of learning, and the application of ideas.

Fine-motor skills, including the coordinated muscle movements we make when we use our hands, develop as a child gains cognitive abilities, along with whole-body mobility and stability. Pulitzer Prize-nominated neurologist Frank Wilson, author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, states, “You can’t really separate what’s in the mind from what’s in the body. Knowledge really is the whole behavior of the whole organism,” and says that teachers shouldn’t “educate the mind by itself.” He asserts that “if lessons do not involve the hands and the body in full movement, much of the knowledge will be poorly processed and inadequately learned.”*

Maria Montessori recognized this concept more than a century ago. The core of the Montessori method’s philosophical approach to learning for children is the idea that sensory learning and hands-on interaction with objects creates a direct link to the mind. This idea was fundamental to my own thinking as, in the 1970s, I began to formulate the Brain Gym® activities.

When we think of fine-motor skills, we most often think of drawing, cursive writing, tying one’s shoelaces, or cutting paper with scissors. However, to acquire those skills a child needs several readiness preliminaries. The building blocks for such fine-motor control without distortion of the alignment include whole-body stability, bilateral coordination, and muscle proprioception.**

Doing the Brain Gym activities lets students experience the fine-motor, physical skills of learning within the context of their gross-motor skills. The concept is that, when such large- and small-motor physical skills are automatic and effortless, the mental processes of higher-order thinking can proceed without creating physiological stress.

Without asking Julie to hold her pencil any certain way or showing her how to use her thumb correctly, I asked her to choose from the wall chart some Brain Gym® activities for her, Susan, and me to do together toward her goal of thinking with ease while writing. To support her stability, bilateral coordination, and proprioceptive skills, Julie chose the following:

The Cross Crawl calls for moving the whole body in place in contralateral rhythm, using both sides of the body at the same time while maintaining balance and stability.

The Thinking Cap, “unrolling” the ears from top to bottom, helps one to turn the head left and right while paying focal attention to the task at hand.

Arm Activation (see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition) helps learners to relax gross muscle control of the arms and become more acutely aware of the fine muscles of wrist, fingers, and thumb.

The Double Doodle lets one experience reciprocal motion of the thumb and fingers as well as crossing of the visual/tactile midline from the left visual field through the midfield, into the right field, and back.

After doing these Brain Gym activities, Julie picked up her pencil and resumed writing. She sat up more squarely in the chair, placing the paper in her midfield. She didn’t realize at first that she was holding the tool more loosely in her hand and no longer tucking her thumb. As she formed her letters, her fingers and thumb were now working together as partners. She wrote faster and more smoothly, and it was apparent to her mother and me that, this time, without having to organize the mechanics of how to write, Julie was thinking of what to write. She was experiencing what it’s like to think with fluidity and write at the same time.

*Tenner, Edward. “Handwriting Is a 21st-Century Skill.” The Atlantic, April, 2011.

**Stability is the sense of vestibular balance necessary to hold still one part of the body, such as the head, while another part moves.

Bilateral coordination is the efficient use of both of the sides of the body (including paired sensory organs—the eyes, ears, and hands). For example, one hand will manipulate a tool while the other assists. I find that the development of bilateral coordination leads directly to integrated hand dominance (right- or left-handedness).

Proprioception is the knowing of where the hands, arms, and fingers are spatially and how they’re moving in relation to the rest of the body. Noticing such muscle movement is the beginning of dexterity, by which a person is better able to use small, accurate, precise movements to stack blocks, open containers, pick up tiny objects, and practice many other skills in readiness for reading, writing, and doing mathematics.

Photo © Dreamstime, used by permission.

The activities mentioned here are from Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Paul and Gail Dennison, (C) 2010.

This movement-based, experiential approach to learning, as well as the 26 Brain Gym® activities, is taught in Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life. An in-depth exploration of sensory specialization for academic skills, including the Action Balance for Dexterity, and a balance to honor the learning profile, is offered in the Optimal Brain Organization course.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in your area.

Photo credit: © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

Taking “Whole Brain” Vision to Moscow

Paul_Flowers2Although I’ve taught in more than 20 countries during the past 35 years, mid-July of this year I experienced my first trip to Moscow. In the 1980s biologist and educator Carla Hannaford of Hawaii first took the Edu-K work to Russia. She was followed there in the 1990s by educators and Brain Gym® instructors Joan Spaulding of Colorado and the late Dorothy H.L. Carroll of Pennsylvania, who taught hundreds of students. Psychologist Svetlana Musgutova, a resident of Moscow at the time, became a Brain Gym International Faculty member and continued to develop the community there for many years. Today, the major leaders of Edu-K once living in Russia have moved on to other locales. So Elena, my sponsor for this trip, requested that I bring my latest thinking to the Brain Gym Instructors and new enthusiasts there.

I found Moscow to be a sprawling city with a multitude of beautiful botanical gardens. On my first day there, Elena and her daughter, Knesia (also my translator), took me walking in the beautiful Tsaritsyno, the Queen’s Garden. On day two my dear friend of many years, Renate Wennekes from Germany, a Brain Gym International Faculty member, arrived to co-teach with me. That evening, we four enjoyed dining on the Moscow River cruise ship and sharing stories about our experiences teaching through movement.

Another evening Renate, Elena, Knesia, and I enjoyed seeing the rousing Russian National show “Kostroma!”* which includes vigorous Cossack dancing—something I’ve always loved to watch. Yet another time we walked around the city center seeing Red Square and the Kremlin, along with its red walls and towers. I was delighted to see St. Basil’s with its unusual architecture of four palaces and four cathedrals—many topped by golden or multicolored cupolas—which I had long heard about.** Wherever we went, I met people who were vigorous and robust, and who seemed typical of suburbanites everywhere, busy pursuing their day-to-day lives.

Active Independence or Passive Compliance 

For me, the real excitement of this journey began when I gave a public introductory talk at the Alpha Hotel. I noticed a woman whom I’ll call Ruth, sitting with friends in the center front row of the conference room. Through translation during the question and answer period (the participants spoke little English), I learned that Ruth was a 2nd grade teacher who had been using the Brain Gym activities with her elementary school students. Ruth expressed anger and frustration as she asked me why doing the activities hadn’t helped one seven-year boy in her class. This student, she said, refused to read his history assignment because it was on the topic of war. Even after he did the Brain Gym activities, he still refused.

I explained that the purpose of doing the Brain Gym activities is not to control someone’s behavior. Instead, it’s to give individuals the tools they need to become . Each of the specific 26 activities teaches a physical skill needed for classroom learning, such as sitting, head-turning, hand-eye coordination, and accurate use of tools—for example, how to best hold a pencil for writing and how to access eye-teaming skills when holding a book for reading. I elaborated that when the stressors around the mechanics of functioning are addressed, the natural mental acuity needed to learn is more available. I told Ruth that I think it’s wonderful for a seven-year old child to feel that he can choose what he will or will not read. This shows an active independence instead of the passive compliance we see in many schools and societies. Ruth nodded in understanding and agreement.

The Joy of Eye-Teaming

The next day, with Renate assisting, I began teaching my two-day course: The Dennison Approach to Whole-Brain Learning. I especially enjoy sharing this introduction to my Edu-K work with teachers, as they recognize the challenges to learning and can appreciate seeing people overcome them. It’s thrilling to watch students as they discover their learning profile and then use simple Brain Gym activities to access the learning midfield and make immediate and significant improvements in reading, listening, and writing skills.

One experience was especially meaningful for me. During the opening circle for the course, the participants introduced themselves, again through translation. When I asked who would like to improve their reading, Ruth (from the previous day) eagerly volunteered and told the group that, as a child, she had been told she had a lazy left eye and could do her best with her “good” eye. I had Ruth read aloud. She slowly and precisely read the Russian text left to right, focusing from her right visual field and carefully pronouncing every word. Afterwards, I asked her to say something about what she had read. She could not verbalize any of the content. I checked her ability to track, which requires crossing of the visual midline and seeing in the midfield where the left and right visual fields overlap. She was unable to access this skill.

I encouraged Ruth to choose from the Midline Movement category whatever Brain Gym activity she felt called to. Together, she and I did about 30 seconds of Belly Breathing as the first part of the Learning Menu. Suddenly, Ruth joyfully exclaimed: “I cannot believe it; I can see with my left eye again!” We continued the menu by doing the Lazy 8s and the Cross Crawl.

As a post-check, I asked Ruth to track across her visual midline and focus in her midfield, which she was now able to easily do. She then read a new text, with ease and fluency. She was able to put the text into her own words without difficulty. I could see that Ruth was able to move her eyes smoothly over the words while listening to herself say them–that is, she was able to think while looking, and so access her comprehension.

Ruth said, “Now I understand what you mean by the physical skills of learning. Now that I can see without straining my eyes, I can hear myself thinking and I can trust my eyes to see the information I need.”

Although during the course the translation into Russian had sometimes sometimes presented a challenge, I felt that for most of us that day the language of movement transcended any linear thinking.

 

*See a segment of this dance on YouTube.

**See our facebook page for a photo book from Paul’s trip.

To discover more about Paul’s approach to teaching, see Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, by Paul E. Dennison, © 2006.

See also Discovering the Reading Midfield

Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading

Reading a printed page presents its own issues, as there is much more to reading than simply looking at an object. Experts have said that the eye muscles can move nearly 10,000 times in an hour of reading; that means the eyes must be able to refocus effectively in order to take in information without backtracking. http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/muscles.html

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

Learning to Read: The Magic of Words on Paper

HeartsatPlay_ResourceSite_HomePage_workinaction_cross-crawlJosie, age nine and in the third grade, is an attentive student who loves sports, art, and to play outdoors. Reading came late to her, and she has never found it easy. She was tutored early on by her grandmother, Jane, who listened patiently and pronounced for Josie any new word she didn’t recognize. It was Jane who called me to set up a private session for Josie when she noticed that her reading had become more strained this school year.

When we met, I asked Josie what she liked about school. She responded in a halting, stilted way, saying that she liked playing with her friends. Josie then read a paragraph from a book she’d brought with her. I noticed that she read methodically, one word at a time, in a dull, flat monotone.  She knew most of the words, yet struggled along with little apparent enjoyment of the process.

A closer look revealed that Josie was holding the book in her right visual field. I checked her eyes for left-to-right tracking across the visual midfield, where the left and right visual fields overlap and the eyes converge for binocular integration.  Each time we crossed the midline, Josie lost sight of the target, unable to maintain her focus.

For beginning readers, the natural flow of informational learning starts with auditory perception as a child listens to people talking, or to fascinating stories being read or told. Like language, reading is first and foremost a verbal and auditory process. Relating it to prior experiences in memory benefits from integration of the auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile areas of the brain and the ability to interpret such received information as meaningful.

Learning to read requires simultaneously holding what is familiar (stored in words as a verbal code) and relating new information to experiences held in memory. It’s imperative to the learner’s long-term thinking success that the wholeness of language and its meaning is not broken into small, disconnected information bits as he reads. Eye-movement patterns are necessary, yet incidental, to the mental aspect of reading, and need to be so fluid, automatic, and stress-free that the auditory-language processes can proceed without inhibition. Language and meaning must always lead, and never follow, visual input.

Yet, for many, reading is about focusing on linear input, one word or phonetic sound at a time. This is a lesser aspect of reading, and one that, in its overemphasis, teaches excessive eye-pointing and an inaccurate idea of the reading process. This fragmenting of language can affect not only the way a child learns to think, but even their everyday way of speaking, as it had for Josie.

I invited Josie and her grandmother to do some enjoyable movements with me. I played some music, and the three of us put on our Thinking Caps, rubbed our Brain Buttons, did the Cross Crawl, and explored some slow Lazy 8s and the Double Doodle. We completed with Belly Breathing. After about fifteen minutes of the activities, Josie was able to track a moving target of focus with ease and facility, both left to right and right to left, across her reading midfield.

I asked Josie if she felt ready to return to her book, and she started to read again from where she’d left off.  It was like listening to a different person. Josie was now relaxed, and was telling us the story in her own natural speaking voice, with fully animated expression and obvious comprehension of where the narrative was headed.

“What was that about?” I asked. This time, Josie was able to answer without hesitation, easily turning her thoughts into fluent and meaningful language.

Jane was amazed. “How long will this last?” she asked. I told her that, like all physical skills, if this new way of reading is fully learned and becomes a new habit, it will last indefinitely. Josie will now prefer to read by staying in the midfield instead of avoiding it.

To reinforce the new skill, I recommended as homeplay the Thinking Cap, the Double Doodle, and Lazy 8s before and after reading, so Josie could quickly orient her body to her auditory and visual midfield to assure a happy reading experience every time. When they said goodbye, Josie and her grandmother told me they were looking forward to doing the activities together at home.

 

See also Discovering the Reading Midfield

Research Nugget: Visual Skills and Reading

Reading a printed page presents its own issues, as there is much more to reading than simply looking at an object. Experts have said that the eye muscles can move nearly 10,000 times in an hour of reading; that means the eyes must be able to refocus effectively in order to take in information without backtracking. http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/muscles.html

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym®  International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

Discovering the Reading Midfield

young boy readingWhen I first met Connor, age 11, he read for me one word at a time, carefully keeping his eyes in the right visual field and pointing them to each separate syllable, pronouncing it perfectly as he had been taught to do. When I asked him to relate to me what he had just read, Connor was able to repeat only one or two words that he barely recalled. He did well at breaking the printed code into discrete parts, yet had no understanding of reading as language, as a way to grasp the big picture being conveyed by the author.  I invited him to do some playful Brain Gym® activities with me before continuing.

After doing PACE, we used Brain Buttons again, along with Earth Buttons and Lazy 8s, to help Connor discover how to track, to use his eyes as a team to cross his visual midline, and to work in his visual midfield where the left and right fields overlap. It was fun! When Connor read a second time, less than half an hour later, he read with ease, enthusiasm, and full understanding.  Connor was now able to report in his own words what he had read, using intonations to add meaning as he spoke.

It’s important for parents to realize that many children can appear to read well, receive good grades, and excel at school yet be pointing their eyes primarily in the right visual field, where they separate information into small parts or bits. Reading this way, they may get tired, read slowly, get headaches, have eye strain, or lose depth perception. Like Connor, they may even need to read material two or three times in order to fully comprehend it. The pleasure of reading fluently is assumed for the future, yet for many, never happens.

Having taught adult speed reading to people who have been reading in this slow way for years, I’m aware that eye pointings per line (known as fixations) increase as students struggle to use their eyes as a team, and that the number of times a person rereads the material (called regressions) also increase. For youngsters, when grades are good, this one-sided way of reading is accepted as normal, since most people don’t recognize the visual stress and don’t question what seems to be working. Only the children who are labeled with learning challenges get special help, and even then teachers may not identify the subtle difficulty these students are having when crossing the visual midline1, let alone know that it can be easily addressed with a few minutes of doing such activities as Lazy 8s and the Double Doodle.

As stated by UK psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist2,  “the first apprehension of anything is by the right hemisphere while it remains new” but is soon “taken over by the left hemisphere where it becomes familiar. Knowledge of the whole is . . . followed by knowledge of the parts.” For reading, this means that the skilled learner takes in at a glance (through the left visual field and right hemisphere), the meaningful context and picture clues that help him guess where the story is going. He simultaneously confirms his hunch (through the right visual field and left hemisphere), by pronouncing the words.

From my perspective as a reading teacher, it’s easier for learners to read with both eyes working together on the midfield than to rely mainly on one eye for information.  In any case, reading with both eyes and a singleness of vision is more functional and less stressful. Having helped thousands of people to learn, through effortless movements, the simple, mechanical, physical skill of eye teaming, I know that most readers can readily get beyond the visual stress of word analysis  to enjoying the auditory language experience of listening to the story as they read it, which is what reading really is.

 

1David Grisham, O.D., M.S., Maureen Powers, Ph.D., Phillip Riles, M.A. Visual skills of poor readers in high school. Optometry – Journal of the American Optometric Association. Volume 78, Issue 10 , October 2007.

2Iain McGilchrist. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Yale University Press; Reprint edition: 2012.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

Movement and the Brain

Today we completed a rousing Optimal Brain Organization (OBO) workshop. A primary theme in the OBO course is how, when people are under stress, they lose their bilateral integration and become more one-sided. They are then unable to cross the lateral midline or access the processing midfield, where eyes, ears, and hands ideally work together. I theorize that such a one-sided imbalance is a compensation stemming from a lack of large-motor movement developmentally (prior to school age) or during the school years. In other words, kids are sitting too much. Therefore they’re not developing the muscle tone and integrated muscle systems that would let them access both sides as a balanced context for one-sided drawing and handwriting.

Another theme of this course is that the transfer of learning is not automatic and must be taught.  The course is built around playful balances that help students reconnect with their eye teaming, head turning, and two-handedness as well as symmetrical whole-body movement. Through balances, they learn to transfer learning from one area of expertise to another.

The first theme came into play with a young woman I’ll call Elizabeth, who volunteered for the Dexterity Balance. In the pre-activity she automatically wrote with a power grip, holding the pen tightly and experiencing a stiff right thumb and a painful ache in her right shoulder. I helped her notice that, as she wrote, she was placing her paper in her right visual field, avoiding the midline and midfield. Her goal for the balance was “to write with ease.” After the balance, she automatically picked up her pen with a precision grip and wrote comfortably in the midfield, exclaiming with surprise: “I can’t believe it! My thumb usually hurts when I write. I’m writing without straining my eyes and pressing hard on the paper.”

I explained that the reciprocal back-and-forth motion of thumb and fingers in a relaxed state is needed to form the fluid clockwise and counter-clockwise curves of handwriting. The students joined in a discussion about the importance of bilateral integration over one-sided processing and then eagerly explored this processing for themselves in their own balances.

Like all Edu-K courses, the OBO course is taught in an experiential, whole-to-parts approach. I have been teaching about dominance profiles since the 1970s, when I first tested for them in my learning centers. This particular course was originally built (in 1996) on the works of a number of leading-edge researchers such as Springer and Deutsch, who wrote Left Brain, Right Brain: Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience (1989; 2001); Edward Le Winn, author of Human Neurological Organization (1977; 1997),and Gerald Leisman, who authored Basic Visual Process and Learning Disability (1975),along with other researchers with whose books I became familiar in the early years at my learning centers, soon after completing my dissertation. These works have translated well into the practical application we use in this course.

In teaching the OBO course in more recent years, I draw from the wisdom of Frank Wilson’s definitive book The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture. I include discussion of neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg’s revelations in The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind, as I believe that it’s imperative for parents and educators to be aware of the executive brain functions that are maturing in their students and to know ways to nurture such functions. And all Brain Gym® Instructors are familiar with Carla Hannaford’s informative book The Dominance Factor: How Knowing Your Dominant Eye, Ear, Brain, Hand & Foot Can Improve Your Learning, which details the linkages between the side of the body we favor for seeing, hearing, touching, and moving and the way we think, learn, play, and relate to others. In her book, Hannaford recommends specific Brain Gym activities to cultivate each learning profile.

My latest reference for this course is the authoritative book on left and right brain: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by renowned U.K. psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist. In class, we watched the RSA Animate of a Ted Talks lecture by McGilchrist. Click here to find a summary of the animate, and a link to it.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym®  International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

 

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