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Starting Eaton Arrowsmith

I was flying 35,000 feet over the province of British Columbia and could see the stunning Rocky Mountains below as I glanced down at my notebook. It was December 2004 and I was returning home after five days of visiting the Arrowsmith School in Toronto. But now I faced a difficult decision as an educator.

Should I start an Arrowsmith school in Vancouver? I was concerned that some of my colleagues might not agree with opening such a school – especially those who were immersed in Dyslexia remediation (phonics) and bypassing neurological weaknesses through the use of technology.

I did however believe parents would be highly interested in this school, as many of my clients expressed frustration with the public and private education systems in serving the needs of children with learning disabilities.

By the time the plane flew over the Fraser River, past the Oak Street Bridge and settled onto the runway at Vancouver International Airport, I had made up my mind. My excitement was too great. I knew I had to bring the Arrowsmith Program to Vancouver. I was tired of recommending the same bypass strategies for children with learning disabilities. I no longer wanted to work around cognitive weaknesses; I wanted to offer solutions and possibilities. And the Arrowsmith Program’s possibilities were too great to ignore.

The Decision to Trust

In February 2005, I announced to the public that Eaton Arrowsmith (EA) would open in September of that same year on the University of British Columbia (UBC) campus. In a matter of months, 55 families wanted to enroll their children at our school. By the second year, 115 local children attended EA.

It was clear that parents weren’t satisfied with other interventions offered at public schools or private schools specifically designed for children with learning disabilities. Many parents were also familiar with my work and quite a few had their children tested at my educational assessment centre. They trusted my recommendations, support of the Arrowsmith Program, and belief in how it could help their children.

I also trusted Barbara Arrowsmith-Young and the program she founded. This did, however, take some time. I spoke to a colleague who visited her in Toronto in the late 1990s. I met with her in Vancouver over coffee to discuss what she was doing through a recommendation of a client. I observed my clients going to Toronto to attend her school, and later witnessed their improvements through updated psycho-educational assessments. Finally, I met with her, her team, children in the Arrowsmith Program, and parents in Toronto over the span of five days before I finally developed enough trust to start the program in Vancouver.

Trust played a big role in my decision. But how do parents decide whether to enroll their children in the Arrowsmith Program? It’s definitely different for each parent. The strengths and weaknesses in a parent’s cognitive profile can influence the decision. Emotions also play a big part. For example, taking a child out of his or her current school can feel overwhelming and sad.

But trust is eventually formed through the decision-making process. Parents realize that the Arrowsmith Program could make a difference in their child’s life. But for changes to happen, they also need to trust that their child can engage in the program, that he or she will not miss out on important curriculum, and that he or she will be successful after returning to public or private school. The decision is complex and involves many variables. I know some parents who have used spreadsheets to work through a maze of questions.

Decision-Making Questions

One could write a book on making decisions related to education for children with learning disabilities. In my experience in the field, and through consultations with hundreds of families, there are a few questions that can help parents facing challenging decisions.

  1. What am I really doing this for?
  2. Who am I making this decision for?
  3. Will I be okay if the decision does not work?
  4. How can I protect against making the wrong decision?

What am I really doing this for?

In regards to the Arrowsmith Program, this question appears straightforward. The answer would appear to be, “I want my child to have a better future and not suffer through life with a cognitive weakness”.  Though, there are numerous other answers. For example, a parent might be thinking, “I don’t want my child to fail like I did in school and become depressed” or “My daughter struggles socially and it is tough to watch. I want a solution to this problem”.

The decision-making process can be very different in a two-parent family. In fact, one parent may not even be considering the Arrowsmith Program as an option, while the other is. That can be a problem. It is more common to see both parents asking, “What am I really doing this for?” It is best to discuss opinions openly with each other, with friends, with family, and anyone else who might be able to help you make a decision.

Who am I making this decision for?

The answer to this question might seem simple: the child, right? But this is not always the case. For example, a mother may recognize that her daughter is struggling in school. The child might have tried reading programs with some success, but still faces challenges in the classroom. She also has problems with organization and planning, as well as social skills. However, the mother likes the private school her daughter attends. In fact, she attended it a few decades ago, and felt it was the best time of her life.

The father observes the anxiety his daughter’s learning challenges put on both her and his wife – tears at night during homework and high levels of stress during exam times that make family life unpleasant. The parents have talked about the Arrowsmith Program extensively. The father wants his daughter to do the program in order to reduce both her learning struggles and his wife’s anxiety at home. The mother wants the child to do the program, but also loves her relationship with her alma mater. She does not want to lose this relationship. When it comes down to it, parents have to ask, “Who am I making this decision for?”

Will I be okay if the decision does not work?

The chances of the Arrowsmith Program not working for your child is very low. The Arrowsmith Program is so well designed that progress is easily attainable for each child. There is a high probability the program will improve a child’s cognitive capacities. Each child progresses at a different rate depending on numerous variables, including brain plasticity capabilities, ability to focus, diet, sleep, exercise patterns, mindset and self-belief. All these factors are discussed with school staff as a child moves through the program.

But let’s say your child does not respond positively to the Arrowsmith Program. He or she can return to the public or private school system. The child can also attend another private school for children with learning disabilities that provides the necessary support to get him or her through elementary, or high school and into a postsecondary option.

It could also be that the program did not work for your child at that time because he or she struggled to engage in the exercises. A child’s attention span could have been weak, even with medication, making the cognitive exercises nearly impossible. Again, this is rare, but if it does occur, there is always the possibility of returning to the Arrowsmith Program at a later stage of life when the attention system is more developed.

Deciding not to do the Arrowsmith Program at all due to fear that it will not work often leaves parents wondering what impact it could have had both educationally and socially.

How can I protect against making the wrong decision?

In my mind, this is a really important question. What if you are worried about taking your child out of a well-respected private school and not being given reassurance that your child will be re-admitted upon completion of the Arrowsmith Program? Or, what if you are worried that your child will spend three years in the Arrowsmith Program only to find out that he or she still struggles in a regular public or private school because of anxiety? All these questions have to be thought through. In regards to re-admission into a private school, one could meet with staff and ask them if they would seriously consider having your child back upon completion of the Arrowsmith Program. Would they put your child on a list of admissions for that year well in advance to give him or her top consideration? In regards to anxiety, it might be wise to start counseling or treatment for anxiety while your child engages in the Arrowsmith Program. Though, improving cognitive capacities could help reduce a child’s anxiety. Finding ways to protect yourself from a wrong decision is important.


“One method is to contemplate options and select the one that you feel a sense of excitement for.” 

Katherine Melo Sipe

“Imagine having made the decision. If you get a feeling of relief, that’s the way to go, even if it’s coupled with sadness.” 

Emma Gilding

Both Sipe and Gilding make good points about decision-making. I think they reflect why so many parents decide to enroll their children in the Arrowsmith Program. Often, they are excited and relieved to be making a choice that will help resolve the cognitive weaknesses causing their child’s learning struggles – even though there may be some sadness in leaving their existing educational community. Trust in the decision develops over time, as the child progresses in the program. Families often observe changes in behaviour at the three-month point. Though, for some parents, the decision is fully validated upon return to a public or private school where the child is able to learn with greater independence.

Making an educational decision on behalf of your child takes great responsibility. Facing fear, knowing that a decision might not work, or asking your child to trust you in your decision-making takes a tremendous amount of courage and leadership. This is exactly how I felt when I decided to start Eaton Arrowsmith in Vancouver.

There is no doubt that it is all done out of an undeniable love for your child. Just knowing you can make a decision is a blessing, as the Arrowsmith Program is not available in many communities, and the cost in many private schools is currently high. Hopefully, as more and more research on the Arrowsmith Program paves the way, the option to have it available in public schools at no cost to families will be attainable.