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online classes

Students with disabilities face obstacles taking virtual classes
The Daily Orange, April 8, 2020

For students with disabilities, e-learning fails to replicate in-person attention and support
The Daily Northwestern, April 21, 2020

Online classes pose real ‘learning curve’ for special needs students
The B.C. Catholic, May 8, 2020

Online learning sets students back 5 months on potential reading growth
TechRepublic, May 8, 2020

Online classes pose real learning curve for special needs students
America: The Jesuit Review, May 13, 2020

The headlines noted above point to a significant problem in the field of learning difficulties during this concerning pandemic. The primary cause of this problem is that educational programs in schools today are not addressing the underlying cognitive deficits that result in learning challenges in the first place. Instead they use in-school classroom or resource room support, instructional scaffolding, accommodations, and technology to support the learner rather than addressing the problem. As a result, when these supports all disappear, challenges erupt. The child is struggling to acquire knowledge and, faced with these hurdles, parents are being asked to fill the gap, often unprepared for this reality and overwhelmed with the realization of just how challenging novel learning is for their child.

“A child or adult can improve cognitive deficits, increasing their ability to independently engage in subject matter and master areas of achievement.”

Over the last forty years, Barbara Arrowsmith-Young has dedicated her life to the creation and delivery of the Arrowsmith Program. As one of the first educational pioneers in the field of Educational Neuroscience, she proposed that the brain of a child and adult can change with strategically designed cognitive exercises that target specific cognitive functions related to neurological hubs in the brain, and their interconnected large-scale brain networks. By doing so, a child or adult can improve cognitive deficits, increasing their ability to independently engage in subject matter and master areas of achievement. Prior to the advancement of brain imaging, Barbara relied on cognitive and achievement testing to show the impact of the program on the learner. Today, neuroscientists have studied the brains of children with learning difficulties who have engaged in the Arrowsmith Program. The results have been revolutionary, in that her initial theory advanced decades earlier, is being validated as accurate in advanced brain imaging studies. Indeed, the brain of a child having engaged in an intensive Arrowsmith Program is showing improved neurological functioning. This in turn is being associated with advancements in areas of achievement and ability to acquire novel learning concepts.

Prior to the pandemic, access to the Arrowsmith Program was limited to schools or learning centres willing to adopt the program within their school day. Often parents have served as advocates in schools, and over time, convinced key school administrators that what they were currently delivering to children with learning difficulties was not enough. Thus, over decades, more than 100 schools around the world have adopted the Arrowsmith Program.

“The pandemic caused a major shift in how the Arrowsmith Program would be delivered.”

The pandemic caused a major shift in how the Arrowsmith Program would be delivered. Like in all other schools, students were asked to stay at home to keep safe and healthy and not venture out into the community. The teachers delivering the Arrowsmith Program around the world were wondering how they would continue delivering cognitive exercises to their students.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young was just finishing a book tour in Australia and New Zealand for the new edition of The Woman Who Changed Her Brain. She realized that the facilitator-led in-class instructional format would need to shift to a facilitator-led at-home instructional format. It was essential to the Arrowsmith Program delivery that students received guidance and oversight from their facilitator. One could not give a student a 30-minute morning lesson and then leave them for the rest of the day to complete their work with parental guidance. This was not how advancement in cognitive capacity could be met within the Arrowsmith Program delivery system.

Immediately upon her return to Toronto she got her team together and set about finding a way to deliver the Arrowsmith Program with excellence in the home environment. Fortunately, steps had already been taken years before to make this a reality. First, the Arrowsmith Program had quite a few cognitive exercises that were on the computer. Second, with her team she had developed a remarkable cloud-based technology tracking system and tablet that allowed certified Arrowsmith Program teachers to monitor student performance in real time in the classroom. Clearly, this could also be done if the students were at home working on their computers on the Arrowsmith Program. Third, students could sign onto the Arrowsmith Program platform at home, not just at school. Finally, with the determination and ingenuity of her staff, Barbara shifted other Arrowsmith Program cognitive exercises that were less computer-based into accessible files that could be downloaded or accessed online at the students’ homes.

There was still some uncertainty as to how children and adults working on the Arrowsmith Program at home would perform. Would they struggle at home? Would attention be a problem? How much help would parents need to give their children? Would this slow down their cognitive capacity growth? How would the Arrowsmith Program teacher find online at-home facilitator-led instruction?

To answer these questions, it is important to step back and further discuss how the Arrowsmith Program differs from the support services in schools today for children with learning difficulties. The focus in the majority of schools is to bypass learning weaknesses and discover a student’s strengths. That is, if a student struggles with auditory processing, a school provides as much visual support as possible, if indeed that is a cognitive strength. If the student struggles with concepts, teachers do as much mind-mapping or direct concept instruction as possible, as the student will struggle to independently see relationships between ideas. If the student struggles with organization and planning, they provide as much executive coaching as possible, as the student’s prefrontal cortex is unable to do this executive work independently. This is the nature of the educational paradigm today in school as related to learning difficulties.

Here is the problem when it comes to those instructional supports disappearing as seen during this pandemic. The emergence of online at-home learning means the student with a learning disability cannot learn effectively. The student’s cognitive capacities do not allow them independent access to this novel learning. Suddenly, the parent becomes the teacher, and often realizes just how problematic novel learning is for their child. Remember, this also becomes an issue when the student leaves high school. These cognitive capacity weaknesses remain and suddenly they become barriers to college and the work environment.

“What has been discovered over the last two months in schools engaged in the Arrowsmith Program around the world is that most of the students could do this work either at school or at home.”

On the other hand, the Arrowsmith Program students are given targeted cognitive exercises that challenge and strengthen these weak cognitive capacities. What has been discovered over the last two months in schools engaged in the Arrowsmith Program around the world is that most of the students could do this work either at school or at home. The technology incorporated into the Arrowsmith Program, combined with the facilitator-led instruction and carefully planned delivery of the cognitive exercises, allowed the students to engage in the program with relative ease. Feedback to the student was in real time as the Arrowsmith Program teachers had handheld tablets that displayed their student’s engagement second by second. One parent wrote, “I wanted to write and let you know how much we appreciate all you have done to make this new learning environment enriching, fun and motivating for the students. Our son has really enjoyed the first week and is proud to be working so independently.” Another commented, “We also appreciate that you have made the day so structured and well organized. It allows us to attend to our work while knowing that he is in good hands.” Finally, one parent stated, “My daughter is working hard! She loves the one-on-one with her teacher every morning at 11am, and I am surprised how well it worked for her.”

It is key to remember that the Arrowsmith Program is about strengthening and overcoming cognitive weaknesses. In turn, this improved cognitive capacity allows the student to engage more effectively and efficiently with online educational options. As the brain improves attention, memory, reasoning and/or processing speed, the student with learning difficulties is less challenged when facing novel learning experiences, whether online at home or in school. What is even more promising is that the Arrowsmith Program is now available in more areas around the world due to online at-home access. If you are a parent in a rural area, and an Arrowsmith Program school site is not accessible, or it would be too costly to move, then there are schools offering this online at-home facilitator-led Arrowsmith Program instruction. In fact, there may be other benefits as this one parent wrote to us, “The silver lining in this new reality we are all living is that our son is making huge strides in self-discipline, self-awareness, and self-confidence… and he appreciates not having to rush to the bus in the morning. ;-)”

Howard Eaton, Ed.M.
Eaton Arrowsmith