A Place Where Children Discover What's Possible

Blog post from . . .

May 2016

Brain and Body Development:

Main period of brain growth occurs in the first year of life. Between 15 months and 6 years of age, the cerebral cortex doubles in size. Neurons begin as unspecialized. Through environmental stimulation and natural growth the neurons mature and become more specialized. Brain development is based on neural plasticity. During development, brain structure and neurochemistry changes in response to learning from the environment.

“During the course of development, constant interaction with the environment or experience stimulates the formation of connections within the brain, particularly connections to higher or ‘executive’ centers that will eventually command the whole. The first years of life are the time for structuring and organizing these connections. As neurons migrate they become more specialized in their function.

In the course of the first 3 years of life, the brain forms almost twice as many synapses (junctions) that it will use.  Those that are in constant use will strengthen to form the motorways of the mind; those that are unused will either be replaced by others or will eventually disappear.  During infancy many neurons retain flexibility or neural plasticity. In this sense, every human being is unique. Experiences shape the architecture of the brain, experiences may be similar but position, timing, and perspective will always be different creating a neuronal tapestry of that individual’s uniqueness.” (Goddard Blythe, Sally. The Well Balanced Child. pg 20 -23.)

 Reflex Development:
 Reflexes are innate stereotype (pre-programed) responses to specific stimuli / environmental / positional changes. They help the child to develop in a typical motor hierarchy. Reflex development supports the child’s development through the first 3 ½ years of life. Reflexes are primary teachers of motor skills. Reflexes stimulate motor development and motor responses.  “The more a child moves, the better his control over movement becomes”

 Reflexes appear at specific ages and become integrated with the central nervous system and mature to be able to accommodate more mature motor responses. If a reflex persists beyond its normal period of activity, it is associated  with increased sensitivity and reaction to sudden unexpected stimuli. For instance, with an unintegrated Moro reflex, sudden loss of balance, postural instability, or unexpected stimulation of any of the senses can release the Moro reflex from cortical control. Instead of going into a thinking stage, the child will go into the ‘fight or flight’ reaction immediately.  The central nervous system automatically goes into the ‘emergency’ mode of reaction, resulting in ‘behaviors’ that may not be desirable or understood. This is a major contributor to impulsive and inappropriate behavior. (Goddard, Sally. The Well Balanced Child. pg 31).

Often this reflex is NOT integrated and can continue to resurface and impact on development throughout one’s life span. Moro reflex can persist in the absence of identified pathology. It is associated with a variety of symptoms that can continue to have an effect upon later development.

The Moro Reflex:

Symptoms Associated with a Residual Moro Reflex: (Goddard Blythe, Sally. The Well Balanced Child. pg 33)

  •  Hypersensitivity and over-reactivity to certain stimuli
  •  Vestibular related problems (balance, emotional instability, visual motor dysfunction, handedness, writing issues, self –regulation of attention and arousal, development of bilateral motor control)
  •  Poor balance and coordination
  •  Difficulty catching a ball or processing rapidly approaching visual stimuli
  •  Immature eye-movements and visual perceptual abilities
  •  Distractibility (the inability to ignore irrelevant visual information within a given visual field resulting in difficulty sustaining visual attention)
  •  Insecurity (emotional and postural)
  •  Generalized anxiety and /or fearfulness
  •  Dislike of sudden unexpected events (loud noises, bright lights, etc)
  •  Poor adaptability and dislike of change

“These children, who tend to cling to familiarity, dislike change and often attempt to manipulate people and situations in order to maintain a modicum of control. They are often highly intelligent, but find it difficult to respond appropriately when a rapid response is required. A discrepancy between verbal and emotional and social behavior often exists, causing problems with peers relationships. The Moro-driven child can appear withdrawn and fearful in social situation or  have a tendency to be overbearing and controlling or waiver between the two. They are frequently children who are picked on in the playground because other children recognize their weaknesses and their tendency to over-react to stressful situations."
The Vestibular System and Balance: 
The vestibular system can have a profound effect on development and all aspects of life, including emotional, social, and motor control.

One of the ways it impacts development is through emotional regulation. The vestibular system can have a profound effect upon emotions, and all of development. It is linked to the limbic system (emotional centers of the brain) via the reticular activating system (RAS). Both “over active” and “ under active” responsivity by the vestibular system can impact attention, arousal, and emotions; thereby adversely impact on behavior and learning. Over active (hyper) or under active (hypo) vestibular functioning can result in over arousal or under arousal to the limbic system, which responds by alerting the central nervous system (CNS) sympathetic (fight or flight reaction), or parasympathetic (slowing of heart rate and basic functions) divisions of the CNS. Either response elicits specific physiological and biochemical changes in the body that impact behavior. These types of processing irregularities will result in behavior problems that appear willful of the child, but are not. Therefore, a vestibular system that is not processing sensory information accurately or efficiently can result in learning and behavior difficulties.

Signs and symptoms which might indicate balance problems:

  •  Breech presentation
  •  Delay in achieving head control and other developmental milestones such as sitting, crawling, and walking
  •  Poorly developed muscle tone
  •  Frequent falls
  •  Avoidance and/ or fear of movement
  •  Clumsiness
  •  No fear of heights (under-active vestibular system, fearlessness in one’s movements, or lack of registration of movement)
  •  Excessive fear of heights (hypersensitive vestibular functioning)
  •  Excessive rocking or spinning (self-attempts to provide stimulation to an under-active system)
  •  Motor restlessness or excessively seeking movement stimulation self-attempts to provide stimulation to an under-active stimulation
  •  Poorly developed sense of body awareness
  •  Difficulty grading or initiating certain types of movements
  •  Motion sickness above the age of 8 years old
  •  Difficulty learning to ride a bicycle
  •  Difficulty manipulating objects in space, learning to read a clock, errors in letter positioning/ directionality 

Rita Patterson OT/L


The Well Balanced Child by Sally Goddard Blythe

Sensory Integration and the Child by Dr. Jean Ayres​
How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot, Ph D

Return to Blog page