The role of Rhythmic Movement Training in developing Language, Reading and Writing. 

I have been using RMT in my work with both children and adults now for nine years and am still amazed by how powerful this simple movement programme is. RMT has helped individuals to master skills they previously struggled with, from language development to essay writing. It has also helped individuals improve muscle tone and posture, gain better physical co-ordination , develop hand eye co-ordination and feel more at home in their bodies.

The emotional implications are also huge, as individuals gain more control of their bodies: self-confidence grows, social skills become easier, family relationships improve and life becomes easier to cope with and more fun.

My youngest client was just under a year old and my eldest in her late 60’s, so I think it can be said that RMT works for all ages and all abilities.

In this article, I intend to:

  • Outline what RMT is,
  • Briefly describe the role of reflexes in child development,
  • Describe how I have worked with clients to help with the skills of language development, reading and writing. All names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of clients.

RMT is movement-based, reflex integration programme. The movements replicate the early developmental movements of the baby and give the brain a second chance to link up areas that have been missed during the developmental process. Gentle isometric pressure is also used to integrate some of the reflexes.

Babies are born with a pre-programmed set of primitive reflexes which are essential for the natural birthing process and the baby’s survival during the first year of life.

As the baby develops, postural reflexes take over and enable the baby to crawl then get on their feet and start to walk.

The reflexes provide the foundations of the nervous system. If they fail to integrate they may cause extra stress on the child’s nervous system and delay the maturing of the brain, resulting in neuro-developmental delay and difficulties with learning.

There are many movement programmes available designed to integrate the primitive reflexes and knowledge has been around for some time.

As early as 1979 Peter Blythe showed how “aberrant reflexes, that compromise overall dysfunction, affect the educative processes of children of otherwise average and above average intelligence, and how they can be compensated for by many children”.

It is the baby’s early movements that integrate the reflexes and literally grow the brain – if the reflexes do not integrate at the appropriate time then it often leads to difficulties with learning and behavior. In my experience working with children I have found that the integration of reflexes supports their learning and helps them achieve better both academically and socially.

I have experience of using a number of reflex integration programmes, but have personally found that RMT is the most effective. I attribute this to the rhythmical element of RMT which is not part of other programmes. Bruce Perry, an American Psychiatrist and founder of the Child Trauma Academy, is convinced that rhythm regulates the brain. He says:

“The only way to move from these super-high anxiety states is rhythm. Patterned, repetitive rhythmical activity: walking, running, dancing, singing, repetitive meditative breathing you use brain stem-related somatosensory networks which make your brain accessible to relational (limbic brain) reward and cortical thinking. I would add RMT to this list! It has certainly been my experience that RMT calms the system and then this allows reflexes to be integrated and learning to take place.

The following stories of clients I have worked with demonstrate how retained reflexes hinder learning and how working with RMT to integrate these reflexes enables and supports the learning process.

A young mother brought her four-year old son (I’ll call him Tom), to see me some years ago. He attended a private nursery and the nursery staff were convinced that he was Autistic because his speech and language were significantly delayed, he did not inter-act with his peers and he had strong emotional outbursts that disrupted other children. On first meeting Tom, it was apparent to me that he had a cluster of retained reflexes, including the Asymmetrical Tonic Reflex (ATNR), the Symmetrical Tonic Reflex STNR), Hand Mouth Babkin and Palmer Grasp. I was able to observe this from his posture when playing, e.g. he sat ‘W’ fashion, immediately alerting me to the fact that he had a retained Symmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex.

On hearing that Tom’s issues were largely as a result of retained reflexes, Tom’s mother visibly relaxed: she had somehow thought that her parenting skills had caused the problem and she was hugely relieved to know that there was something that could be done to help her child. I find that this is a very common reaction from parents.

I started the programme with Tom by giving passive movements to be done for a very short period on a daily basis. I also added a hand massage, to work on the hand reflexes. The speed at which Tom’s body and behavior re-adjusted as a result of the movements was astonishing. The most noticeable change was in his speech and language, within four weeks he was speaking in sentences and staff at his nursery school were amazed at this, and also in the changes in his behavior.

Continued work integrating reflexes over the next few months consolidated the changes and helped Tom improve even further: his physical co-ordination improved, his ability to take on board new learning sky-rocketed and he became popular with other children at nursery and then school. His self-confidence increased and his mother reported that he ‘was like a different child’. As his reflexes integrated, he found learning easy and, when he had moved into Reception class he often got the ‘star of the week’ award!

The above indicates how simple movements can make profound changes in a relatively short space of time. Working to integrate Tom’s retained reflexes enabled him to develop his language, and then he was easily able to take on board learning to read and write and work alongside his peers.

Another success story is that of Ben. When I first saw Ben he was an incredibly bright eight year old, who had been diagnosed as having Dyslexia. He was articulate beyond his years, although most of his self-talk was very negative. He was very creative, enjoying art, gaming, making intricate lego models and problem solving, but struggled with reading, writing and spelling. He had seen a behavioural optometrist and testing had found that he had binocular instability, resulting in his eyes not working effectively together. The images Ben saw were blurred, so not surprisingly he was struggling with his reading. Ben had been prescribed glasses to correct this problem. He had worn the glasses for 4 months when I first saw him, and he was making better progress at school as a result. The behavioural optometrist had also recommended that Ben use coloured overlays when he was reading and this was also helping.

Ben also had a deep seated Fear Paralysis Reflex(FPR), which I ascertained when he told me how anxious he got at school when having to tackle anything new or for other regular ‘stressful’ times at school, like when he had spelling tests or had to do the ‘big write’ – he struggled on occasions when he had to do a task in a set time.  He described how he got sweaty palms and pains in his tummy on these occasions. He didn’t like going to school and struggled to maintain eye contact when telling me about this.

It emerged that Ben had a number of retained reflexes, including a strongly retained Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex, no surprise as this, according to Martin McPhillips of Queen’s University Belfast, is the single most likely reflex to cause reading challenges.

Over a six month period, I worked with Ben to calm the FPR and used isometric pressure to integrate the ATNR and other retained reflexes. He started to relax, enjoy school more and found that reading became easier. The binocular instability in his eyes reduced to the point where he no longer needed to wear glasses and the integration on his FPR enabled him to maintain eye contact when he was in conversation with people. School life became more enjoyable, although he reported that he would still rather be doing lego at home than going to school!

The third and final client who experienced significant progress with her reading and writing is Cerys. Cerys came to me as a nine year old, very confident and chatty, but she had been referred to me by her school as she was not making expected progress with her reading and her handwriting was very immature and slow. She was awaiting the outcome of tests for Dyslexia and Dyspraxia – her balance was not good and she herself said that she was clumsy and always falling over.

My reflex assessment indicated that Cerys had a number of retained reflexes, including ATNR, STNR (both of which impact on the development of visual skills), Spinal Galant, Root and Suck and Palmer Grasp. I tested her vision and found that she had great difficulty tracking from left to right and struggled to cross the visual mid-line. This is often the case when the ATNR is retained. She also struggled with accommodation, with a delay in changing focus from near to far, a result of a retained STNR.

I asked Cerys to draw a person and the drawing was very immature for her age.

Cerys disliked handwriting, found it impossible to hold a pencil with a tripod grip and pressed very heavily on her pencil. Palmer Grasp would account for her difficulties with these activities, exacerbated by a retained ATNR.

Cerys and her mother were both enthusiastic about starting on a movement programme to help and we agreed on movements that mum would support Cerys with at home.

I worked initially on the ATNR using RMT movements with an added visual element (these movements also work on the Palmer Grasp), and then added gentle isometric pressure. Cerys enjoyed the process and was very keen to do the movements at home. She made rapid progress, and this was accelerated even further after we worked on her STNR with isometric pressure. Her attitude to both reading and writing changed completely over the months. Her reading age increased and she started to gain pleasure from reading books.

However, the most impressive improvements were with her handwriting. Her pencil grip improved, she no longer pressed so heavily on the paper and the speed of her writing increased significantly. Her teacher reported that her attitude to learning had improved and that she was generally much more engaged with her learning. Her creativity also increased and she was able to write imaginatively, something she had found very difficult before we embarked on RMT.

In conclusion, I hope that the examples I have given have demonstrated that using the simple movements of RMT facilitates the integration of retained reflexes, and that this has an impact on the development of a number of skills needed for learning, including language, reading and writing.

I hope that this article has also given food for thought on the role of neuro-developmental delay in learning. If movement programmes can be so effective at helping develop the neural networks needed for learning then should we not be starting these programmes with all children at an early age? If this was done before they get disillusioned and labelled as ‘slow’, ‘dyslexic’ or any of the other labels that we give children, I feel that we would have happier more confident children who would be better equipped to take responsibility for their own learning.

Janice Graham

January 2018