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Using Brain Plasticity to help Children with Learning Disabilities

Did you read The Brain That Changes Itself: Sto­ries of Per­son­al Tri­umph from the Fron­tiers of Brain Sci­ence, the great book on neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty by Nor­man Doidge? If  so, you will have heard about the Arrow­smith School/ Pro­gram, which was also one of the Top Ten Final­ists in 2010 Brain Fit­ness Inno­va­tion Awards.  The fol­low­ing is an excerpt from Brain School: Sto­ries of chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and atten­tion dis­or­ders who changed their lives by improv­ing their cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing (Novem­ber 2010; $22), a new book from Eaton Arrow­smith School’s (EAS) founder and direc­tor, Howard Eaton. It tells the sto­ry of how chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties (dyslex­ia, ADHD, etc.) can over­come edu­ca­tion­al obsta­cles by reor­ga­niz­ing their brains. An inspir­ing book about how cog­ni­tive pro­grams can result in both aca­d­e­m­ic and social suc­cess. 

From the Intro­duc­tion of Brain School

Nor­man Doidge, in his best­selling book about neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, The Brain That Changes Itself (New York: Viking Press, 2007), coined the term “the plas­tic para­dox.” That is, the brain has the abil­i­ty to change itself in both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive ways. Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean that the change that is occur­ring is for the ben­e­fit of that indi­vid­ual or soci­ety. For exam­ple, some forms of behav­iour can become extreme­ly debil­i­tat­ing, such as that seen in obses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­ders (ocds). For edu­ca­tors who work with chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties, “the plas­tic para­dox” can hin­der their abil­i­ty to see new pos­si­bil­i­ties. For decades, their ideas have been firm­ly set that chil­dren who strug­gle with cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing weak­ness­es will con­tin­ue to strug­gle through­out their lives. The children’s care­givers must give them all the sup­port they need to ensure they make it through school. Learned help­less­ness is the term used in the fields of edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy to describe many chil­dren with learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. In fact, this learned help­less­ness does not have to be the case.

Brain School asks politi­cians, edu­ca­tion­al admin­is­tra­tors, psy­chol­o­gists, psy­chi­a­trists, fam­i­ly doc­tors, edu­ca­tors, par­ents, and oth­ers involved in edu­ca­tion to be open to the idea that cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing can improve and the brain can change. Many edu­ca­tors are not even aware of brain plas­tic­i­ty. In edu­ca­tion, the establishment’s com­mon under­stand­ing is that the brain is more or less fixed; that is what many of them learned at col­lege or uni­ver­si­ty. Per­haps they have not read the lat­est infor­ma­tion on brain plas­tic­i­ty and neu­ro­science. As a result, they keep prac­tic­ing the same instruc­tion­al reme­di­a­tion meth­ods for chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties as though they are the only options avail­able.

I was much the same; it was not easy for me to accept that the brain is plas­tic. I clear­ly recall class­room dis­cus­sions about the brain dur­ing my under­grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion in psy­chol­o­gy and then in my grad­u­ate pro­gram in spe­cial edu­ca­tion. The brain was fixed, unchange­able, hard-wired like a com­put­er. My pro­fes­sors were crit­i­cal, almost mock­ing­ly so, of so-called rad­i­cal sci­en­tists dis­cussing the brain’s abil­i­ty to change. They acknowl­edged that there are some for­ma­tive years of brain devel­op­ment in ear­ly infan­cy, but that was it. This was my train­ing and back­ground. In fact, I co-wrote hand­books and pro­duced edu­ca­tion­al videos advis­ing par­ents and their chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties to accept their cog­ni­tive weak­ness­es and view them in a pos­i­tive light.

Bar­bara Arrow­smith Young has been work­ing with brain plas­tic­i­ty for thir­ty years. Yet some edu­ca­tors dis­re­gard her pro­gram due to their inabil­i­ty or refusal to con­cep­tu­al­ize what she is doing. These edu­ca­tors are so focused on improv­ing skills such as spelling, read­ing, and writ­ing that they fail to see it is the brain’s cur­rent cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing that affects these behav­iours. As well, they do not see that chil­dren who fail in school are often deal­ing with more sig­nif­i­cant issues with rea­son­ing, mem­o­ry, audi­to­ry pro­cess­ing, visu­al-per­cep­tu­al pro­cess­ing, visu­al-motor inte­gra­tion, and social-per­cep­tion problems—all cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing weaknesses—and that these cog­ni­tive func­tions can be improved. Yet Arrow­smith Young has per­sist­ed and her results out­stand­ing­ly speak for them­selves. She is the first neu­ro­plas­ti­cian with oper­at­ing schools and licensed pro­grams in the field of edu­ca­tion in North Amer­i­ca.

This is not to deny that many won­der­ful minds in edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy have pro­vid­ed major insights into learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and atten­tion dis­or­ders. Nev­er­the­less, the notions that the brain can change inabil­i­ty or refusal to con­cep­tu­al­ize what she is doing. These edu­ca­tors are so focused on improv­ing skills such as spelling, read­ing, and writ­ing that they fail to see it is the brain’s cur­rent cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing that affects these behav­iours. As well, they do not see that chil­dren who fail in school are often deal­ing with more sig­nif­i­cant issues with rea­son­ing, mem­o­ry, audi­to­ry pro­cess­ing, visu­al-per­cep­tu­al pro­cess­ing, visu­al-motor inte­gra­tion, and social-per­cep­tion problems—all cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing weaknesses—and that these cog­ni­tive func­tions can be improved. Yet Arrow­smith Young has per­sist­ed and her results out­stand­ing­ly speak for them­selves. She is the first neu­ro­plas­ti­cian with oper­at­ing schools and licensed pro­grams in the field of edu­ca­tion in North Amer­i­ca.

This is not to deny that many won­der­ful minds in edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy have pro­vid­ed major insights into learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and atten­tion dis­or­ders. Nev­er­the­less, the notions that the brain can change itself and that cog­ni­tive inter­ven­tion meth­ods can be designed to improve cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing are rev­o­lu­tion­ary to many edu­ca­tion experts, who refuse to depart from their own entrenched neur­al path­ways. When a dra­mat­ic change of thought is pre­sent­ed they become uneasy and often dis­mis­sive, pre­fer­ring to stick to old ways of doing things. […]
There is no mag­ic or quick fix for improv­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. It is dif­fi­cult and tir­ing work for the child with learn­ing and atten­tion dis­abil­i­ties; it takes resilience and dili­gence to improve. Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty does not occur with­out sig­nif­i­cant active engage­ment over a lengthy peri­od. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, some crit­ics use this as a way to dis­miss this work. They say, “Why would you make chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties work so hard? They are already strug­gling enough.”

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Opti­mal cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing reme­di­a­tion for a severe learn­ing dis­abil­i­ty, and in some cas­es an accom­pa­ny­ing atten­tion dis­or­der, can take three to four years in a full-time school envi­ron­ment, which will be shown in the sto­ries in Part II. Some of our most remark­able chil­dren per­sis­tent­ly and repeat­ed­ly worked on cog­ni­tive exer­cis­es in order to achieve their note­wor­thy accom­plish­ments and become hon­ours stu­dents after tran­si­tion to main­stream class­rooms. The Arrow­smith Program’s belief is that noth­ing is wrong with hard or tir­ing work if it has an impor­tant pur­pose. This is how many great minds devel­oped break­throughs in engi­neer­ing, physics, chem­istry, archi­tec­ture, lit­er­a­ture, music, math­e­mat­ics, med­i­cine, and oth­er dis­ci­plines. They spent hours going over ideas and the­o­ries. Sim­i­lar to the body’s phys­i­cal train­ing, in order for the brain to become effi­cient at a par­tic­u­lar task or behav­iour, it must prac­tise it repeat­ed­ly. Chil­dren with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and atten­tion dis­or­ders must stim­u­late and strength­en their brains’ abil­i­ty to learn with repeat­ed cog­ni­tive exer­cis­es in order to over­come their neu­ro­log­i­cal weak­ness­es.

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