Core Learning Skills Training (CLS) Overview
What is Core Learning Skills Training?
Core Learning Skills training involves a series of exercises that are done daily to help make neurological connections in the brain that are critical to comfortable learning and functioning. CLS exercises help integrate primitive survival reflexes and improve interpretation of sensory input, body and attention awareness and control, visual and motor skills, physical and mental organization, and learning efficiency.
Infants have reflex movement patterns that are critical to their survival and provide the springboard for the development of visual and motor skills, regulation, internal organization, attention, and mental and emotional control.
Primitive reflexes integrate (become inactive) in infancy or early childhood as the brain becomes more organized and higher levels of the brain take over. Retention of any of these early reflexes can cause interference in the normal development process, resulting in immature movement patterns and generalized learning and attention difficulties.
Core Learning Skills training helps eliminate the interference caused by primitive reflexes and under-developed visual and motor skills. It is a series of physical balance and movement activities that improve visual skills, internal organization, coordination, self-awareness, self-control, and attention. Core Learning Skills Training uses sound therapy and rhythm activities to help the student gain a sense of reference point and an understanding of space and time, which are so critical for developing attention, self-control, and organization skills.
Core Learning Skills training is targeted specifically to individual student needs through 6 different protocol emphases including:
- Struggling Students / Learning Disability
- Dyslexia / Visual Skills
- Attention Focus / Speed control / Regulation and Self-Control
- Dysgraphia / Fine Motor
- Body Awareness and Regulation
- Executive Function / Mental Flexibility
Why is Core Learning Skills Training Important?
John Ratey, M.D., author of A User’s Guide to the Brain says, “Mounting evidence shows that movement is crucial to every other brain function, including memory, emotion, language and learning. Our ‘higher’ brain functions have evolved from movement and still depend on it.”
Learning gets its jump-start through the involuntary movements caused by the primitive survival reflexes babies are born with. There is a normal progression of movement activity that helps a child understand himself and accurately perceive and navigate his world. Interference, for whatever reason, to this normal development through movement can impact a child’s attention, learning, interaction, and comfort in the world. We call these foundational movement patterns and skills Core Learning Skills.
Retraining core learning skills can help learners of any age develop higher brain functions and mental control through movement.
How Does It Work?
CLS exercises are done daily (minimum 5 days a week), usually as a combined clinic and home program.
In Core Learning Skills training, the aim is not to get the movement “right.” We are not training a set of “normal” movements into the child. We are using movements to develop learning. Learning involves thinking, comparing, evaluating, planning, visualizing, adjusting, and ultimately finding the most effective ways to do things. We are not interested in training in a “splinter” skill that a student can execute but not apply. We are looking to build mental flexibility. “If I have learned something in one way, can I now do it in a different way? Can I choose to do it faster or slower? Can I do it if I start on a different foot? Can I do the pattern backwards or from a different starting point?”
Children with learning and attention challenges are often very inflexible. They are disrupted by any change in routine. They have only one way of doing things because they do not have the physical and mental flexibility to feel secure trying something in a different way. The mental flexibility and adaptability needed for ease in learning, social relationships, and general functioning begins at the core learning skills level.
We are working towards students doing the activities in Core Learning Skills Training effortlessly, independently, and with flexibility. If we ask them to start in a different place, use a different foot, try a new pattern, go at a different speed, etc., they will be willing and able to do so without anxiety if the movements are becoming internalized and automatic. These are the hidden building blocks of learning.
Training through Questioning
Integrating reflexes and training the brain, motor, and visual systems for better control and learning involves using the frontal lobes of the brain, or the higher thinking, to shutdown the automatic motor pattern so the person can try a different way. This takes attention, awareness, visualization, and planning.
The therapist or parent’s job in this process is to guide the student in making the movements and then, through questioning, help him to become aware of how his body is working and what adjustments he might want to make. We use questions to direct students’ attention to specific parts of the body and help them become aware of how the movement felt, and how they could change it to gain more ease, flow, and control.
This kind of questioning is much more effective than telling because it engages the child’s conscious awareness and decision-making.
Core Learning Skills Curriculum
Core Learning Skills Training consists of twelve Core Skill Areas, each of which has a number of different, sequential activities designed to integrate reflexes, build body awareness and control, increase attention and concentration, and develop visual skills and internal organization needed for learning.
Reflex integration activities provide the cornerstone for the training. CLS training focuses on seven reflexes that have a direct impact on skills needed for functioning in the classroom. At least one reflex integration activity should be included in every clinic and home session. Each reflex should be worked on until testing shows that it is no longer active and training activities are executed with ease, flow, and independence.
Core Skills Areas:
- Rhythm and Timing
- Relaxation and Calming
- Differentiation and Body Awareness
- Reflex Integration
- Vestibular Stimulation
- Balance and Body Control
- Energy Boosters
- Visual Skills Development
- Laterality and Flexibility
- Bilateral Movement
- Graphomotor Skills
Each Core Skill Area contains sequenced activities that increase in complexity. Students in Core Learning Skills training will work in a number of skill areas daily for approximately 30 – 60 minutes.
Explanation of Primitive Reflexes
Primitive reflexes are at the very foundation of normal human growth and development. They are the building blocks that stimulate and support higher-level body and brain organization.
Natural development starts with reflex movements – automatic, involuntary reactions to stimuli such as sound, touch, or movement – and transitions, as the brain and muscles mature, to intentional movements. A shift in focus on external influences to internal awareness facilitates self-regulation and development of physical, intellectual, emotional, and cognitive processes. Development and learning move from involuntary (non-intentional) processes to voluntary, intentional, controlled processes.
Reflexes that continue to fire when they are not needed cause interference to development, often resulting in challenges with one or more of the following:
- Mental, emotional, and/or physical flexibility
- Organization in time and space
- Emotional control
- Stamina and energy
- Visual-motor skills
- Language and learning
The Moro Reflex acts as a baby’s primitive fight or flight reaction. It is a survival mechanism that helps initiate breathing at birth and which occurs as a reaction to potential danger, such as sudden change of head position, a loud sound, a frightening visual stimulus, or an unpleasant touch.
The baby’s Moro reaction is characterized by first taking a deep breath and stretching the arms and legs out away from the body, head back; then pulling the arms and legs into the middle of the body and starting to cry.
The Moro is fully present at 30 weeks in utero. Absence of the Moro in newborns is abnormal as is its continued presence after 4 months of post-natal life. The Moro reflex is replaced by an adult “startle” reflex. If it persists in the older child, it can be associated with:
- Poor impulse control
- Stimulus bound effect (cannot ignore peripheral stimuli to focus attention on one thing – has to pay attention to everything)
- Sensory overload
- Anxiety (particularly anticipation anxiety)
- Labile emotions
- Temper tantrums
- Emotional and social immaturity
- Poor balance and coordination
- Visual motor processing problems (inability to fixate, excessive blinking and maintaining eye contact)
- Biochemical and nutritional imbalances
- Higher incidence of ear and throat infections leading to weakened immune system and allergies
- Fatigue and mood swings
- Motion sickness
The Moro reflex triggers a fight or flight reaction, causing the child to go into his survival mode. He may react either with paralysis or temper tantrums when stressed.
When children (or adults) have a retained Moro, they tend to operate in a heightened state. This causes intense chemical reactions in the body. The constant secretion of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline put stress on the immune system, often resulting in allergies and upper respiratory infections and illnesses.
When the Moro reflex is present, it can be difficult to inhibit other active reflexes.
The Spinal Galant Reflex
The Spinal Galant reflex occurs at twenty weeks in utero and integrates between 3 – 9 months of age. When the baby’s skin is touched on either side of the lower spine, the hips will flex towards that side. This reflex helps with the birthing process and allows the fetus to hear and feel vibration in utero by pushing its spine up against the mother’s. It is important in the development of auditory processing.
If it is retained beyond nine months, the Spinal Galant can interfere with bladder control, causing bedwetting beyond age five. Children with this reflex often don’t like tight fitting clothing around their waist, and when they have to sit in a chair, they are likely to fidget and squirm and wiggle. It is very difficult to sit still when you have a reflex causing your hips to flex every time you lean against the back of your chair. This reflex is always competing with the child’s attention and short-term memory because the child is distracted by the need to be in a constant state of motion.
Retained Spinal Galant Reflex affects:
- Ability to sit still (fidgety, squirmy, wiggly)
- Short-term memory
- Speech and spelling difficulties
- Gross and fine motor skills
- Bladder control leading to bedwetting beyond the age of 5
- Can contribute to the development of scoliosis (curvature) of the spine
- Some studies suggest if this reflex remains uninhibited in adults, it may cause irritable bowel syndrome
- Dislike of clothing fitting tightly around the waist
- Difficulty reading
- Near focusing problems
- Hypersensitivity to touch
The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR)
The ATNR is activated as a result of turning the head to one side. As the head is turned, the arm and leg on the same side will extend while the opposite limbs bend. This pattern helps develop the muscle tone and vestibular system. This reflex is needed at birth so that the fetus can help “unscrew” itself from the birth canal. This twisting movement is the first experience of the infant to understand coordinating both sides of the body together. This is why children taken by Cesarean Section are at a higher risk for developmental delay. Without experiencing this twisting action, they do not get the necessary bilateral integration needed for developing later skills.
ATNR helps develop hand-eye coordination, as well as visual and auditory processing. Learning difficulties often result from retained ATNR.
The reflex should be inhibited by 6 months of age. If the ATNR remains active in a child at a later age, it can affect or cause:
- Hand-eye coordination – difficulties such as ability to control the arm and hand when writing, throwing, and catching
- Binocular vision – the ability for the eyes to work together as a team. Difficulties may result in blurring, double vision, rubbing and redness of eyes.
- Ability to cross the vertical midline for reading and writing (a right-handed child may find it hard to write on the left side of the page)
- Discrepancy between oral and written performance (poor handwriting and difficulty expressing ideas on paper); dysgraphia
- Development of lateral eye movements such as visual tracking necessary for reading and writing
- Dyslexia, reading, spelling, and grammar
- Dyscalculia (Math)
- Control of automatic balance; Loses balance and bumps into objects while walking or running
- Bilateral integration (differentiated and integrated use of the two sides of the body)
- Dropping objects when head turns
- Messy eater
- Impatience; childish behavior; selfishness
Babkin Palmomental Reflex
The Babkin palmomental reflex stimulates hand-to-mouth behavior including eating skills such as sucking, swallowing, biting, and chewing. It also supports speech development. This reflex emerges at 9 weeks in utero and integrates at about four months after birth.
Pressing the Thenar eminences (located just below the thumb on the palm of the hand) will cause a baby lying on it’s back to open its mouth and bend its head forward. Activating just one palm will cause the baby to turn its head to that side. This reflex helps the baby to nurse and to explore the body’s middle and sides. The hand-mouth connection allows the baby to explore objects (by putting them in its mouth), increases awareness of the surrounding world, and helps in the development of speech.
Retained Babkin Palmomental Reflex may lead to:
- Food allergies and eccentricities (messy eating; using hands instead of utensils; using food for comfort)
- Clenched fists
- Thumb sucking; nail biting
- Difficulty with handwriting, tying shoes, buttoning and zipping
- Gross and fine motor difficulties (dancing, writing)
- Involuntary movement of tongue and mouth while reading or writing
- Biting, pinching, or neurotic tendencies
Hands Grasping Reflex
The hands grasping reflex emerges at 11 weeks in utero and is strongly active for the first 12 weeks after birth. When a finger is placed lightly across the palm of a newborn baby’s hand, the baby’s fingers will close tightly around it. If you pull up, the baby’s arms will stretch out. This reflex is important in developing hand-eye coordination, binocular vision, cooperation between the hemispheres, speech, communication, and fine and gross motor skills. It should be fully integrated by the end of the first year of life.
If the Grasping reflex does not integrate as expected, it may cause difficulties with:
- Handwriting and fine motor control with hands
- Unusual or poor pencil grip
- Tension in the shoulders making writing difficult
The Symmetric Tonic Neck Reflex (STNR)
The Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex emerges at six to nine months of age and should integrate by nine to eleven months. When the baby is in a position of being on all fours, bending of the legs (sitting on heels) will cause the head to come up and arms to straighten. When the arms bend, head will go down and the bottom will come up as the legs begin to straighten. This rocking motion helps the baby to get on hands and knees in order to crawl and helps develop near to far vision. As the head comes down his eyes focus to near distance and as the head is brought back up, the eyes adjust to far distance.
This reflex helps the infant learn to rise on hands and knees in order to creep and crawl. Creeping and crawling are essential for visual development. In fact, creeping is one of most important movement patterns for helping the eyes move across the midline (vertical center line) of the body. As the infant moves from one hand to another, the eyes also move from one side to the other. This is very important visual training for reading.
A retained STNR is highly correlated to learning challenges. Without the ability to move the eyes easily across midline, the child will lose his place often when reading, and lose his attention as he crosses the page when writing. The focusing distance from the eyes to the hands and the eye-hand coordination skills used for creeping and crawling are at the same distance that will eventually be used for reading and writing.
If the STNR remains active in an older child, it can cause or affect:
- Integration of upper and lower portions of the body (creeping, crawling and swimming)
- Sitting posture (tendency to slump when sitting at a desk or a table)
- Poorly developed muscle tone (causing “clumsiness”)
- Poor hand-eye coordination; poor writing
- Attention, concentration, short-term memory
- Poor visual development (difficulty copying from the board)
- Poor attention to work; decrease quality and quantity
- Difficulties with reading and learning
- Difficulties with shifting focus from near to far and back to near; slow copying
- Wandering around classroom
- Messy eater
The Tonic Labyrinth Reflex (TLR)
The TLR is important for developing correct head alignment, balance, visual tracking, auditory processing, and muscle tone.
When the baby’s head goes forward, his legs and arms bend and come in toward his body. When the head goes back, the baby’s arms and legs and arms straighten. This reflex helps the newborn straighten out at birth and begins to train balance, muscle tone, and proprioception, or the ability to know the position of different body parts.
The TLR forward (flexion) emerges at 3 – 4 months in utero and should integrate at approximately 3 – 4 months of age. The TLR backward (extension) emerges at birth and integrates at 3 – 4 months to 3 ½ years of age.
If this reflex does not integrate when it should, it gets in the way of developing gravitational security. The child may literally and figuratively feel a little off-balance much of the time because his center of balance is thrown off every time his head moves. He doesn’t develop a strong sense of himself as the reference point from which to view the world. He never gets a secure sense of where he is in space, which can affect his sense of direction and understanding of up/down, left/right, and front/back. Interestingly, astronauts in a gravity-free environment (where there is no secure reference point) will show some of the same symptoms that learners with poor reference point do: writing from right to left, reversing letters and numbers, and producing mirror writing.
Characteristics of Retained Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex:
- Weak or tense muscle tone
- Motion sickness
- Difficulty crossing the midline of body
- Mixed right/left dominance
- Difficulty climbing
- Fatigue, poor stamina
- Poor posture
- Late walker
- Difficulty walking up and down stairs or on uneven ground
- Stiff, jerky movements
- Difficulty judging space, direction, distance, velocity
- Out of touch with feelings
- Difficulty learning from past mistakes
- Poor auditory processing
- Attention challenges
- Poor reading comprehension
- Visual disorientation / poor visual spatial perception
- Disorganized, forgetful, lose track of time
- Poor sequencing
- Challenges with language skills
- General lack of alertness
Educational Challenges Related to Retained Reflexes
Easily distracted; difficulty focusing on details; difficulty copying from board; allergies and chronic illness. Panic attacks; mood swings; anxiety; fearfulness. Unexpected changes in behavior; aggressive outbursts.
Difficulty with fine motor skills (handwriting); dislike of physical education due to coordination difficulties; making noise to relieve pent-up energy; prefers to do homework or watch TV on floor; ADHD or ADD; speech disorders or spelling difficulties; auditory processing issues; poor concentration and short term memory.
High distractibility; delayed long distance and binocular vision (causes print to jump around); omission of letters, words, or whole lines; reversal of letters and numbers; difficulty crossing midline; hard to read small print; spelling & grammar difficulties; Dyslexia; reading comprehension; impaired handwriting; tight grip on pencil; writing at angle across page; persistence in drawing a circle clockwise and with 8s; dysgraphia; dyscalculia; dominant hand/eye/leg/ear not established; difficulty in following multiple instructions; poor memory.
Clenched fists indication of tension; nail biting; difficulty with fine motor skills and gross motor skills; involuntary movements of mouth & tongue while reading; poor handwriting.
Speech disorders; stuttering; moving mouth while writing or drawing; involuntary hand movements when speaking; holds pencil too tight; shoulder tension; difficulty expressing ideas on paper due to excessive focus on handwriting.
Wrapping legs around chair legs, or sitting on one’s legs; may sit in W position; poor impulse control; poor attention and concentration; difficulty changing focus from near to far and vertical eye tracking; reading difficulties especially while seated; poor handwriting; poor short term memory; fidgeting; poor attention to work; wandering around the classroom.
Difficulty with auditory processing (verbal directions); difficulty blocking out irrelevant signals; ADD/ADHD; reading difficulty (comprehension and letter reversals); cross-eyed tendency; difficulty copying from board; losing track of time; disorganized and forgetful; poor short-term memory; poor sequencing skills (ordering speech, spelling; composition & building of concepts); poor alignment skills (math columns); poor language skills; speech disorders; general lack of alertness.
Explanation of Core Skill Areas
Activities in each of these Core skills Areas start simply, are specifically sequenced, and build in complexity and demand on attention, body awareness, and mental control.
Rhythm and Timing
Timing is inherent in everything! Repetitive, rhythmic movement is calming, regulating, and organizing. These activities help improve and internalize rhythm and timing, which ultimately impacts total functioning including (to name a few) verbal and reading fluency, coordination, social skills, organization, planning, sports, dancing, learning, being on time, and being in synch with the world and others.
Relaxation and Calming
Relaxation and calming activities build an awareness of what it feels like to relax, a first step in consciously controlling stress, anxiety, and focus. Activities stimulate:
- Proper proprioceptive sensory integration (accurately perceiving information from the joints and limbs)
- Parasympathetic nerves, which help pull child out of “fight or flight” into a calmer state
- The stapedius muscle in the middle ear, whose job it is to decrease sensitivity to noise
- Ability to rest and refresh eyes and mind
- Oxygen to the brain, which improves thinking and encourages muscles to relax as they are flooded with oxygen rich blood.
- Ability to reduce anxiety and control stress
- Calmer, clearer state for thinking, learning, emotional balance, and decision-making.
- Self-monitoring and control of stress reactions to support clearer thinking for learning, relationships, and problem solving
Children with apraxia and severe challenges with body awareness and control may not be able to locate, isolate, and move specific parts of their body without a great deal of conscious effort or help. This greatly impacts self control and the ability to coordinate sequences of movements needed for general ease of functioning. For example, throwing a ball involves using the shoulder, elbow, and wrist in a fluent, coordinated sequence. A child who has not differentiated his shoulder, elbow, and wrist, may throw with his whole arm in a wild, jerky motion.
Differentiation activities include isolated movements and control of:
- Arms, elbows, wrists, hands, fingers
- Legs, knees, ankles, feet, toes
- Hips, waist, tummy, back, sides
Energy Boosters activate energy, attention, and oxygen to the brain for alertness and thinking. They help students develop increased awareness of their own energy and focus needs and can be used as “Brain Breaks” in classrooms and during homework to help to students get started, transition from one activity to another, or re-energize while working.
The vestibular system contributes to sense of balance by providing information about motion, equilibrium, and spatial orientation. The vestibular system is housed in the middle ear.
Vestibular Stimulation activities
- Activate the vestibular system with fast and slow movements
- Increase awareness of movement with eyes closed
- Increase connection between the vestibular system and the eyes
- Connect the vestibular system with information from all parts of the body.
- Coordinate information about pressure, speed, and distance with the vestibular system
- Improve balance
- Improve attention awareness and control
Balance, and Body Control
Physical balance is the foundation for attention and mental control. To be truly balanced, the body must be relaxed and centered.
Control of balance and attention requires the ability first to keep the eyes focused on and maintain attention on an external object or anchor with eyes open; then internally with eyes closed.
Control of balance and attention is more difficult with reduced motion. Balance without movement requires maximum mind body control. Therefore, arms and body movements should be at a minimum for good mind body control
In the balance and body control activities, the student be aware of his stomach muscles as a way to feel his center.
Visual Skills Development
Strong visual skills are essential to comfortable and efficient learning. Development of visual skills is integrated throughout Core Learning Skills activities beginning with reflex integration activities. The eyes provide the anchor for balancing activities and the “steering wheel” for movement activities. Finer levels of visual control are worked on specifically to help the eyes work efficiently together and build the visual skills needed for reading and academic work.
The Visual Skills Development activities specifically:
- Help the eyes begin to react correctly to light and reduce light sensitivity.
- Improve critical skills for reading and learning – crossing the midline, hemispheric integration, auditory and visual synchrony, sense of timing, impulse control, sequencing, and reading comprehension, and vision development
- Help with balance and centering
- Improve eye-hand coordination
- Develop integration of thinking, fine motor control, eye-hand coordination, central and peripheral vision, visual thinking, visual memory, visual tracking, and visual-motor planning.
- Encourage visual control and coordination between the eyes.
- Increase concentration
Laterality and Flexibility
Laterality is an internal understanding of right and left. Laterality and Flexibility activities are designed to bring internal sense of right and left to an automatic level and increase:
- Control of the body and speed
- The physical and mental flexibility to shift gears and try a new pattern
- Ability to easily work on both sides of the body and label left and right
- Coordinate movements of upper and lower body and across the midline.
Bilateral movement activities help students to coordinate the right and left sides of their body. Children who are clumsy and poor at sports often have challenges in this area. Through the training activities, students learn to intentionally use their limbs to move homolaterally, or one side at a time, and bilaterally, using opposite sides together.
This builds internal awareness of what it feels like to move awkwardly with homolateral movements, or smoothly in coordinated bilateral movements, while also building the mental flexibility to shift from one to another.
Fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, and handwriting fluency are improved through the WriteBrain exercises.
Jeanette Farmer’s WriteBrain program uses a series of handwriting-type activities and music recorded at 60 beats per minute to stimulate the brain for learning. This program helps students to develop fluency and stamina in their graphomotor (writing) skills, attention, and integration. It helps develop calm, focused readiness for learning.
Handwriting has a physiological and psychological link in the brain that impacts integration, attention, fluency, and learning. With a built-in capacity to regulate the emotional energy flow, this repetitive, multisensory stimulation impacts the emotional brain to reduce anxiety, increase motivation, and gain impulse control.
Research has shown that aerobic exercise is highly effective in decreasing hyperactivity and increasing memory, attention, concentration, mood, and thinking. The connection is increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Aerobic activity at least three to four times a week, but preferably everyday is not only an important part of Core Learning Skills training, but valuable to people of all ages for general health and well-being.
Childhood activities such as running, jumping, riding bikes, jump rope, and climbing are good aerobic activities. Core Learning Skills training includes activities that are both aerobic and integrating.