In 2011, while I was helping 3rd and 4th graders learn their multiplication facts by bouncing playground balls and stepping on polyspots, I observed that several students with ADHD and dyslexia had significant difficulty moving to and keeping a beat. In Play Math, we would bounce playground balls between partners on the downbeat with tempo, rhythm, and timing (TRT).
As we pushed the balls with two hands toward the ground on the beat, we would say our math facts. The observation that several students could not synchronize their verbalizations while bouncing the ball on a beat lead me to study the growing body of literature on beat perception, motor entrainment, and cognitive-physical activity. Current research suggests learning to move on a beat may influence the centers of the brain involved in academic learning and achievement. Yet, more research is underway. Here is what we know and what I wonder.
Children with developmental dyslexia have difficulty tapping to a beat.
Tapping in time to a metronome beat (hereafter beat synchronization) shows considerable variability in child populations, and individual differences in beat synchronization are reliably related to reading development. Children with developmental dyslexia show impairments in beat synchronization. These impairments may reflect deficiencies in auditory perception of the beat which in turn affect auditory-motor mapping, or may reflect an independent motor deficit. Colling LJ, Noble HL and Goswami U (2017) Neural Entrainment and Sensorimotor Synchronization to the Beat in Children with Developmental Dyslexia: An EEG Study. Front. Neurosci. 11:360. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2017.00360
Preschoolers who can entrain to an external beat have more faithful neural encoding of temporal modulations in speech and score higher on tests of early language skills. Beat synchronization abilities emerge at an early age, therefore, when children exhibit challenges matching their movements to a beat, the research may inform strategies for early detection of and intervention for language-based learning disabilities, Carr et al.2014.
The precision of beat synchronization is reduced in children with developmental dyslexia, Overy et al., 2003; Thomson and Goswami, 2008; Flaugnacco et al., 2014.
“For children with developmental dyslexia, it is unknown whether their impairments in beat synchronization arise from a primary sensory deficit in auditory rhythm perception which in turn affects the temporal precision of action, or whether beat synchronization is impaired via an independent deficit related to the developing motor system, or both,” Colling et al. 2017.
Sincere gratitude to Alex Doman of Advanced Brain Technologies for introducing me to the auditory neuroscience research in 2014 and to Principal Diane Hale and Teacher, Bonnie Walker at Tarwater Elementary School for helping us improve our cognitive-motor activities for students. This year, Ashley Ezell, Sue Milano and the students at St. Francis Xavier helped us to improve our beat-based rhythmic classroom movement programs. Our lab schools make an enormous difference in the lives of students around the world, thank you!