Neuroscience Meets Your Child With Disabilities

In the summer edition of the Florida Parent Educator’s Almanac magazine I found the following article by Tara Jenner, founder of The Brain Trainers.  As you will read in this article Tara is a cognitive skills trainer, who serves the needs of students and adults who either have learning challenges or just want to improve existing skills.  Tara graciously agreed to allow me to reprint the article and even added additional information about the specific programs she recommends.  To find out more about The Brain Trainers visit www.thebraintrainers.net or call Tara at 239-218-4307.

You are going to a homeschool convention or are searching the Internet or catalogues 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 the 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 who had 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 is the brain’s nerve pathways and their relationship to behavior and learning. The main thing you need to know is that we have neurons connected by jumping synapses. 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 and approaches and evaluating 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. For on-line programs I also look for 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) as well as a broad range of underlying skills being worked on in sequence or in concert with one another. Good tracking and reporting help both 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.

My favorite one-on-one training program is the brainchild of Jane Davis of Brain Potential Institute (http://www.brainpotentialinstitute.com) out of Conroe, Texas. Three programs cover everything your student may need. Brain Potential’s base training program, “Genius in Training” has over 45 activities from which a tailored training program addressing your student’s needs can be selected. Activities include the 6 skills mentioned above plus over a dozen more, such as rapid naming/rapid recognition, dictations skills, and code and symbol recognition to name a few. These activities can be geared for the very young to the elderly and readily address learning deficits seen in children who may be suspected of ADD/ADHD, Asperger’s, ASD, and other presentations, as well as those who have had traumatic brain injury, stroke or early onset of adult dementia.

Brain Potential’s companion programs, which may be introduced concurrently, are CLUES and LABS. These programs address basic auditory analysis and complete sound to code repair respectively. This is crucial for those students with reading, spelling, listening, and/or comprehension problems.

Brian Potential’s programs are usually offered one hour per day, 5 days per week through completion of the programs with an average of 70-80 hours per student, depending upon the severity of their deficits and age of the student. Although a one-on-one program, The Brain Trainers can offer this program remotely using Skype and Brain Potential’s VOLT (Virtual On-Line Training) protocol, affording you personal instruction without having to travel from your home.

My second favorite one-on-one program is PACE (Processing and Cognitive Enhancement) and its companion phonics program, Master the Code. It is not as extensive as Genius in Training and the developer precludes internet training opportunities in order to limit licensed providers to a specified geographical region.

The best computer-based program I have evaluated is BrainSkills.   BrainSkills is the computer rendition of PACE. The developer is currently working on a computerized version of Master the Code (but it is not expected to be available for Beta testing prior to Jan 2011).

BrainSkills is a basic program that is a great value for the price. At $495 per student for the entire program, it is probably the best financial deal if your student is in need of average but not extensive repair. This program is still intense as you still need to ensure your student completes one hour of active training (not idle time) 5 days out of every 7, for about a 12 -16 week period. I have found that BrainSkills is most beneficial for the 7 and up crowd, as it requires computer keyboard and mouse skills that often exceed the younger group’s fine motor skills and finger span.

BrainSkills has a great tracking system and meets all the recommendations I have suggested in a good on-line program above. It has 10 activities, each of which covers both a primary and secondary (and in some cases tertiary) skill.

I would rate nine out of ten BrainSkills activities as excellent. In my opinion, the tenth activity (Sound Analysis) is merely good. Having said that, this activity is still far superior in presentation to any other online program I have evaluated that purports to address auditory analysis skills. Nonetheless, there is still room for improvement. As such, for students with reading, spelling, listening and/or comprehension challenges, I recommend a few hours of additional consultation with me, during which I instruct the parent how to enhance the online activities.

Purchase of BrainSkills through my website affords you a half hour of free consultation with me. If you are interested in trying BrainSkills, create a master/parent account by following the link: http://www.thebraintrainers.net/page/brainskills to “Try or Buy Now”. You will have 24 hours from setting up your student account to try the program absolutely free and without obligation.

I leave you with the following: Even a perceived negative diagnosis is merely a starting point, not the end.

Copyright 2010 by Tara Jenner

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  • I think I grew new neural pathways just reading this information. My son is much older now and was in need of this program at the younger age of 7. He knows he has learning disabilities, but he works with and around them. To this day, he still cannot spell. He spells phonetically and uses a spell checker whenever possible. He used to carry around a Franklin Word Checker. He went through college (at his own pace) and has a MS degree.
    Would this program help someone his age with what I ‘partially’ described as ‘his life with learning disabilities?

    • Anonymous

      Absolutely! Tara spoke to me on the phone about a young man (I think he is in his 20’s) that she is working with whose story is virtually miraculous. I would suggest you go to her website and send her an e-mail. She would know best what program to recommend for your son. If you have any other questions you can send me an e-mail at: anne@homeschooling911.com

  • Thanks for this super informative post. I blog on ADHD and my teenage son in the Clark Chronicles (on my blog http://www.pamelahutchins.wordpress.com and on adhdmomma.blogspot.com). I really appreciate the great content. I found you on SITS, and I wanted to say hello.

    • Anonymous

      Well thank you for stopping by and I am glad that you found the content helpful! The SITS Girls are wonderful and a fabulous way to connect.