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Are Our Early Years Children Being Raised into Happy, Healthy Adults?

Richard House speaks to childhood expert Sally Goddard-Blythe about the impact of modern lifestyles on our children’s development…

Richard House
by Richard House
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Richard House: Sally, coming across your important work many years ago, I immediately saw a kindred spirit in relation to holistic, unhurried perspectives on child development. Can you briefly summarise the nature of your research, and how it relates to healthy child development?

Sally Goddard-Blythe: My speciality is the role of underlying physical factors in school-aged children presenting with specific learning difficulties and underachievement.

In the pre-assessment process, we interview families in detail regarding children’s developmental history from pre-conception to date.

Over 40 years of using the INPP developmental questionnaire shows that if children score over seven ‘yes’ answers, subsequent assessment reveals clear signs of immaturity in the neuromotor skills needed to support learning.

These include control of balance, posture, hand–eye coordination, and the eye movements needed to track along a print-line when reading/writing. These skills start developing in early childhood – the product of maturation combined with experience.

Many under-achieving children show signs of neuromotor immaturity (NMI), and physical NMI markers can be reduced by implementing a developmental movement programme either at home (individual) or at school (class-based)

Analysing children’s scores on the development questionnaire reveals many children experiencing later learning difficulties – eg regarding early motor or language development. Assessment results indicate a consistent pattern of immature motor skills, eye movements and visual-perceptual skills that can interfere with performance.

That these skills develop in early childhood, and respond to physical remediation helping children to replicate movements they should have made when specific neuromotor connections were being formed, led me to ask: (1) What naturally occurs in early childhood facilitating development of these skills?; (2) Why is physical development important?; (3) What’s the best environment for developing these skills?; and (4) What do children really need?

Can you comment on the trends in modern lifestyles that you deem responsible for these developmental difficulties?

The apparent increase is probably multifactorial. Biological factors might include trends in pre-conceptual health, age of both parents and manner of conception (e.g. increasing use of assisted-fertility techniques); premature, post-mature or multiple births and events surrounding birth.

Socio-environmental factors probably include changes in early child-rearing practices, eg over-reliance on baby equipment/gadgetry at the expense of free time and space to move and play; substitution of social engagement with electronic devices which entertain, but are pre-programmed and do not provide a flexible response to the child’s involvement; lack of conversation and increasingly sedentary indoor lifestyles.

Can reputable empirical research be conducted on the relative importance of these factors? And what can parents do about these difficulties?

Tapping into a large-scale longitudinal research project such as the Millennium Project would be one option, with its extensive database on children born in 2000. Analysis of developmental history compared to SATS results might yield interesting results.

Parents can be helped to make choices by understanding the physical-development process, how it lays foundations for life, and the differences between real and virtual experience.

Are parents receptive to acknowledging problems with modern technology, and to making lifestyle changes, Sally? And what are the core themes of your new book, Raising Healthy Happy Children?

Some are. But it’s increasingly difficult, as new generations experience e-technology as a way of life versus a tool for life.

Raising Happy Healthy Children explains children’s development from the biological perspective of what children need to grow up into healthy, happy adults. It doesn’t offer advice, but leads readers into understanding stages of development – what’s important, and why.

It also acknowledges there to be many different ways of raising children, and aims to help parents, carers and educators make informed choices about what’s best.

Richard House is an early years campaigner. Sally Goddard-Blythe is Director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester. Raising Happy Healthy Children is published by Hawthorn Press.

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