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Neuroscientist Helps Parents Understand Learning Differences

Candace Braun

Following a recent decision by the Princeton Regional Board of Education to move toward district goals that will benefit all types of students and their learning abilities, a talk was held at the Princeton Public Library on Thursday, titled, "Cerebrodiversity in the Classroom: Lessons from Neuroscience."

The talk, which attracted a number of educators from the area, as well as several concerned parents and students of nearby schools, was led by Dr. Gordon F. Sherman, executive director of the Newgrange Education Center in Princeton.

"Every one of our brains is different and processes information differently," said Dr. Sherman, calling that difference "cerebrodiversity," which, he said, is the cause of learning differences.

Formerly president of the International Dyslexia Association and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Sherman also once directed the Dyslexia Research Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Currently a neuroscientist, he is the author of more than 80 scientific articles, reviews, and books on learning differences.

While these differences can cause some students to have difficulties in the classroom, "there is no such thing as an ideal, optimal brain," said Dr. Sherman.

Understanding that each individual processes information differently is the key to understanding the problem, he added.

"There are some [private] schools that understand this, and there are some public schools that are trying to," he said, noting that while many parents have cause for concern, New Jersey is ahead of many states with its educational system.

"At this point, though, a lot of kids are still suffering," he said.

Learning differences are not disabilities, explained Dr. Sherman. It is one's learning environment that makes those differences problematic.

"If the environment [i.e., school] wants something from you and it's not getting it, the environment needs to change," he said, noting that schools with a rigid environment often put students with learning differences further and further behind their peers.

On dyslexia, which he defined as a brain-based difference in processing information that affects one's ability to read, write, and spell, Dr. Sherman said that while it hasn't been proven to be caused by damage to the brain, "there's a real difference in the brains of those with dyslexia. Research has proven this over the years."

He showed the audience a diagram illustrating that in a person with dyslexia, there are neurons that are out of place in the brain.

"We don't know what produces that in dyslexic people," he said, adding that while it is often viewed as a disability, sometimes those with dyslexia have a "talent," such as a mechanical aptitude, a creative approach to problem-solving, visualization, artistic expression, or athletic ability.

He noted that regardless of how talented a dyslexic person may be, dyslexia is still looked at as a disability, which lowers a child's self esteem.

For those with underlying abilities, the stress of struggling in school "has a way of hiding strengths and talents," he said.

Combating the Problem

Once one is able to understand learning differences, a process must be initiated to ensure that every child receives a proper education and the proper help in school, said Dr. Sherman.

The first thing he recommends is that parents recognize the problem early on, rather than ignoring it and hoping it will dissipate, since it often worsens as time goes by. Parents should stress that their dyslexic child's difference is not a disability, and encourage them to participate more in activities and subjects unrelated to reading, such as art, mathematics, music, or athletics.

"We can rescue these children," said Dr. Sherman, adding that the problem needs to not only be addressed by parents and special schools, but by public schools, as well.

"We need to change the colleges that are teaching teachers," he said, noting that much of the problem falls on the training, or lack of training, teachers receive on teaching children with learning differences.

"Teachers need to know how to teach reading....We can do it after the fact, but we need to do it," he said, adding that the Newgrange School currently works with educators in 20 schools in New Jersey, five of which are located in Trenton.

However, he added: "The job teachers have to do is an impossible one," noting that it can be difficult to always meet the needs of all of the students in the classroom, particularly if some have many more needs than others.

"It's a fight where we all have to join together in order to win," he said.

The Newgrange Education Center, which is designed to meet the educational and specialized needs of people with learning disabilities, is located at 407 Nassau Street. For more information, call (609) 688-1280, or visit www.thenewgrange.org.


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