The Vestibular System and Learning

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If you’ve ever lost your balance, ridden a bike, balanced on one foot, or shook your head yes or no, your vestibular system has been hard at work. The vestibular system is located in our inner ear, within the vestibule, and plays an essential role in our everyday lives by responding to movement and gravity. 

Children, in particular, benefit from having a fully functioning vestibular system. It allows them to run, move, learn, and grow with their classmates. A vestibular system unable to respond appropriately should be addressed with a medical professional, such as an occupational therapist, as soon as possible to determine the appropriate path that most benefits the child.

Read on to learn about this fascinating system and how it can impact childhood learning and functioning.

What is the Vestibular System and How Does it Work?

The vestibular system contributes to our sense of balance, head control, muscle tone, visual perception, how well our eyes work together, and level of alertness. As you can imagine, when our vestibular system is underdeveloped, it can greatly impact our day-to-day lives.

When our head moves, vestibular signals are relayed through the central nervous system pathway. These signals help our brain identify where we are in space and how fast or slow we move. There are two subtypes of signals:

  1. How the head alone experiences sensations
  2. How both the body and head experience sensation together

If the vestibular system is underdeveloped, it can negatively affect your child’s overall development. Working with an occupational therapist to address deficiencies in your child's vestibular system is important. Additionally, a robust vestibular training program can greatly impact your child’s learning abilities, development, and balance, while improving their quality of life. 

Why is the Vestibular System Important for Learning?

When the vestibular system can’t respond properly, the impact on learning can be profound. This particular sensory system impacts children’s ability to be alert and focused, maintain balance and postural control, spatial awareness, and eye movements. 

The ability to learn is impacted when the vestibular system is either over or under-responsive.

Someone who feels off balance and dizzy easily may have a vestibular system that gets activated too quickly. Even just slight movement or simply standing can cause this reaction for them. 

This means there is too much movement in the vestibular system, which can make the person feel unsteady due to a lack of equilibrium. The brain becomes involved in making the person feel grounded and safe, so it’s not readily available to learn.

Neuroplasticity and the Vestibular System

Neuroplasticity is the ability the brain has to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning, experiences, or following injury. It is the brain's capacity to continue growing and evolving in response to life experiences. 

Plasticity is the capacity to be shaped, molded, or altered; neuroplasticity, then, is the ability of the brain to adapt or change over time by creating new neurons and building new networks.

The vestibular system is remarkably capable of adapting to environmental demands, thanks to neuroplasticity. If there is damage or disease to the vestibular system, rehabilitation can be successful by engaging, gradually increasing, and challenging the brain.

Research has shown that strategically targeted balance training can increase neuroplasticity in the human brain and can enhance cognitive function. At a high level, this means that the brain's structure can be trained to combat deficiencies in the vestibular system. Improvements can be seen in hand-eye coordination, depth perception, reading, muscle tone, attention span, and overall learning ability and behavior.

Leveraging Neuroplasticity to Accelerate Learning

Those with an under-responsive vestibular system often need constant movement in order to feel grounded. The movement helps their vestibular system know where they are in space. 

People with such a vestibular system often cannot focus until their bodies are satisfied by the amount of movement. This can present challenges in attention span or behavior at work, home, or school, even if they are really very bright.

To help your child increase their body awareness, leverage their need for movement to increase neuroplasticity and accelerate their learning. With improvements in body awareness, your child will have a better understanding of where their body is in space and how one part of their body moves in connection to another part. 

Healthy Vestibular System, Healthy Child

You may discover that your child’s gross motor movements, like jumping or kicking a ball, will improve with their heightened body awareness. Engaging in exercises with a physical or occupational therapist to establish a healthier vestibular system will have a direct effect on their learning ability. 

At Bloom, we’re ready to meet families where they’re at–we believe in the power of combining the physical with the emotional in behavioral therapy to do more than just treat symptoms. If you would like to help your child’s vestibular system develop, check out our toolkit on sensory processing disorder.

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