The brain is one of the most intricate and important organs of the human body. And it's crucial to helping kids overcome learning disabilities, especially dyslexia and autism.
With PET and CT scans along with other modern technological advances, we now know more about the brain than at any time in history.
We know that new neural pathways can be built in the brain at any age. We know that through visual touch points, we can access certain parts of the brain and "plug in" areas of deficit. We know that the brain can be integrated so the right and left hemispheres can work together as a whole. We know that movement is important in building new pathways, and that doing nothing is like wasting away in a desert.
Yet, educators rarely take the brain into consideration when trying to help a learning disabled child. It's sad, really, that this information exists yet isn't being used.
At Harp, we understand the importance of the brain and ensure that every student has a complete brain retraining once a week. This is specific to the child's needs and is only done once a week because the brain likes to work then it likes to rest. Overwhelming an already frazzled brain only serves to confuse and upset the student!
It's All in the Wiring!
Students with learning disabilities aren't less intelligent than their peers. They just aren't wired for the academic tasks that their peers seem to do with ease. They might think great thoughts, but their eyes can't focus or move smoothly across a page. They might be jumpy and jerky, which is a physical limitation, not an intelligence issue.
You might tell your child to go upstairs, get her shoes, coat, and books, only to find her standing blankly in her room twenty minutes later. She has no sense of time and can't remember what you asked her to do. Auditory information seems to slip through her ears without sticking to a single thing.
Once again, this isn't an intelligence issue. It's an auditory processing issue.
Did you know that with specific, detailed exercises that cross the mid line of the body while looking in certain directions, that you can retrain the brain for better learning? That you can build those new neural pathways in the brain that are specific to your child's wiring deficits.
Step-by-step, we start each student with basic visual skills then move to more difficult auditory skills. Once these basic sensory skills are wired properly, we can move on to more specific skills, like sounding out words or performing math problems with accuracy.
This is what helps information "stick" so students can remember formulas. So auditory and visual information can be understood and processed quickly and with ease. So your child can focus and attend to the skills being taught at school. So learning can be a breeze.
The Amazing Brain
The brain develops in specific and important ways. If something goes wrong during this development, like a high fever or a head injury, the brain might not wire correctly. Sometimes a baby doesn't crawl properly or spend enough time performing this important physical activity. Or, like with dyslexia, genetic components might interfere. Sometimes, like with autism, we're not really sure what happened in this development, only that it isn't quite right.
The human brain is made up of many parts that must work together to function. Some of these parts are interconnected at birth, but many of the parts need to be "wired" after birth. If a student has a learning issue or disability, we can integrate these parts of the brain so they work together as a synchronized "whole". This is called "whole" brain learning instead of right or left brain learning.
Whole brain learners have an easier time with academics and school in general over their one-sided counterparts.
The Brain and the Senses
Students who don't perceive the world and information they take in visually cannot function well academically. Reading, writing, spelling, and math are difficult because they view letters and numbers as moving, slanted, upside down, or fuzzy. Small halos might surround shapes they see and they skip lines or lose their place when reading. A page of visual stimuli is enough to literally make these kids sick to their stomachs.
Did you know that we take in light with our eyes but actually see in our brains? The processing of visual information takes place in our brains, which means that unless your child has an issue with focusing, eye alignment, astigmatism, or light issues, we can rewire the brain to "see" correctly. By practicing certain visual processing skills like visual closure, discrimination, memory, and tracking along with specific physical exercises that cross the midline of the body and access visual touch points in the brain, we can rewire the brain to perceive information correctly.
The same goes for hearing. We take in sound with our ears but process auditory information in our brains. Students who don't process auditory information correctly have a difficult time with academics because they can't understand what the teacher is saying.
They might hear only parts of words or sounds that are spoken. They might not be able to tune out background noises, like a computer whirring away or a plane flying through the sky. Sounds that shouldn't bother us, like a pencil or pen moving across paper, might sound as loud as a jet engine to students with auditory processing issues. These kids might not hear the beginnings or endings of words or might only hear the middle parts. They might hear basic sounds incorrectly. For instance, instead of hearing the "ch" sound, they might hear it as "sh".
When it comes time to manipulate auditory information, these kids are lost. They end up guessing or avoiding the question asked of them. Or, they might retreat or act out. Even worse, because auditory processing is crucial to human communication, these students might have significant social skills issues or have temper problems.
Comprehension not only of information that is read or heard is weak, but also the basic skills prudent to survival can be compromised.
Skills such as auditory closure, discrimination, synthesis, memory, and sequential auditory memory can be strengthened. By having the students engage in a specific brain training exercise, they can build new neural pathways in their brains and learn to process auditory information correctly.
The Right-Brain Dominant Learner
Most students with learning issues are right-brain dominant. They take in visual and auditory information and it stays on the right side of the brain for the most part, bouncing around instead of crossing the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers that runs through the center of the brain. The corpus callosum is the integration point between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and it allows the two sides to communicate with each other.
Sometimes, it serves as a barrier instead of a bridge, and the student becomes "stuck" on one side, usually the right side.
Because of this, these kids are bright, creative, musical, love movement, and often day dream. They love to be creative and learn by "seeing" the whole picture instead of breaking things into bit-by-bit thinking. Kids who are right-brain dominant thrive on using their emotions and are drawn to color, shapes, and pictures. They're good at problem solving and can be expressive.
The Left-Brain Dominant Learner
Students who are left-brain dominant usually have an easier time with academics than their right-brain dominant peers. That's because school now is mostly asking for left-brain dominant activities and learning. Math, phonics, reasoning, bit-by-bit thinking, and organizational skills all lie in the left side of the brain.
But if the student has a difficult time accessing the right hemisphere, he may lack social skills and the ability to problem solve. She may get so hung up on the amount of pencils in her pencil box that she can't function unless they're all lined up in a neat row. He might be rigid and unyielding, talk in a monotone, or lack the ability to read social cues in others.
Many autistic kids are left-brain dominant, and they fail to find humor in normally humorous situations and fail to understand idioms and inferences. Asking them to see the "whole picture" is like asking them to climb Mount Everest. These kids often get so hung up with details that they can't finish an assignment. They are often perfectionists who are extremely hard on themselves.
The Brain "Breakdown"
There are many things that can go wrong with the amazing brain. As we already stated, struggling students can get "caught" in one hemisphere of the brain where the corpus callosum serves as a barrier instead of a bridge.
Sometimes, students get stuck "trying" new skills. Activities like visually discriminating between shapes or processing auditory cues that should have been easy and automated still remain difficult. These kids have to engage in consciously "trying" to do these activities since they never became automatic. There is a "breakdown" in the mechanical process and it is a lot of work for the students to perform these seemingly simple activities. They don't possess the electrical circuitry that would free them up from concentrating on the mechanics, so the task is laborious when it should be so simple that it doesn't require conscious thought. We refer to these kids as "slow processors".
Since the right side of the brain is responsible for movement, especially automatic movement, some students have to be "moving" to learn. These kids seem to be all over the place, and they appear to be "fast processors". Their feet are tapping, their fingers thrum on their desks, they might be humming or saying words as they work, or they might have to be out of their seats to be working.
All too often, these kids are misdiagnosed as having ADHD and placed on potent medications they don't need. If schools and teachers would understand that they need to sit on big balls or wiggle chairs, then everyone would be happy. These kids often need to go to the bathroom a lot, and then teachers and administrators put an end to this. It's too bad, because if these kids were given a short break...like going to the restroom, then they could come back and crank out a lot of work.
The right side of the brain is responsible for emotions. As mentioned before, autistic students often have a difficult time accessing the right side of the brain to understand and process emotions. They get stuck on an idea or injustice and "die on a hill" over it. These kids often have a high moral compass...for someone else's behavior...but they can't see any faults in their own.
On the flip side, kids who are right-brain dominant have an influx of emotions and often have a hard time processing them because it's like a never ending storm. They get stuck in their emotions and don't know how to get out of them.
These kids often feel persecuted and have temper issues. They might be overly sensitive and get their feelings hurt easily. They easily get overwhelmed and are the ones who either dawdle over homework or have fits over having to do it. If they don't understand why they need to do something, they will often either refuse to do it or kick up a fight over it.
But don't despair, these kids have gifts, too. They are often highly perceptive and people will swear they can "read minds" or predict the future. Of course they can't do this, but they have learned how to read other people's emotions. These kids can also "con" you with a sweet smile on their faces. They've learned to do these things as coping mechanisms and often grow up to be successful entrepreneurs.
Integrating Both Halves of the Brain
By now you should see that we need both sides of our brain to learn and process information with ease. While reading, we need to hear sounds, see images, move our eyes across the page, and perform a host of other sensory activities...all at the same time. We need to put this information together to make meaning. When preparing to perform a task, we need to see it as a whole and break it down into little bits. We need to process emotions so they don't bog us down or interfere with learning success.
So...how do we integrate both halves of the brain so that the corpus callosum serves as a bridge for neural pathways?
To start, a baby doesn't have an integrated corpus callosum at birth. That's why it is so hard for a baby to find its thumb to suck at first. A baby has to work at rolling over and pulling herself up on all fours to crawl. The baby's brain isn't wired yet for these physical tasks.
But true brain integration happens when the baby learns to crawl. As the baby looks up and in certain directions, this begins the brain wiring for future academic and thinking tasks.
For instance, when a baby crawls and looks up and to the left, he is "plugging" in visual memory. Of course, visual memory is crucial to mastering a host of academic as well as life skills.
Of course, there are other ways that humans wire their brains, but researchers have found that we access certain sensory points in our brains when we look in specific directions. The chart above details these sensory points.
If something happens during a child's development or if she is "wired" differently and has a learning disability, we can go back and emulate that initial "plugging in" of certain tasks. This is a very specific activity that involves crossing the midline of the body while accessing these sensory points in the brain. This neuro-sensory exercise not only helps students academically, but it changes lives.
The human brain is organized in three different ways: side to side, back to front, and bottom to top. Sometimes students might have "wiring" issues as a result of delayed or improper brain development in one, two, or three of these areas.
Side to side brain development and the issues it presents in learning disabilities has already been pointed out.
Back to front brain development presents a different situation. Students with this "miswiring" have trouble storing information in the back of their brains. They have trouble with auditory and visual memory, which means that reading is extremely difficult for them. They have trouble recalling math facts, remembering people's names or faces, and struggle to pass tests even though they know the information. Spelling and reading rules seem like a different language to them. These kids have trouble expressing ideas and explaining information, so writing is difficult for them.
During their attempt to retrieve information, there is a "short circuit" of the wiring in their brains. It doesn't matter how hard they try, this information just won't present itself. It is locked in the back of the brain and can't find its way out. Once the pressure is off, the student might recall the information or it might pop into his head for no reason at all.
Kids with top to bottom brain development issues usually appear to be clumsy or uncoordinated. Writing and self-expression are difficult skills to master for these students. There is an emotional component to this miswiring, and because of this, they often shut down when asked to do too much. These kids can often be found walking on their toes and can benefit from exercises like lunges to help ease the problems of self expression and fight and fight or flight.
Fight or Flight
Emotions, especially stress and fear, have the capacity to short circuit the brain's wiring, especially if the student has top to bottom integration issues. Since survival is the brain's priority, it throws the stops "thinking" and higher level strategies in order to protect itself.
Think about it. Have you ever lost a toddler or seen a car wreck? Can you think at the time when your hands are shaking and you're trying to dial 911? Could you pass a test or memorize your math facts at that point in time?
No, you couldn't because you are in fight or flight, the body's way to survive at all costs. As adrenaline floods your body, you fight the urge to run.
Yet students every day go to school and live through fight or flight for six or seven hours. They can't engage in higher level thinking skills because they are sure the teacher is going to call on them to read or they'll have to go to the board and do a math problem in front of everyone. They are afraid of appearing dumb or stupid. Sometimes, these kids are bullied and live in fear that they will be physically harmed during recess or the bus ride home.
Every brain adapts to its environment based on experience, and we send our children to school at five years old, often when they aren't developmentally ready to do the work asked of them. Add several years of bad experiences, and these kids live in fight or flight hour after hour, day after day.
Sometimes...it doesn't end. These patterns are set in the child until she grows up, until she only knows fight or flight. 80% of our prison population has a learning disability. 48% are dyslexic.
It doesn't have to be this way!
We know more about the brain now than ever before. We should all be using this information to heal our children, to give them a shot at academic and life success. No child should have to spend his life in fight or flight because of learning issues. No child should worry about bullies or failing a test. Learning should be fun. Learning should happen easily. Learning isn't memorizing information for a test thenforgetting it once the test is over.