For most of the last two terms, my youngest daughter Anya, now seven, has been struggling at school, particularly with maths. And although she could learn spelling perfectly, she was also struggling with writing.
She’d always been a strong-willed, distractible, little powerhouse of a child but, with the right diet and cranial osteopathy, we thought those days were behind us. Although hardly at the top of the class, she was coping well and keeping up. However, these last two terms, her teacher reported that her attention had taken a nosedive, and her slow but steady progress had ground to a halt. We were called in and handed lists of educational psychologists, who might enlighten all of us about how to educate this child.
At the same time, Anya’s behaviour at home was also deteriorating. She’d stopped listening and was consistently unreasonable – impossible to get to school or even to bed.
We were at our wits’ end, attempting to work out what had gone wrong, when I suddenly realised that her behaviour was only bad between Monday and Friday. The penny had finally dropped. Something at school was causing her problem.
I investigated and, sure enough, my otherwise enlightened school was giving her milk (and sometimes Nesquik) and chocolate biscuits at 11 am, and wheat and milk products at lunch. Anya had been a highly allergic child and, although we’d specified at nursery age that she shouldn’t have either milk or wheat (and not much chocolate), this current teacher hadn’t taken this on board. So every day, Anya had been drip-fed what amounts to a poison to her brain.
In Anya’s case, it’s likely that her problems stem from biochemical sensitivity. We adopted her from Russia when she was four months old. By then, the well-meaning Russian doctors in charge of her care had given her a tuberculosis vaccine at birth, powerful drugs like phenobarbital and bottles of full cow’s milk (the hospital couldn’t afford formula). There is no doubt in my mind that her gut was damaged by these early and inappropriate interventions, and a wheat-free and dairy-free diet is vital to her ability to learn.
Over the summer, Anya was put on a strict wheat-free diet and worked individually with one of her teachers. Soon, the doorway to her brain reopened, and she began to make steady strides.
Although biochemistry should be the first port of call for any child who finds it difficult to learn, it is equally important to remember that children learn at different speeds. At seven, our first daughter Caitlin was also labelled a problem learner – a candidate for dyslexia. Not only was her creative output too meagre, but the words themselves were weirdly positioned. Perhaps she had a problem with hand-eye coordination, the teachers said. Perhaps we should see a specialist.
When we questioned Caitlin, she told us that, every Monday, the teacher asked her to write what she did over the weekend – but there just wasn’t much of anything new to say. When she’d been chastised for writing too little, she’d spaced out her words to make her story appear longer so that her teacher would stop telling her off.
For years, writing remained a lesser source of creative expression for Caitlin until one day, at 13, she became master of her own words. Within the following year, she was producing astonishing stories and poems, and now, at nearly 15, she’s at the top of the class. So it also went with her maths.
The key to educating our children may not only be to pay attention to what we are feeding them, but to ultimately trust in the mysterious process of learning. There is a right and highly individual season for everyone.