Sleep is Key to Learning

Here’s an interesting bit of research about the importance of sleep for learning. There is a growing body of research which shows that sleep is essential to human learning although no-one really knows specifically why this is the case. The University of Sheffield recently published the results of their latest study on the topic of sleep and learning which focused on babies of around 12months old. They found that the babies in the study were much more likely to learn a new skill if they had a nap soon after their first attempt at it. Clearly this has many implications for how we work with our children and teach them new things. For one, it really underlines the importance of doing things like reading (or indeed your child’s speech therapy homework!) just before bedtime.

Quite rightly, the researchers were keen to point out that their finding was that sleep soon after learning is constructive for learning new skills. No-one is saying that you should learn new things when you are tired, more that ‘sleeping on it’ may be more helpful than we might first assume.

You can find the full article on the BBC website by clicking on the following link: Regular naps are ‘key to learning’ and now I’m off to consolidate my learning….

Isla doing some on the job learning!

Isla takes time out to do some ‘on the job learning’!

New Study Suggests that Music Training Supports Self Organisation!

I came across an interesting new piece of research into the benefits of musical training the other day on a music teacher Isla's Guitarfriend’s website – click here to see the article. This functional MRI study suggests that there is a link between early music training and improved executive functioning in both adults and children. So what does that really mean?! Read on to find out…

What is Executive Function?

Basically, Executive Function is the brain’s system for planning stuff, controlling inhibitions, thinking flexibly and generating new ideas. I like to think about it as a wee ‘executive’ guy in a pin stripe suit who sits in the front of your brain organising things. Executive function allows you to do 4 key things:

  • Plan stuff – for example, planning ahead for a PE lesson and organising all the things you need to pack into your bag the night before, planning a shopping list or planning an essay.
  • Transfer your attention between tasks – so that you can finish one task then switch your attention on to the next task which might be totally different from the first.
  • Inhibit inappropriate impulses – Executive function is what stops you from reading a text that makes your phone vibrate in the middle of a conversation with your mother in law. It also stops you doing things like pointing out the massive spot on the end of your friend’s nose or telling your teacher that her new haircut looks like someone put a bowl on her head and cut round it with their eyes closed!
  • Be creative - for example coming up with a new recipe idea, thinking of a fun day out for your friends or writing a song.

Who has difficulty with Executive Function?

Probably the biggest groups of people who typically have issues with weak executive function throughout their lives are those who have a diagnosis of Autism (ASD), Asperger’s Syndrome and/or ADHD. Other groups are also affected though,for example, those with head injuries or degenerative brain conditions. Even without a specific diagnosis, you can still have weak executive function.

What Does the Boston study say about Music Training and Executive Functioning?

First and foremost, no-one is saying that if you get your autistic child into music training they will be cured of all problems relating to executive function! Do not misunderstand this as yet another ‘miracle cure’! What the researchers found is that adult musicians and musically trained children got better scores on tests of executive function than a non-musically trained control group. The researchers carried out functional MRI scans (also called fMRI – click here to learn more) on musically trained children & controls while they completed a test of executive function skills. The scans showed more activity in the brain areas associated with executive function in the group of musically trained children than in the brains of the non-musically trained control group.

While this study does show evidence of better executive function in musically trained people, it does not establish whether the improved skills are definitely due to the musical training OR whether people with better executive functioning are simply drawn to learning music. More investigation is required to clear this up! Whatever the outcome of this line of research, the benefits of music training for a whole range of cognitive skills, including language development, are well documented. So expose your child to music when you can. If they are interested in learning to play something, let them have a go. erhaps pay a visit to my friends at Morningside School of Music for some lessons. Apart from anything else, MUSIC IS FUN!

A Further Note to Music & Communication Development!

Back in May 2013, I posted an article called Music & Communication Development which talked about the many benefits of learning with music. I was therefore very interested to read on the BBC website about some recent research which found a link between strong rhythmical ability and better language learning & literacy skills in teenagers. Click here to go to the article. Whilst I couldn’t necessarily see a causal link in the information presented on the BBC website, there certainly seems to be a strong correlation between performance on a rhythm tapping task and reading skills. Children who were better at the rhythm task were the best readers and those who struggled were the weaker readers.

As a speech & language therapist, this doesn’t really surprise but it is nice to see some concrete evidence of a hunch. Spoken language is just a continuous stream of sounds – imagine the last time you listened to someone speaking a language you don’t know. I’ll bet you couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. To be able to read and write our language down successfully, we need to break that continuous stream of sounds into words, syllable and individual sounds. How do we do that? Largely by using the rhythms generated by the stress and intonation patters of our first language to help us guess where the word & syllable boundaries are. It’s therefore no great surprise that enhanced rhythm awareness is helpful!

MMR and Autism

In light of the recent measles outbreak in Wales, I feel compelled to post an article on the subject of the MMR vaccine and autism. The first and most important thing to note here is that there is NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE of any link between the combined MMR vaccine and autism. Please do take the advice of your local health board and make sure you have your child vaccinated. Measles is a serious disease with a high risk of nasty complications many of which are life changing (for example, deafness) or life threatening (for example, meningitis). No-one wants this for their child.

The reason that vaccination rates dropped dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s is a small and now thoroughly discredited study by Dr Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues which resulted in a media frenzy around the suggestion that there may be a causal link between the combined MMR vaccine and autism. The key things to note about this study are:

  • It was a fundamentally flawed piece of work with a tiny research group of 12 children.
  • It did not even set out to study the effects of the MMR vaccine, a possible link was merely implied in the discussion.
  • Most of the authors have now retracted their involvement in the study.

Since the Wakefield study was published, there have been a variety of very large, scientifically sound studies which have categorically shown that the MMR vaccine is not a primary cause of autism. Key points of these studies are:

  • The number of cases of autism with and without developmental regression have continued to rise in countries like Japan where the combined MMR vaccine has been withdrawn.
  • There was no sudden jump in the number of cases of autism diagnosed after the MMR vaccine was introduced in the UK in 1988. The rise is smooth and gradual.

Almost all researchers now agree that, while autism is certainly being diagnosed more frequently, its causes are complex and unlikely to be down to one single factor, even from a genetic perspective.

You can find more information about MMR & Autism on the website of the National Autistic Society.

Music and Communication Development

Music elicits some kind of response from most people whether that’s singing, humming, tapping or a full-on dance routine, and children are no different. Music stimulates the whole of the brain and is multi-sensory, fun and engaging. Because of this, music teaches children many, many skills without them even realising they’re learning.

Believe it or not, music and communication are closely linked and there are many skills that are common to both. There is now lots of research which supports the view that exposure to music from an early age is beneficial for communication development both in terms of spoken language and literacy skills.

That doesn’t mean you have to be a virtuoso or child prodigy to benefit! Music is a fundamental part of early communication, indeed almost all parents sing to their children from the day they are born. Most of us will be able to name at least one song our parents sang to us as a child whether it’s good old ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ or the Scottish classic ‘Ally Bally Bee’.

First, let’s think about some of the communication skills we learn through singing or being sung to as children:

  • Maintaining concentration – singing is very engaging and therefore easy to pay attention to for a long time.
  • Anticipating what’s coming next – music and songs lead the brain to expect or look for the next notes in the melody. Songs, especially nursery rhymes and the like, often have a predictable, repeating pattern of words and/or actions which makes it easy for a child to learn to anticipate what’s coming next as well as supporting maintenance of concentration.
  • Taking turns in communication by learning to listen and then respond within the song.
  • Using non verbal communication and eye contact – many children’s songs have accompanying actions which encourages the development of watching another person, copying them and co-ordinating gestures with spoken language.
  • Vocabulary development through repetition of words and use of rhyme.
  • Sentence development – hearing the same sentence structure over and over again is essential for learning to say new and longer sentences.
  • Phonological awareness – awareness of alliteration, rhyme, syllables and rhythms are essential skills for later learning to read and write as it supports the ability to break words down into sounds, work out what those sounds are and put them together again to make new words.
  • Sequencing – Like music, all language follows a sequence whether it’s the order of sounds in words, words in sentences or information in a story.

Experimenting with musical instruments and melodies is just as important as singing. Using a musical instrument adds extra sensory dimensions to the experience of music through the senses of touch, proprioception and vision. Like singing, playing music instruments and learning music supports many skills that underlie communication:

  • Concentration – listening to music and sound is fun and children will often manage to maintain concentration for longer to an activity if music is involved.
  • Listening – to sing the right words at the right pitch or to copy a tune or rhythm with an instrument, you need to listen carefully and discriminate between the sounds you hear.
  • Self expression and creativity – music is inherently creative and making up songs and melodies is a fun way to express yourself without necessarily using spoken words.
  • Memory – remembering tunes and rhythms exercises auditory memory which is essential for learning new vocabulary and language structures. When we hear new language, we need to hold what we hear in our auditory memories so that we can analyse it and commit it to long term memory.
  • Pitch awareness – intonation in spoken communication is made up of variations in pitch and different ‘tunes’ have different meanings. For example, a rising ‘tune’ in a sentence usually means that it is a question. Music helps to develop awareness of pitch variations.
  • Rhythm – like music, all spoken language has a rhythm to it. Within words, we have rhythms in the form of syllables and stress patterns. Sentences also have rhythm in their stress patterns. Being able to recognise and repeat rhythms is essential for natural communication. Being able to break sounds into smaller chunks using rhythm as we do with syllables, is essential for learning to read and spell. Music helps us to learn these skills.

There are many benefits of getting involved with music from an early age and I hope that this article gives you a flavour of the positive influence that music will have on your child’s development. But, first and foremost, MUSIC IS FUN! Sing with your children and have a look for music groups near you, for example Morningside School of Music run music classes specifically for pre-school children, give them a call on 0131 447 1117 to see what’s on. Enjoy!

New Assessment!

Well, I finally bit the bullet and shelled out for a copy of the new and improved Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals 4-UK (CELF).

The CELF 4 UK picture books and scoring formsI used it for the first time yesterday and was generally quite impressed. It’s actually quite similar to version 3 to administer the core sub-tests. The only thing I wasn’t too sure about is that the item analysis for the Concepts and Directions section is no longer on the scoring form which I find a bit awkward. You can’t see at a glance if there’s a pattern to the errors a child makes, you have to go digging in test manual first. Having said that, the layout of the new scoring form is clearer and I think easier to record on. I did find the layout of the front pages a bit confusing first time out but that may just be lack of familiarity. I haven’t yet used any of the extension sub-tests for phonological awareness and working memory but, at a cursory glance, they look to be very useful. If you’re looking for a very comprehensive language assessment, the CELF is probably what you’re looking for. I would, however, see if anyone you know has one you can borrow before you buy it as it is very expensive!

Interesting use of a Kinect

I was having a read of New Scientist this morning over breakfast and was intrigued by an article about using Microsoft Kinect motion sensors as a tool in the diagnosis of autism. Researchers in Minnesota are trying out software that uses Kinect motion sensors to observe and analyse the behaviour of children in a classroom with a view to automatically detecting the unusual behaviours associated with autism.

To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea of automating the diagnosis of autism but then I do think that’s a VERY long way off, if it’s possible at all! Having said that, any scientifically evidenced and rigorously tested new tool is welcome.

Check out the complete article by clicking here

Increasing prevalence of autism in the USA despite phasing out of mercury-based preservatives in vaccines…

This week’s New Scientist drew my attention to a report published recently by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the prevalence of ASD in the USA. The report shows that the prevalence of autism in 14 areas of the USA has risen by 78% between 2002 and 2008. Interestingly, in these same areas and across the USA, Thiomersal, the mercury-based vaccine preservative that has been blamed by some researchers for the rising prevalence of ASD, was phased out of paediatric vaccines from the year 2000 onwards. As the children in this latest study have not been exposed to Thiomersal, the obvious conclusion is that it does not play a role in the increasing rates of diagnosis of ASD. This replicates findings from other large-scale studies carried out worldwide which have also concluded that there is no link between vaccinations and ASD.

DSM V Criteria for Diagnosing Autism

I took the time yesterday to have a good read of the proposed new DSM V diagnostic criteria for autism. For those of you who haven’t come across the DSM before it stands for the catchy title ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ published by the American Psychiatric Association. It is widely used across the globe in the diagnosis of all mental health conditions including autism. We are currently on version 4 (IV) of the DSM but version 5 (V) is due to be published next year.

The diagnostic criteria for autism in version 5 have been changed quite significantly to make them clearer and more practically useful. A severity rating has also been included and this is where I (and many others!) start to have concerns. Personally, I think the new diagnostic criteria are much clearer and will help resolve a lot of confusion over diagnosis. I am very worried, however, about the severity ratings which are vague and inconsistent with the diagnostic criteria.

I would love to hear your views on this topic, please leave your comments! Click here to take a look at the new criteria and follow the national discussion on the National Autistic Society’s website.