You are going to the FPEA Florida Homeschool Convention and are looking for “the” perfect curriculum that will make all the difference for your child. You’re frustrated and tired, and you’ve tried everything you can think of to help your child who struggles in areas where other kids just seem to get it. The problem, however, isn’t necessarily the curriculum, but the way your child receives the information and processes it.
Using a computer analogy, most programs work effectively, but they need the correct operating system. For example, you wouldn’t use a Windows 7 program on a Windows 95 computer. The program is fine, but it’s not going to run until you upgrade the computer system. What are you supposed to do? Fortunately for our children, there are people out there who are the brain equivalent of computer geeks.
At one time I was just like you. I had a daughter who seemed able to do certain things with great ease, while other tasks, such as a simple writing assignment, were insurmountable. I tried a lot of things. I even spoke to a homeschool mom with an education degree in special learning disabilities. In short, she is an expert in education of those with learning challenges. She explained that her professional training taught her to “teach through the strengths” to input the information, ignoring the weaknesses. However, she further explained that this approach did not really work, and she had firsthand failures using this approach with her own children with various learning challenges.
Not willing to accept that this was the only option available, I researched programs that focused on remediating the weaknesses, to see if there were any indications of success. With a background in health care law and languages, I was not intimidated by the medical aspects and the technical terms. So I began researching neuroscience. For the purposes of this discussion, neuroscience helps us understand the brain’s nerve pathways and their relationship to behavior and learning. The main thing you need to know is that there are neurons connected by a neurotransmitter (often thought of in terms of an impulse) crossing the synapse. This is how learning takes place.
Think back to when your children were first learning how to talk. One day they would have only a couple of words, and the next day they would have 10. Their speech would grow exponentially. This developmental change occurred because functioning neurons began connecting to neurons previously outside the system. As development occurs, the map of the brain expands. Children with learning challenges often have brain maps like a roadway system with dead ends, gridlock, one-way roads, and winter visitors.
The key here is to do some road (or brain) construction. Don’t worry — this takes much less time than widening an interstate. We need to decide which particular learning skills will help the child learn, retain and retrieve the information we want them to get. We start by looking at the main underlying learning skills that are the foundation upon which learning rests. These main skills work in concert with one another. If there is a deficit in one area, it can impact others.
The six main learning skills are processing speed, visual processing, working memory (visual and auditory), word attack skills, auditory analysis, and executive functioning skills of focus and attention as well as organization and planning. For details on how these processes work, what a child looks like with a deficit in one or more of these areas, and recommended solutions, visit www.thebraintrainers.net.
What worked for my child was a series of brain-training exercises that used targeted activities specifically geared to force neural activity (activity in the neurons). When this activity occurred, the new pathways were developed (no more gridlock), strengthening the skills. Like training for a marathon, this process requires four main things: increased intensity, increased complexity, frequency and duration. Add in some fun, and the release of dopamine into the system creates a chemical reaction, locking in the new learning skills.
This quest has led me to become a cognitive skills trainer. I have consulted with many parents over the last few years, troubleshooting various programs, approaches and their effectiveness. The features I look for in an excellent program include fun activities that are age-appropriate without being too immature for the more advanced student, a built-in mechanism requiring the student to spend a minimum amount of time on task and to participate in all the activities (not just the ones they enjoy), and a broad range of underlying skills being worked on in sequence or in concert with one another. Good tracking and reporting also helps parents and children see progress.
I have learned there are good programs and mediocre ones, but essentially all seem to take valuable resources and time. Since both of these commodities are precious, especially in our homeschooling environment, I encourage you to research your options carefully and remember that there is help. Even a perceived negative diagnosis is merely a starting point, not the end.
Written by: Tara Jenner, Fort Myers District 11
She is the founder of The Brain Trainers, which serves the needs of students and adults who either have learning challenges or just want to improve existing skills. More information may be received by visiting www.thebraintrainers.net or calling 239-218-4307.