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  • Emily Prentice

Understanding Your Struggling Child

“I know my child is smart, he can remember everything he has ever heard about dinosaurs, but he is falling behind in every subject in school”.

“My daughter gets overwhelmed and frustrated with seemingly unimportant things. When she gets in one of her moods nothing I say can bring her out of it. It is like she has zero tolerance for any frustration”

“My son has never been diagnosed with anything but I know that something is wrong. Things are so much harder for him than other kids. I want to help him but I don’t know what to do.”

I hear things like this from frustrated parents every week. Their child is struggling and they are desperately searching for some way to help. For many parents this is a journey that has been going on for years. They come to see me after trying tutoring, medication, occupational therapy, vision therapy, sensory integration, and more. Other families are just beginning this process. They know that their child needs something, but they don’t know where to start. Regardless of where they are in the process I have found that families are consistently looking for answers to two questions: why is my child struggling and what can I do to help them?

In order to begin answering these two questions it is important for parents to understand how the brain and body should be working. By the time a child is 4 or 5, they should have several highly complex brain and body systems that work together to help them function. These systems provide them with the information and control that they need to regulate their emotions and to function in school. When these systems are not working properly, children do not have the tools they need to succeed in school and develop emotional maturity. In order to understand why a child is struggling it is important to understand how their brain and body are working.

Let’s look at school as an example. In order for a child to succeed in school they need several things:

1. They need a mature visual system.

This allows their eyes to track and understand written information. Many of the kids that I see are unable to follow a line of print without their eyes jumping or losing focus. It is unrealistic to expect a child to succeed in school when their visual system is not functioning properly.

2. They need a mature vestibular system.

Your vestibular system tells you where you are in space. It helps you maintain balance and is crucial for understanding direction and body awareness. It plays a HUGE role in giving children stable perception of themselves and their environment. Your vestibular system helps you understand left vs right and also gives you a solid understanding of directionality. This is important for understanding written letters and numbers. It is also important for body awareness and internal security. Children with vestibular problems often struggle with poor emotion regulation.

3. They need a mature postural system.

Your postural system gives you control over your body. It may seem simple, but the ability to stay still (for example to stay seated at a desk during school) is actually a fairly advanced skill. This ability develops as children gain a mature postural system.

4. They need a mature sensory system.

We live in a world with lots of sensory information (lights, noises, and movements for example). Most of this information passes around us without alerting out attention. Our brains work to tune out irrelevant information so that we can focus our attention when and where we choose. Many of the children that I work with are unable to do this effectively. This has a big impact on their ability to function in school and even on their emotional well being.

These are just a few examples of how the brain and body work together to help us function. Any time a child is struggling with something like school, emotion regulation, attention, even social skills, the first thing you should ask is, “Does this child have the tools they need to succeed?” For many children, the problem lies deeper than their symptoms. They are working with dysfunctional brain and body systems that prevent them from being able to function typically.

When children come in to see me I look at how these systems are functioning. Once we know what is going on we can create an individualized treatment plan that targets each child’s specific needs. We always start at the lowest point of dysfunction and work our way up. This follows the natural process of development and helps ensure that we are targeting the root problem and not just the symptoms. Working in this way enables us to create actual changes in the way the brain and body function and gives children the tools they need to function.

Here are some of the things that parents have told me about changes they have witnessed in their children (they have been adapted to avoid personal information).

“Yesterday we went to Walmart and my son didn’t have a single meltdown. I started thinking about it and realized that he hadn’t had a meltdown in weeks!”

“We added math back into our curriculum this week. My son had struggled with basic math concepts for years and all of a sudden it just clicked. He has always hated math and it has taken a big toll on his self-esteem. Today he was so proud of himself!”

“Yesterday we went to a restaurant and my daughter ordered her own food. She made eye contact with the waitress and even answered her questions. That has never happened before!”

Visit our website at to learn more about how we may be able to help your child.

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