In Conversation with Barbara Arrowsmith Young

In her book The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, Barbara Arrowsmith Young discusses how she built herself a better brain and  pioneered a brain training program that has helped thousands of others do the same.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young
[Photo Credit: Young Street Media]

What would you say to a traditional family in India when they discover that their child has a learning disability? Why should they maintain a positive outlook?

There is much research being conducted and programs being developed that address the root causes of learning disabilities, that go beneath the symptoms to address the underlying problem. These types of programs, which I refer to as capacity based, are stimulating cognitive functions of the brain, and in doing so they change the fundamental learning capacity of the individual. They do not use compensations or work arounds, which can have some success, but which require enormous amounts of effort and which do not directly address the problem. So my advice would be to seek out via investigation and research these types of programs that are based on neuroscience and an understanding of how the brain functions and are built on the practical application of the principles of neuroplasticity to stimulate and enhance functioning. These programs hold much promise and the program I have developed starting in 1978 is one such program.

What can a school in a developing country do to enhance its curriculum for students with learning disabilities?

Schools can investigate cognitive or capacity based programs as noted in question 1  and implement them within the traditional school system beginning in the early grades. This way school becomes a place where children go to work their brains, to improve cognitive functioning, and also to acquire knowledge and content. It is to me what schools should be doing as we now have the knowledge that the brain can change and .we need to be applying that knowledge to address learning disabilities.Children’s learning problems would be addressed at the outset of their school career and all of the emotional trauma that builds over time as these students experience frustration and failure in trying to learn within the delivery model of  traditional educational curriculum would not occur as their learning problems would be addressed at the beginning of their schooling.

According to you, what was or is the worst that a school or a society has done, which makes a person with learning disabilities go through so much emotional pain?

The biggest problem I see is the belief that children with learning disabilities are not intelligent. The very definition of a learning disability presupposes that the child has at a minimum an average level of intellectual functioning with weaknesses in very specific areas of cognitive functioning that impede the child from utilizing their intelligence in very specific aspects of learning. These children continue to be stigmatized and come to view themselves as inadequate and incompetent. In many cases there is not an open discussion with the child about their struggles and about their strengths so these children learn early on that it is not acceptable to show that they are having difficulty and they develop strategies to hide their difficulties, to feel shame and this leads to a negative self-concept and to not seeking help. We need open dialogue with students about their struggles and to help these students understand there is no shame in having a learning disability – that it is just part of their brain that is not working as well as other parts, and that we as educators can work with these student to find solutions.

Often programs for the learning disabled are inadequately funded.  Therefore, these students are given inadequate support and it almost makes it financially unviable for schools to search for, or implement, such programs as described in Question 1. Also, these students are quite often, and well-meaningly, added to groups of students that do receive government funding in schools who have conditions other than learning disabilities in order to try to provide additional support. However, this leads to inappropriate strategies being used and students believing that their intellectual capacity is lower than it is. That is why they start to feel like, and say, they are ‘stupid’. Teachers can also then start treating them that way because they do not understand what a learning disability is. Then of course there is the perception of other students that peers with learning disabilities are different and need to be treated that way. Students with learning disabilities are then, quite often, not included in regular student activities or social circles. The dialogue about what a learning disability is and how it impacts the learner not only needs to be with the child, but also peer groups and teachers, and indeed family members.

This book talks about different symptoms or problems that people faced and it talks about their transformation. But it doesn’t exactly talk about how they came about the transformation in details. Why is that so?

The goal of this book was to bring understanding to the nature of a very broad range of learning problems, some that are traditionally identified, such as those that impact academic learning – the areas that combine to make reading difficult or those that make comprehension or retention of material problematic – to areas not traditionally identified such as those that affect being able to navigate in space, to those that interfere with being able to read social cues and interact comfortably in the social milieu. The goal was to show how deficits in these areas play out in people’s lives across the lifespan, how they affect the learner in both academic situations, social situations and in the choice of and performance in various vocations. The goal was to bring compassionate understanding to how different cognitive profiles of strengths and weaknesses play out in people’s lives and that much of our behavior is influenced by our cognitive makeup. The brain is complex and the goal of this book was to give a small window into some of the ways its functioning plays out in our lives. The purpose of illustrating the transformation as cognitive areas improved again was to show how the range of functioning, from deficit to strength plays out in people’s lives – to as fully as possible illustrate the nature of each area and its role in how we learn and process information. This book was not intended, nor could it be, a how to book. The complexity of each area demands complex treatment programs that are beyond the scope of this book.  Based on over thirty years of experience, the model that is most effective is an intense training program for teachers who then implement the program within a school system and receive ongoing support and training in delivering the program.

What options are there for people who are financially not in a condition to enroll in such kind of an institute?

I have witnessed the power of parents in advocating for programs for their children and that educators listen to the voices of parents. I would suggest that parents lobby educational institutions to provide for the diverse learning needs of their children within the publicly funded school system so that children can access effective treatments here.

What policies can the government adopt? What role can NGOs play in supporting such children?

Governments can adopt policies of investigating and implementing programs which bridge the gap between education and neuroscience – programs which don’t teach to the symptoms of learning problems but address the underlying causes of the problems. In the end, the cost of not addressing these problems to society is very high. Lost jobs, failed marriages, family stress, emotional problems are a few of the costs of untreated learning disorders.A world summit on learning disabilities in 2008 reported that learning disorders in Canada mean $33 billion a year in lost productivity. Related health care costs added between $10 and $20 billion to that figure.

Governments and NGOs could provide support for the education of professionals that work with people with learning disabilities to broaden their understanding of what it means to have a learning disability. This would also lead to a clearer understanding and discernment of programs used to address LD. NGOs have an equal opportunity in the community as governments to support children with LD. They could also help provide or support provision of wraparound services to address the problems described above.

There have been some comments saying that this book is more of a tool in promoting your school. How do you respond to such naysayers?

My intention in writing this book was not to promote my work but to shed light on the fact that we now have the knowledge to develop programs applying the principles of neuroplasticity, to change the fundamental capacity of the learner, to address the root causes of learning disabilities, and that my program is one such program. My intention was to show how different learning deficits play out in people’s lives, to illustrate how that amazing organ, our human brain, mediates our functioning in the world, to demonstrate that each one of us has our own unique cognitive profile of strengths and weaknesses and this affects where we struggle and where we excel. My hope is that with this growingawareness we have more compassionate understanding of our own functioning and of the functioning of others.The feedback I have received as I have spoken to audiences about the book is that it has accomplished this. People stop attacking themselves for areas in which they have struggled, begin to understand the reasons why and begin to have more acceptance of themselves.

The concept of neuroplasticity has been a tremendous breakthrough. Especially for India, where according to the reports, 10% or more of the kids have learning disability. Do you see any scope of maybe collaborating with the Indian institutions to work for that cause?

I would be interested in exploring with Indian institutions on how to implement this program into schools. The program is currently implemented effectively in 35 schools in North America and two schools in Australia. The delivery model has been refined over the past fifteen years and involves training teachers in the methodology and providing ongoing monitoring of student progress and ongoing support and training to the teachers to ensure the effectiveness of the program.

How can we generate more awareness about the whole concept of neuroplasticity?

I think awareness can be generated by forums such as ‘Grey Matters’ that bring together people writing on and interested in this subject matter. More and more is being published on the brain, its functioning and its capacity for change and these findings are being reported on in the mass media from television to print.

Can neuroplasticity be used to treat mental health issues like schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder?

I can’t speak to this in any depth as it is outside of the scope of my work. I do know there is much promising research being conducted in applying the principles of neuroplasticity to the treatment of mental illness and much has been published on this and is available in the public domain via research on the internet.

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