Primitive Reflexes and the 3R’s – Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic

Play is serious learning
November 21, 2017
Concrete experiences before abstract learning
December 4, 2017

By Tamara Carter and Dr Melodie de Jager



According to reading is a multifaceted process involving word recognition, comprehension, fluency, and motivation. Reading is also often identified as the main skill underpinning most (if not all of) learning.


Writing is a method of representing language in visual or tactile form. Writing systems use sets of symbols to represent the sounds of speech, and may also have symbols for such things as punctuation and numerals.

Arithmetic (Mathematic skill)

Arithmetic or mathematic skill refers to the conceptual understanding of numbers, their relationships, combinations, and operations. Mathematics also include shapes and their structures, reasoning, measurement, classification, and patterns (Headstart, 2015).

Interestingly enough, mathematic skills are dependent on both reading and writing skills.

Research at the Mind Moves Institute has found children read better once they can write better, hence we recommend focusing on the 3R’s in this sequence: 1) wRiting, then 2) Reading then 3) aRithmatic.


There are several types of reflexes in humans, but for the purpose of this article we will focus on a few Primitive Reflexes and the role Mind Moves can play.

According to De Jager (2009) primitive reflexes are stereotypical movements that start in utero, are present –

  • at birth to assist with the birthing process
  • during the first few months to facilitate sensory-motor and brain development.

Primitive reflexes are controlled by the brain stem and are meant to have a limited lifespan. During the first year of life primitive reflexes stimulate sensory-motor development and build neural pathways in the brain in a sequential manner.  When these reflexes are done with the neural wiring, they are meant to go to rest so that the next level of brain and skills development can start.  If they do not go to rest (inhibit) the brain cannot continue to wire properly and the skills needed for learning such as writing, reading and arithmetic are affected.


In order to write, read and do arithmetic with ease, the senses, brain and muscles need to develop and connect correctly.

The Moro Reflex is an involuntary survival reaction that is triggered in reaction to stimulation. This reflex is also called the startle reflex and is most commonly seen when someone gets a fright and their eyes and mouth open wide, their limbs open up and their fingers and toes are splayed, and is accompanied by a sharp intake of breath.

The moro reflex responds to a perceived threat and wakes up the entire nervous system as well as the vestibular system and cerebellum.  The vestibular system is responsible for balance, sensory integration, directionality and the stress response.  When stressed the hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones speed up heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting muscles on high alert. Pupils dilate to improve vision. The liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase the body’s energy, and sweat is produced to cool the body. All of these physical changes prepare a person to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment.

If a child is in a stress state, learning how to use the 3R’s are secondary to their survival.  When stressed, children (and adults) function from the survival brain, which does not support the skills required to write, read and do mathematics.

The Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (TLR) is a reflex that is responsible for developing balance, posture and hearing.  The vestibular system, muscles of the neck, core, shoulders and hips are developed with this reflex.  Since the TLR is meant to develop the vestibular system a child with an active TLR has no sense of where he is in space.  This child may find it difficult to experience space and directionality, judge distance, depth, strength and speed needed to complete a task. These skills are important in order to be able to do the 3R’s.  If a child lacks a map of his body and a map of the environment as the result of an active TLR, letter reversals, poor motor planning, postural problems and auditory processing and visual perception problems may be experienced.

The Palmar Reflex is responsible for sensory-motor development of the hands. While the moro reflex opens the hands, the palmar reflex closes the hand and simultaneously strengthens the hand and fingers to be able to perform fine motor activities like threading, cutting, holding a pencil in a 3-point grip and tracking the eyes from left to right.  If the Palmar reflex is not inhibited the learner may have poor pencil grip, poor or slow handwriting, low muscle tone and may find it difficult to complete a task within a limited time-frame, like writing a test or exam. A well-developed dominant hand is important for writing in all subjects, including mathematics.

The Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR) is in charge of developing the vestibular system, the midline, sight and eye-hand and eye-foot coordination.  The muscles implicated in this process of development are the neck and core, arms, legs as well as eye-limb coordination.  This reflex allows the head to follow the hand when moving.  It is essentially the first step in hand-eye coordination and later the ability to cross the midline.  If the ATNR is still active the learner may have poor visual perception, poor hand-eye coordination, inability to cross the midline, poor sequential skills as well as hand writing difficulties to name a few.  These are all skills that are imperative for the 3R’s.


Primitive reflexes follow the same pattern during their life cycle – they emerge at a specific age to develop neural pathways through repetitive reflexive movements.  Once enough repetitions have been completed to develop the neural pathways in the brain, the reflex tends to integrate and go to rest.

The following Mind Move exercises  mimic reflexive movements to develop the neural pathways needed to complete brain wiring so that a child can use these neural pathways to wRite, Read and do aRithmatics with greater ease.

Antenna adjuster

Massage both ear lobes simultaneously from top to bottom using circular movements. This move develops the near senses, auditory processing, auditory perception as well as receptive language ability.

Mouse pad

The eyes are to the brain what the mouse is to the computer. The eyes access different parts of the brain when turning up, down, horizontal, left and right. Focus on the thumb held at elbow distance from the eyes. Move the thumb upwards, first around the left eye and then around the right eye outlining the shape of an infinity sign. Repeat five times. Swop hands and repeat the same process, always first drawing a circle around the left eye and then around the right eye. This move stimulates the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic receptive ability, while crossing the midline to integrate the left and right parts of the brain and body. It develops eye-hand coordination and visual integration.

Palm stretch

Extend the fingers as wide as possible for a count of eight, then relax.  Make a tight fist, hold for a count of eight, and relax.  Breathe slowly while doing the move.  Repeat at least three times.  This move improves muscle tone in the hands, penmanship, fine motor control and bilateral integration.  It also promotes fluent speech.

Core workout

Step 1:

Lie flat on your back; raise your left arm and left leg up simultaneously in a straight line, turn your head to look at the left side. Switch over to your right arm and leg do exactly the same. Repeat this action 10 times.

Step 2:

Remain on your back; do exactly the same, as in step 1, this time move your head in the opposite direction. Repeat this 10 times.

Step 3:

Still remaining on your back, this time cross your left arm with your right leg, touching elbow on knee cap. This time, no head movement though. Repeat this 10 times.

Step 4:

As soon as step 1 to 3 can be performed without difficulty, step 4 can be approached. Crawl on all fours, while turning your head to the left and right.

The core workout helps with: integration of the left and right brain hemispheres; developing the core muscles of the body (helping to improve low muscle tone); crossing the midline; developing the skills for reading, writing, reasoning and spelling. The core workout exercise needs to be done more than the normal three repetitions.

Rise and shine

Fling the arms wide open while breathing in deeply and slowly. Close the arms over the chest in a hug, breathe out deeply and slowly. The parent may simultaneously hug from behind. This move boosts relaxation, rhythmic breathing and a sense of well-being.


De Jager, M. 2011. Brain development MILESTONES & learning. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute.

De Jager, M. 2009. Mind Moves – moves that mend the mind. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute.

Headstart.  2015.  Mathematics Knowledge and Skills.  [Online] Available on the internet at:  (22 March 2016).

Leipzig, D. H. 2001.  Reading Rockets:  What is reading?  [Online]  Available on the internet  (22 March 2016).

Omniglot.  2016.  What is writing?  [Online]  Available on the internet  (22 March 2016).

Teens Health.  2016.  Stress.  [Online]  Available on the internet at:  (22 March 2016).


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