Unless you’re the parents of a Kobe Bryant or a Tiger Woods, most moms and dads probably spend most of their time and money helping their children make good grades. But new research from three Israeli doctors shows that awkwardness or disinterest in sports and physical activities can affect a child’s success later in life.
While grades and extra-curricular activities are impressive on paper, researchers say it’s what kids are doing in their daily routines that could yield clues about debilitating behavior problems and may even signal a future Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
It might seem obsessive to analyze your child’s reactions and moods, on the hunt for any odd behavioral quirks, but recognizing these general tendencies may signal a pattern.
The largest of the three studies, which looked at sports and aggression, was conducted at Tel Aviv University’s Bob Shapell School of Social Work and was presented at TAU’s Renata Adler Memorial Research Center for Child Welfare and Protection Conference.
TAU doctoral student Keren Shahar and her team studied 649 children in 25 Israeli schools for 24 weeks. Half of students practiced soccer, basketball, or martial arts five days a week, and the other half had no physical activities.
Shahar found that the activity-based group had less aggressive behavior overall, and displayed more self-control and discipline in their daily tasks.
“The key is to introduce children to something that they love to do and in which they have a compelling interest,” writes Shahar. “Find something that motivates them. A strong connection with any activity gives children a sense of purpose and decreases the likelihood that they will ‘act out.’”
Better than talk therapy for kids who have these kinds of self-control issues, Shahar found that involving children in a sport they love actually resulted in “quelling negative emotions.”
However, Shahar also found that a sports regimen had a more profound effect on boys. She posited that girls are generally less aggressive than boys and less likely to excel in sports.
In more new research published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Prof. Reuven Dar of TAU’s department of psychology found “preliminary support” for “a strong connection” between hypersensitivity and ritualism in children and OCD. Adults with OCD exhibit these two behaviors.
Dar believes that children who are extremely sensitive to touch or smell, or are reactive to irritations like a dental visit or certain fabrics, feel threatened and develop ritualistic behaviors to regain a sense of control. These rituals could be an early warning sign of adult OCD.
“If you see that a child is very rigid with rituals, becoming anxious if unable to engage in this behavior, it is more alarming,” Dar explained. “Also, age is a factor. A habit exhibited by a 5- or 6-year-old is not necessarily a predictor of OCD. If the same behavior continues to the ages of 8 and above, it could be a warning sign, especially if accompanied by anxiety or distress.”
In the first of the two surveys, parents of kindergarteners answered three questionnaires about their children, reporting any unusual repetition, anxiety, discomfort with strangers, worry, object ordering, attachment to family members, and reactions to touch, taste, or smell.
In a second online survey, 314 adults answered questions about their child’s anxiety levels and their past and current sensitivity to oral and tactile stimulation.
The results of both studies were so encouraging that Dar hopes to study a large sample of these overly sensitive children all the way through to adulthood.
In a third research project with the smallest sample, Dr. Orit Bart of TAU’s Stanley Steyer School of Health Professions monitored 50 5- to 7-year-olds with Developmental Coordination Disorder and 25 without DCD, using motor skills assessment tests.
According to Bart, an internationally recognized expert in DCD, children with the disorder find sports difficult, can’t organize schoolwork, feel lonely, shun group tasks, are at risk for substance abuse, and can’t master basic tasks like driving. DCD, adds Bart, can greatly impact a child throughout his or her life.
“DCD kids are often described as clumsy,” said Bart. “Because they’re usually of average to above-average intelligence, their disorder is rarely considered grave.”
Her research appeared in the journal Research in Developmental Disabilities.
Bart said that when diagnosed, children can learn to participate in groups, a key behavioral indicator of healthy emotional development.
She also developed a new DCD questionnaire, designed to assess 8 to 14–1/2-year-old children with DCD. That may lead to new treatments and interventions.