Howard Eaton spent his early school days in a janitor’s closet at Maple Grove Elementary. Diagnosed with dyslexia at age eight, he struggled to keep up with his classmates. Back then, few options existed for kids with learning disabilities, so the school set up a study room in a closet and brought in a tutor.
Until grade three, Eaton hid his learning difficulties by developing strategies to work around them. For example, he’d get his parents to read his schoolbooks to him, memorize the stories, and then use pictures as cues to know what to recite when called on in class.
But as he got older, textbooks had fewer pictures, so the technique no longer worked. To make matters worse, getting taken out of class for extra help made Eaton the target of bullying by fellow classmates.
“I was teased relentlessly,” he said. “I was the boy who couldn’t read.”
Miserable and defeated, Eaton dropped out of school in fifth grade.
Understanding the Brain
Dyslexia, which means “difficulty with words”, is one of the most common learning disabilities and makes reading, writing and spelling challenging. Signs of dyslexia often surface when children start to practice the alphabet.
“I had speech language issues early on, trouble following oral directions and severe problems acquiring the alphabet,” Eaton said. “I also struggled with naming things.”
Eaton’s parents searched for answers and found the Kildonian School, a boarding school in Pennsylvania for children with severe dyslexia. Eaton attended Kildonian from 1975 to 1978 and, after three years, returned to a mainstream classroom.
However, his school troubles were far from over. He would spend years struggling through post secondary education – first at the University of Southern California and then at the University of British Columbia – before advocating for himself. He eventually started telling professors about his dyslexia and got extra time on tests. He even lobbied the university for an exemption to the second language course requirement.
Eaton now has a B.A. in psychology from UBC and an M.Ed. in special education from Boston University. During his studies, he was taught that the human brain can’t change and people diagnosed with dyslexia have it for life. His personal experience corroborated the story. Then he met Barbara Arrowsmith Young.
She claimed to have developed a program to help students strengthen the cognitive weaknesses that cause learning disabilities. Eaton was skeptical until he saw the updated psycho-educational assessment of a student named Andrew. After three years at the Arrowsmith School in Toronto, his understanding of words went from low to average.
“Before the Arrowsmith program, I believed dyslexia was for life,” Eaton said. “After seeing Andrew’s results, I realized it didn’t have to be.”
The Arrowsmith Difference
Kildonian gave Eaton the tools to cope. But for the last 12 years, he has used the Arrowsmith method to help people with learning disabilities do much more than cope.
Eaton founded Eaton Arrowsmith School (EA) for children and the Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centre (ECIC) for adults. Both use the Arrowsmith method to change the brains of students with learning disabilities.
“Arrowsmith is unique because it looks at the neurological structures that are necessary for reading development,” Eaton said.
Children with severe dyslexia often don’t respond to phonics and other interventions because they don’t have the cognitive strengths to benefit from them. As a result, they are labeled “non-responders” and forced to take long “trial and error” journeys to find solutions.
“We’re able to work with kids with severe dyslexia and improve their reading, speech, and written expression issues,” Eaton said of EA and ECIC.
Specialists working with dyslexia typically focus on an individual’s reading issues. According to Eaton, they don’t see a child’s ability to manage in class, finish tests on time, explain their thoughts, and listen to and follow instructions. They don’t see the overall picture. As a result, students are given approaches to bypass their difficulties, but the underlying weaknesses remain.
“Arrowsmith has a holistic understanding of why dyslexia results in school failure,” Eaton said. “We can go into other areas of the brain and strengthen listening comprehension, output and processing speed. This allows many children with dyslexia to no longer require accommodations and technology to learn and have an equal chance at school.”
Students who were once labeled “non-responders” even show progress when participating in traditional interventions after completing the Arrowsmith Program.
“Students just have to build their neurological capacities first,” Eaton said.