Help! My child struggles to read

Brain Smarts
October 7, 2020
“GOEDVOEL OOR MYSELF” begin vroeg…
October 23, 2020

By Johan Leslie.

One by one, the ghostly images of desperate parents appear in front of me: “Help! My child cannot read!” It hangs like a heavy, dark cloud in the room as I anxiously, with my brain in high gear, scramble through a report card to search the sea of red circles, symbols, levels and numbers, for patterns, trends and solutions.

Then my heart shrinks when I think of my own child, now eleven years old, and his difficult journey from grade to grade with different teachers and therapists. Suddenly, I feel the hopelessness myself as well. I think of his eyes filling with tears, as he tackles the quite elementary passage with a tired, years-old, trembling voice. His teary eyes nervously follow his fingers along the tangle of symbols as he guesses each word, looking up hesitantly for my approving or disapproving look. Just one more thing that adds more information about his already confused neurological processing….

Any Advanced Mind Moves® Instructor (AMMI) would instinctively start testing the primitive reflexes in such a situation; but why? What are “primitive reflexes”, and can they really contribute to a child’s reading ability? Please be patient with me for a moment as I would like to first show you why we, as Mind Moves Instructors, cannot help but start with primitive reflexes when a child, who has good vision, has reading difficulties.

Primitive Thinking

Imagine you are in a dark place. All of a sudden you realize you are immersed in liquid. Every sound seems dull to you, and without thinking, your survival urge kicks in: “I’m not going to be able to breathe!” Your heart accelerates instantly, volumes of adrenalin are secreted, and your muscles are ready to swim to the surface with superhuman strength: but where is the surface?

Straight away you realize that oxygen is not a problem. Somehow your body does not need to breathe. Gradually your eyes get used to the dark, and you can make out something else in the dim light in front of you – it is an embryo! You are in the womb! The creature in front of you is only four weeks old. Slowly, the information your senses are constantly collecting begins to make sense. You become calmer and calmer as your brain processes the situation … but what about this little creature?

The creature is safe because it does not yet have a developed brain. Concepts of “oxygen”, “swimming”, “hearing”, “thinking” and “dark” have not yet been formed in his brain, although they do exist. This means that the actions of the creature are not controlled by rational decisions like yours, but rather by instinctive and involuntary actions – the reflexes!

What does this have to do with reading?

You see, our Creator has encoded the most amazing design, which runs like a golden thread throughout creation and within every living organism. The logical, orderly, step-by-step development plan is embedded in every cell of our DNA. And reflexes are part of that design.

But what is a reflex? A reflex involves an involuntary action that supports a certain phase of human development. It helps to establish a particular neurological pathway, after which the reflex will “go to rest” so that another reflex can further the next phase of development. This is very simply put and is by no means as linear as it sounds. Every reflex, like the silkworm, has a fixed life cycle. The reflex emerges, develops, integrates and inhibits to go to rest (not die): just in case the brain experiences severe trauma, after which it will start working again to repair the damaged neurological pathways. We can clearly see this cycle in people who experience trauma in the brain, such as having a stroke and then recovering afterwards.

With this cycle in mind, we will now focus a little more on the development of the eye, as it follows the gradual, orderly and logical blueprint to begin preparing for reading. The physical development of the eye with all its components is miraculous in itself, but I will only focus on how the reflexes prepare the eye as an organ, step by step, for the task of reading.

Reflexes as preparation for complex eye movements

Let us look again at the embryo that has developed so much in the meantime that it has now become a small human being. It is week twenty-six and the baby can open and blink his eyelids for the first time. However, this is not the first time he can see. The foetus, like we as adults, can perceive light through closed eyelids, and will therefore also respond to bright light in utero while the eyes are still closed.

At twenty-six weeks the primitive reflexes are already active and are also present during birth to help with this process. They will inhibit a few months after the birth process (De Jager, 2020). The following reflexes, amongst others, are active at this stage:

  • The Moro Reflex: A “fright” reflex in which he’ll tighten his body, fling his arms up and out, and open up his usually tightly clenched fists, draw up his knees and then bring his arms and re-clenched fists close to his body — almost as if he’s giving himself a hug when the fright is over. According to Vision Therapy at Home, the Moro reflex is the only primitive reflex that involves all the senses at once (Mowbray, 2020). With the Moro reflex, the preparation for reading begins. The eyes open wide and focus at a far distance while the back arches.
  • The Rooting & Sucking Reflex: A primitive reflex which helps the baby to breastfeed. The reflex causes the head to instinctively turn in response to touch on the cheek, while the mouth opens, and the tongue begins to move forward and backward to suckle. The body now bends forward, and the eyes focus near.
  • The Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex: (TLR) This reflex causes the body to bend forward, with a forward and downward movement of the head, and to extend backward with an upward head movement. It builds the bridge between cognitive posture (upward) and emotional posture (downward).
  • The Asymmetric Tonic Neck Reflex (ATNR): Allows the arm and leg to extend to the side to which the head turns (left or right), while the other side’s arm and leg contract. As the arm extends, the eyes focus at arm’s- length while following the movement of the arm.

In summary, the following eye movements happen as the primitive reflexes work:

  • Far
  • Near
  • Up and down
  • Left and right
  • Track a moving object

The focus of the eye is thus practiced by constantly focusing near and far, looking up and down and left and right, and following movement.

The complementary rhythm of development

When we compare the reflexes, the possible emotions that accompany them, the movement of the eye, the focus of the eye, as well as the position of the body all in one table, we observe a very interesting pattern:

Reflex Emotion Eye movement Eye focus Body position
Moro Fright, tension. Wide. Far/wide. Backwards and open – Receptive.
Rooting & Sucking Secure and safe. Centred. Near/focused. Forward and closed – Expressive.
TLR Tense and uncomfortable in the backward position and comfortable and secure in the forward position. Upwards and downwards.

Alternating up and down movement.

Near and far – alternating. Upwards and downwards – alternating. Builds the bridge between top and bottom, cognitive and emotional.
ATNR Relaxed  and tensed. Muscle movement simultaneously, cognitive tension as defined by the vertical midline. Left and right. From side to side. Follows a moving object at arm’s- length from left to right. Limbs extended on one side while flexed on other side.

Builds bridge between left and right.     Builds bridge between detail and whole (Logic and gestalt brain).

Like everything in nature, the reflexes systematically develop all the controlled movements necessary for the eye to send effective and meaningful sensory input to the brain for processing. We can therefore see that, although a child may have 20/20 vision, it is possible that if the reflexes are not inhibited, the brain does not get meaningful sensory input to be able to read with ease.

As adults, we know that growth is only possible by overcoming challenges. This is true in many areas: the physical area, such as athletes who constantly push themselves to perform better; in the emotional realm, where we grow by daily confronting and overcoming our fears that contemporary society brings; and in the cognitive field, where academically, we must regularly challenge ourselves to acquire new knowledge and skills. The list goes on and on.

From the table we can see a beautiful dance that constantly challenges the comfort zone first and then reassures; focusing near and then far again, which elicits upward movement, and then downward again; which brings about side-to-side movement, which causes an upright posture and then again, a curved posture; which varies between detail and whole as well as between cognitive and emotional. The primitive reflexes are indeed doing all the groundwork to eventually enable the eyes to give meaningful, integrated sensory input to the brain.

You will surely agree that good vision and well-integrated primitive reflexes do not necessarily mean that a child will read well. We know that visual memory and many other factors also play a role in this: but without the correct wiring of well-integrated primitive reflexes, there is no way the brain can get the correct sensory input to make sense of the order of written symbols.

Unfortunately, we often get caught up in good vision and then do not understand why children with average to high intellectual abilities cannot read. Teachers sometimes attribute this to laziness, or they suspect that something must be wrong, but they do not realize that the problem may lie with the way visual input is fed to the brain. It is precisely for this reason, that the AMMI first assesses the reflexes to see if the cause of the problem lies with uninhibited reflexes, and then addresses it by recommending an appropriate Mind Moves* intervention programme.

This is the reason why it is so essential that educators across South Africa should be made aware of the preparatory effect of the primitive reflexes for meaningful sensory input, and how they prepare the brain to process information effectively for the successful execution of academic tasks such as reading and writing.


De Jager, M. 2019. Mind Moves: Removing barriers to learning. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute Publishing.

Mowbray, L., 2020. Moro Reflex | Vision Therapy at Home. [Online] Available at:  [Accessed 13 June 2020].

*For more information on Mind Moves:


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