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Several years ago I recall sitting at my office desk reviewing an assessment that our group of psychologists had conducted on a 12-year-old boy. This boy had a severe non-verbal learning disability, which impacted his written output abilities and ability to understand concepts and social cues. In other words, he was completely confused and he was just trying to survive life.

His mother was at her wits end, and his father was exhausted with the pain he felt watching his wife and son suffer. They wanted first to know what problem their son was dealing with, but most importantly, to find solutions.

I understood the neurological causes of this child’s learning disability, but I had no solution for them. This boy would just have to live with these neurological problems for the rest of his life. How do you tell a parent this?

In the field of learning disabilities the solution is simple: deal with it. Once diagnosed you are told to accept it and be proud of your unique cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Even famous people have learning disabilities! Then you hope your child’s school will be helpful and provide accommodations and technology to make academic life easier.

I knew this was going to be my speech to this family. I had made it a hundred times before.

The problem is that it’s inaccurate. The truth is that most people with learning disabilities have a greater chance of unemployment than those without learning disabilities. The odds of success diminish as a result of a diagnosed learning disability caused by specific neurological weaknesses that remain unaddressed.

So, I had the diagnosis, but no solution to improve this child’s neurological profile. Rather, this boy and thousands like him, have to learn to survive with their specific cognitive challenges.

A new solution

Fortunately, two years later, parents that I had worked with told me about the Arrowsmith Program and Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s work out of Toronto, ON, Canada. I recall my initial hesitation on hearing about a program that improved cognitive weaknesses in children with learning disabilities. I went through graduate school believing that the brain was fixed, so this news challenged my brain’s belief system. It felt uncomfortable, unusual and disconnecting to my normal reality.

But these parents did not share my reaction. This was their children who were suffering.  Why wouldn’t they look to find a solution?

These parents decided to move to Toronto so their children could attend the Arrowsmith Program.  Three years later, they returned to Vancouver, BC and requested that I update their children’s psychoeducational assessments. To my surprise their cognitive profiles improved, and in some areas their learning disabilities were no longer diagnosable.

The Turning Point

This was my turning point. I was aware of the possibility that if a child improved cognitive or neurological capacity, his or her life would change significantly. It was really a no-brainer; I had to bring the Arrowsmith Program to Vancouver.

So, here you are trying to determine if the Arrowsmith Program is right for your child.

Yes, there is the cost, but let’s take that out of the equation – with great respect for the financial sacrifice this requires – and consider other reasons why you might be undecided.

For example, I do know parents who choose other private schools for children with learning disabilities (like dyslexia) that offer everything (academic classes and electives such as word working, information technology, drama, etc.,) EXCEPT intensive cognitive intervention. Therefore, these parents, and I am saying this without criticism, are choosing to allow their children to live with their cognitive weaknesses for the rest of their lives.

Also, there are parents who feel that the work is too hard. That cognitive intervention is difficult and they’re not sure their child can do this work.

Finally, there are parents who think cognitive intervention is only for more severe cases of learning disabilities, rather than their child’s less complicated learning challenges.  Let’s review each of these cases and consider them with respect and reasoning.

Normal Education

First, we are so used to what is considered a “normal” education that anything outside this paradigm is cognitively and emotionally uncomfortable. I speak with experience here. I felt this way when I first heard about the Arrowsmith Program. I get it.  However, as you consider options for your child, it means that you have to contemplate being different than the norm.

If you’re considering a private school, you will most likely look at programs recommended by psychologists (who by the way have been impacted by this normalization process). These psychologists often have relationships with the professionals and schools they refer to – as I did when I was in that business. Therefore, even the psychologists (though they may not want to admit it) are bound by their belief systems and long-standing professional relationships. From my personal experience, I know it’s hard to escape this normalization process.

So, how do you move away from “normal”? Be informed. Research. Learn. 

Parents considering Eaton Arrowsmith School or Eaton Cognitive Improvement Centre will be considering a program that is not the normal or average recommendations for anyone diagnosed with a learning disability.

Despite the fact that we’ve been around for 10 years, a large number of psychologists still won’t refer their patients to our school or centre. The same goes for private schools in the Vancouver area, who still tell interested parents they should question what we offer in terms of cognitive remediation.

What about the research?  

Should that not be considered when making decisions for appropriate support services for children with learning disabilities? I say, absolutely. When I first heard about the Arrowsmith Program back in 2004 I searched for research. I was fascinated to read the research results from Dr. William Lancee, from Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. His research showed that as you improve cognitive functioning related to key achievement skills you get improvements in those achievement domains (reading, writing, mathematics).

A study out of the Toronto Catholic School District (TCSB) showed that as students in the Arrowsmith Program transitioned full-time into core academic subjects, a majority of them no longer required learning assistance or resource room support.

As well, Dr. Brad Hale, at the University of Calgary, analyzed results from the Arrowsmith Program and highlighted improvements in cognition and achievement. His graduate students presented the findings at the American Psychological Association and Canadian Psychological Association.

These were not peer-reviewed published results, but it was research that was intriguing enough to make me wonder what could be possible for children with learning disabilities in British Columbia.

Today, three major studies are underway, two at the University of British Columbia under the direction of Dr. Lara Boyd (learning disabilities) and Dr. Naznin Viji-Babul (brain injury). Another is being conducted at Southern Illinois University under the direction of Dr. Greg Rose (learning disabilities).  Peer-reviewed papers will be published from these studies in the near future, but preliminary findings indicate neurological change has taken place and the benefits are seen in standardized measures of cognitive functioning.

How about the issue of offering a broad education that includes all the core academic subjects and extracurricular activities?  Here is my reasoning on this question. Why do all this when neurological deficits are causing your child’s problems? What is more critical for your child’s future? Is it taking Science and Social Studies, and having a class in Information Technology, or is it the life-long problem with interpreting social cues and understanding material with multiple concepts? I argue the latter for two reasons. First, if you don’t deal with it now, there will come a time when these neurological weaknesses will not be accommodated. My argument is to deal with the root cause of the learning disabilities immediately to broaden opportunities for the future. Also, after more than a decade of implementing the Arrowsmith Program, the impact of not doing all core academic subjects and not offering a broad range of electives is minimal at best.

Second, there are parents that feel that the Arrowsmith Program is too hard and only for children with really severe learning disabilities. The question of difficulty really is an intriguing one and has influences on the cultural approach to remediating learning disabilities. Remember, the current paradigm approach to remediation for learning disabilities is to make learning easier – thus the idea of accommodations and use of assistive technology. What do I mean by easier?  Well, how do we bypass these neurological or cognitive deficits so the child does not struggle when trying to learn or show knowledge through various forms of assessment? Again, remember, the concept in acceptance is that these are life-long or permanent disabilities, and thus the child must be given a chance. In fact, most private schools for children with learning disabilities (such as dyslexia) provide the academic curriculum in a format that is less challenging than other educational systems. Schools provide learning assistance classrooms or resource rooms so that children with learning disabilities can get extra help, as they are often frustrated with trying to understand concepts in their other classrooms. Why do we accept this, when in fact we can attempt to improve these neurological or cognitive weaknesses?

I believe that culturally the majority of the population has agreed that learning disabilities are life-long – that these neurological weaknesses are unchangeable, even with the evidence from neuroscience highlighting the fact that the brain can change. We even see this debate in the field of brain injury rehabilitation. This notion of making life easier therefore becomes a discussion point for those with learning disabilities.

If the majority of professionals working with children with learning disabilities understood and accepted the concept of neuroplasticity and cognitive intervention then this would be their first recommendation for remediation. They would say, “Why are you doing learning resource room support, when you could be improving brain functioning?”  Sadly, we are not there yet culturally and it may take another generation to fully appreciate the power of the brain to change itself.

I have heard some parents say, “The Arrowsmith Program is only for severe learning disabilities, and my child just has some minor issues.” Well, guess what? A minor issue can turn into major learning challenges. As well, you would be surprised what you don’t know about your child in terms of how he or she is trying to manage the stress of his or her workload. The Arrowsmith Program is not just for children with severe learning disabilities, and in fact, some of the fastest neurological progress can come from children dealing with relatively few neurological challenges. Therefore, after just one year, the Arrowsmith Program can result in academic progress that would not have occurred without improving cognitive weaknesses.

I have seen this in my own daughter, who engaged in the Arrowsmith Program at the age of 12 for one year. She had issues related to written output and cause and effect reasoning. That one-year allowed for a successful transition to a public high school in Vancouver. She is aware of the impact the Arrowsmith Program had on her educational success, and she definitely did not have severe and multiple cognitive concerns.

In September 2005 I started Eaton Arrowsmith School under great criticism.  In fact, I was removed from various learning disability association boards, and was criticized directly by university professors.  Psychologists that I had worked with for years also refused to refer clients to our school. Ten years later, there has been some change in this perspective, but still there is a core group of learning disability professionals that want to keep the status quo. This is very troubling to me, as their clients will feel the impact.

I was fortunate enough to contact the parents of the boy with non-verbal learning disabilities once I knew we were going to start the school in Vancouver. They enrolled their son and he went on to graduate from high school and start post secondary studies. He now has a career in the hotel industry, and looks back at his time in the Arrowsmith Program as transformational. He agrees it was hard work, but it also changed his brain.