Reticular Activating System: Why Your Child’s Internal “Alarm Clock” is Causing Fidgeting and Sensory Seeking Behavior
This article provides information regarding the Reticular Activating System that impacts your child’s vestibular system and attention and focus. Affiliate links are included for your convenience. Integrated Learning Strategies (ILS) is a learning and academic center. As a reminder, ILS is not a health care provider and none of our materials or services provide a diagnosis or treatment of a specific condition or learning challenge you may see in your child or student. If you seek a diagnosis or treatment for your child or student, please contact a trained professional who can provide an evaluation of the child.
Do you ever find yourself at a conference or seminar where you know you must pay attention to the speaker, but the longer you sit the more your mind trails off no matter how hard you try to retain the information you are hearing? Or, you may have experienced reading a book and realize three paragraphs later you have no idea what you just read. We have all had this experience at one time or another, and for many of our children, they experience the same struggles with attention and focus. However, if your child has a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) or ADHD, they often struggle to attend not just periodically, but regularly in the classroom.
While there are several reasons and distractions that could cause your child to have attention and focus issues, the root of the problem could be with your child’s Reticular Activating System (RAS) in their brain. The Reticular Activating System is responsible for telling your child’s brain when it needs to be awake and learning.
Because your child’s Reticular Activating System is activated by their vestibular system (or balance system) that’s why you may notice children who appear clumsy and have balance and coordination issues also tend to struggle with attention and focus in the classroom. A combination of poor concentration and balance issues can be sure sign that your child’s cerebellum and vestibular system are underdeveloped and not working properly to awaken the brain for learning.
Reticular Activating System
The Reticular Activating System is a unique bundle of nerve fibers that are located at the base of the brain stem within the Central Nervous System (CNS). This structure is believed to play a role in many functions, including wakefulness, sleep, attention, behavioral modification, and filtering information. The reticular activating system is a portal where almost all information passes through to get to the brain.
Interesting fact: Smell is an exception. Smells go directly into your brain’s emotional area known as the amygdala.
The Reticular Activating System filters incoming information and directs your child to pay attention to some things and disregard others. This could be why your child may seem distracted or shuts out important information when it is given to them. The Reticular Activating System creates an environment where your child has the ability to focus on a task if it is actively engaged. It also determines how your child interacts within their environment, which includes relationships with teachers, friends, other students and family members.
Each child reacts differently to environmental stimuli, depending upon the extent of the reticular activation they experience. They are also motivated differently upon the level of speed in which the information is processed.
In Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All In Your Head, written by Carla Hannaford, she says, “In children identified as ADD or ADHD, stress and semicircular canal damage may cause low or erratic reticular activating system function. These children may flicker in and out of wakefulness, especially if there is no stimulation via movement.”
This could be one of the main reasons children who had multiple ear infections as toddlers or infants may struggle with auditory processing, attention and focus, following directions and completing tasks given to them by teachers and parents.
As a result, many children who experienced several ear infections when they were young also have an underdeveloped Reticular Activating System. In fact, researchers found that 94 percent to 97 percent of children with dyslexia and learning disabilities had experienced ear infections, allergies or trauma as infants.
As Hannaford mentions above, the way to help children with underdeveloped or overdeveloped Reticular Activating Systems is to incorporate movement activities (see below) that stimulate these areas of the brain and engage your child in exercises they need to trigger the learning system within their brain.
Underdeveloped Vestibular System and Reticular Activating System
Children who have underdeveloped vestibular systems and Reticular Activating systems may show some of the following signs:
- Clumsy; runs into furniture or people
- Has difficulty with balance and coordination
- Invades personal space (extrovert) or is introverted and is often described as a “daydreamer”
- Can’t sit still in their chair
- Has trouble standing for long periods of time
- Lacks attention and focus
- Balances their chair on two legs or often fidgets their legs under their desk
- Often shows signs of being “checked out,” while other times seems alert
Reticular Activating System Molds Introverts and Extroverts
The Reticular Activating System is not only responsible for awakening your child’s attention and focus, it also determines whether your child is more introverted or extroverted at school and at home.
Does your child seem to be energized by spending time in his or her room alone? Maybe they get irritable in a crowded or disorganized place. If this somewhat describes your child, they may exhibit traits of an introvert.
Contrarily, if your child is an extrovert, they usually exert their energy in speech and action. They will often talk frequently and is always excited to do new things. If your child is an extrovert, they may also love performing, has high energy and enjoys doing activities outside the house with the family. This may be, in part, why they seem to be distracted at school, out of their desk and are constantly bothering their neighbor. However, most kids contain a little of both introvert and extrovert trait and they reveal different parts of their personalities during various places and activities.
Many times, the introvert or extrovert description is just a way to describe how the child likes to recharge. An introvert regenerates their energy by spending time alone. In contrast, an extrovert gathers energy by interaction.
To better appreciate the uniqueness of introversion and extroversion, it is helpful to understand the neurological and biological basis of human interaction and reaction. To react and interact with your environment and other humans, a person must have a good functioning nervous system, which many children with sensory, auditory, and vestibular issues don’t always have. This is because the nervous system is the main communication network from the brain to other parts of the body.
Everyone has two nervous systems, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Here’s the difference:
- Central Nervous System: The CNS contains all the nerve networks within the brain and spinal cord. The brain is the control center and the spinal cord is the highway that speeds messages to all parts of the body.
- Peripheral Nervous System (PNS): The PNS contains the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. It includes sensory organs, muscles, blood vessels and glands.
The peripheral nervous system gathers information and sends it back to the central nervous system, which processes the information within the brain. For instance, what ignites the alertness that we feel when it’s time to wake up, or to pay attention? The answer lies in our Reticular Activating System.
This structure is the brain’s alarm clock, telling our brain to pay attention. The alarm goes off when there is something new in our environment, when we filter information and when we are in pain.
Reticular Activating System Explains Sensory Issues in Introverts and Extroverts
There are many layers and reasons as to why a child may tend to be an introvert or extrovert. Studies suggest that the Reticular Activating System is a big part of determining how we react to our environment and determines whether we are more introverted or extroverted.
Research shows children with an overdeveloped Reticular Activating System tend to be more introverted while extroverts tend to have an underdeveloped Reticular Activating System. When looking at children who have sensory seeking behavior, this may explain why they act they way they do. Typically they are out of their chair, moving constantly, talking to others and often crave high-energy activities. Their bodies need that “fuel” to energize and stimulate their Reticular Activating System, vestibular and visual systems for better learning.
This type of behavior is usually opposite for children who have overdeveloped Reticular Activating Systems, which are also more introverted. They are often thought of as “daydreamers” because they can sit still in their chair, but their mind is usually miles away while the teacher is talking. They often ask “huh?” or “what?” after the teacher is finished with their lecture and they may experience sensory overload in large crowds or have trouble with light, sound and smell.
In tests where introverts and extroverts put a drop of lemon juice on their tongue, the results usually showed that introverts salivate more. This is due to introverts responding more strongly to all kinds of stimuli, which makes sense with children who are overly sensitive to textures and have oral defensiveness to foods and other tactile objects.
Other environmental factors that stimulate a child to act in a certain way may not affect another child in the same way. This could be, in part, because of the level of activity the Reticular Activating System is sustaining, as well as the stimulation that it accepts. Some children are more susceptible to sensory experiences than others, which is why they tend to shy away from being overly stimulated with an activity or their environment (introverts).
In contrast, other children are less sensitive to environmental stimuli and seek out more activities and tasks to maintain their desired level of interest (extroverts).
How to Activate the Reticular Activating System
As you monitor your child’s development, if you notice your child has issues with their sensory, auditory, vestibular, or visual systems, which prevent them from fully developing, they may need help to enhance their learning behavior, attention and focus, and fidgeting in the classroom. You may also continue to notice other delays in your child’s learning or side effects that can cause toe walking, W-sitting, bedwetting, poor balance and coordination, underdeveloped vestibular and proprioceptive systems, and trouble with motor planning. If your child struggles with any number of these issues, it could be an indication that the nervous system is underdeveloped.
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Integrated Learning Strategies is a Utah-based center dedicated to helping mainstream children and children with learning challenges achieve academic success. Our services provide kids with non-traditional tutoring programs within the Davis County, Kaysville, Layton, Syracuse, Farmington, and Centerville areas. Areas to find Integrated Learning Strategies include: Reading tutors in Kaysville, Math tutors in Kaysville, Common Core Tutors in Kaysville, Tutors in Utah, Utah Tutoring Programs
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