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  • Emily Prentice

A New Look at Academics Achievement: Why So Many Children Struggle in School

Parents bring their children in to see me for many different reasons. Some kids are struggling with emotion regulation or sensory sensitivities, other children are clumsy and awkward in social situations, and many are falling behind academically. Today, I want to focus on the children who are struggling with academics and some of the most common things that I see that contribute to academic underachievement.

Before I talk about some common underlying causes, I want try to get you to think about academic achievement a little differently. No parent is going to be concerned that their 1 year old cannot write. Most infants this age have barely begun to talk; their brain and body are not equipped for more advanced functions like writing.

Once a child reaches school age this expectation begins to shift. Their brains and bodies have

had years to mature and academic performance is a natural step. The problem with this, is that this expectation is based on a child’s age not their actual developmental level. Despite being school age, many of the children that I see have brain and body systems that function at a much lower developmental level. Most of the time, their brain stem function is similar to that of a young infant. It should not be surprising when these children struggle in school.

This lack of understanding leads to a big gap in knowing how to address the problem. The most common solution is to focus on the problem itself rather than the underlying immaturities. Parents, teachers, and therapists focus heavily on trying to improve reading and writing skills rather than identifying whether or not these skills are even developmentally appropriate.

When children come in to see me I take them through a diagnostic assessment that looks at brain and body function. I look at their reflexes, vestibular system, vision, balance and coordination, body control, and much more. All of these things are extremely important for academic success. They provide the solid foundation on which academic achievement is built. Here are a few examples of how immaturity in these areas can affect academics:

An Immature Vestibular System

Your vestibular system processes sensory information about motion and spatial orientation. It helps you stay balanced and it tells you where you are in space. It works closely with your visual system and your proprioceptive system (located in your muscles and joints that tells you where your body is) to ensure that you are aware and in control of your body. Dysfunction in this system can affect a child’s visual and body awareness and control. They often have a hard time with spatial orientation and visual-motor integration. One young girl who came to see me struggled to align her writing on the left side of her page. After a little bit of vestibular work, she started aligning her writing automatically. Problems with the vestibular system can affect more than just writing alignment. It can affect their ability to distinguish letters clearly, to follow a line of print, to tune out irrelevant information, to maintain good posture, and much more.

An Immature Visual System

When most people think about vision they think about visual acuity, how sharp your vision is and how clearly you can see things; but visual acuity is only one important part of vision. By the time a child is in school, they should have good control over their eye movements. They should be able to focus their vision clearly on a word or symbol. They should be able to clearly track a line of print, and they should be able to coordinate their body and eye movements so that everything works together smoothly. Most of the children I see struggle with one or more of these tasks. Often times children have great visual acuity but are unable to track a moving object. Others are able to track something easily until they are asked to coordinate that tracking with body movements. These visual skills are extremely important for academic success. They are skills that should be working automatically. Children should not have to think about how to control their eyes or how to refocus them on their task. The eyes should do this automatically. I see many, extremely bright children whose academic achievement does not match their intellectual level. They use up a lot of their brain power trying to control parts of their body that should be functioning automatically.

A Retained Asymmetric Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)

The ATNR is a reflex that develops in the womb. It helps babies during the birth process and during their first few months after birth. When their head turns to either side, the limbs on that side extend and the limbs on the opposite side flex. This helps keep the baby’s airway clear and it helps develop some early visual skills. Children with a retained ATNR often struggle with reading and writing. During these tasks children have to either accommodate this reflex (by adjusting their posture) or try to control this reflex (by continuously trying to cognitively override these responses, or armoring their muscles). This negatively impacts their ability to understand the information they are reading and many children are simply unable to coordinate their hands and their eyes at the same time.

A Retained Moro Reflex

The Moro reflex causes more problems than any other retained reflex. It is a huge contributor to problems with emotion regulation, sensory sensitivities, anxiety, hyperactivity, attention, and much more. It also impacts academic performance in some very specific ways. The Moro is the infant startle reflex. It is the early fight-or-flight response. During infancy it helps keep baby alive by priming their nervous system and alerting their caregiver to possible danger. It is very sensitive to any sudden changes in the environment or body position. Children with a retained Moro are much more sensitive to changes in the environment and their physiological reactions to these changes are much stronger. They live in a world of heightened arousal. This can make it very difficult for them to focus their attention on tasks like school. Their attention is often being drawn to anything that might trigger this reflex. This can have a huge impact on their academic success.

These are just a few things that can impact a child’s success with academics. If this sounds like your child, then we can help. Visit our website at and fill out a screening questionnaire.

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