When a child is labelled as having a 'learning disability' it comes with an unwanted and unwarranted stigma, which can be hurtful not only for the child, but for his / her family too.
The usual response to the diagnosis of a learning disability is to introduce supplemental learning support by way of one – to – one contact with specialist intervention or by the use of various aids. Generally, these have a minimal effect as they do not focus upon the cause of the learning disability, poor brain function in one or more areas leading to poor learning performance in specific tasks.
There is a great deal of evidence from animal experimentation that for instance, rodents who are exposed to generally stimulating environments such as mazes, etc. experience better brain growth than those who are not exposed to such environments. These findings have been mirrored in human societies with children who have been exposed to impoverished, understimulating environments having smaller, more underdeveloped brains than children who have experienced more stimulating environments, who in turn have larger, better developed brains with more connections between neurons.
Now by default, brain injured children, such as those suffering from say, cerebral palsy, have smaller, less well developed brains with less connections than their uninjured peers. This is because their brain injuries prevent them from interacting with and taking advantage of their developmental environment. However, if we could somehow ensure that they did receive enriched environmental stimulation, then we know from the previously mentioned studies that there would be an excellent chance that their brains would respond to that environment by changing its structure and functioning, ie, by brain cells forming new connections. We know that this process or brain plasticity, known as 'Long Term Potentiation' takes place in all of us, so why should children who have suffered brain injury be any different? The answer is that of course they aren't!
In the area of learning disabilities, we often need to concentrate upon developing working memory. Working memory is vital to learning and in young children, has been demonstrated to predict future academic success. When working memory is poor, it makes it difficult for children to recall the instructions given by parents or teacher, therefore making tasks difficult if not nearly impossible for them to complete. The effect of this is failure both at school and in daily life, causing lack of motivation, which further compounds an already dire situation. Children with cerebral palsy, autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and many more, all demonstrate poor working memory function
Fortunately, we can now address many learning difficulties by giving children appropriate training in the use of working memory and consequently encourage brain plasticity and rewiring. Many researchers have proven this to be true, most notably the Max Plank Institute for Biological Cyberneticsin Tubingen who have succeeded in demonstrating for the first time that the activities of large parts of the brain can be altered in the long term. The scientists were able to trace how large populations of brain cells in the human forebrain are able to reorganise and change their connections to other brain cells as a consequence of environmental stimulation. (Current Biology, March 10th, 2009)
What we do at Snowdrop, when we see a child with brain injuries, is to design a set of sensory, physical and intellectual tasks designed to gradually strengthen the child's abilities. The tasks are necessarily repetitive and demand the child's attention. This is done for several hours per week, but we do see some huge improvements. All we are doing is providing an enriched environment designed to retrain the brain of the child with brain injuries, - an environment which will encourage the plasticity and the neural rewiring that we know occurs not only in lower mammals, but in human beings too.
Research has shown that Snowdrop's approach is correct. If we train our brains we stimulate them to grow and change. By training the functions we seek to strengthen in brain injured children, we can help them to become more and more capable in those areas.