Secret Number 1 – Brain Hemisphere Dominance
Everyone knows that we have two brain hemispheres – the left and the right. Logic and Gestalt.
The left hand hemisphere or the logic hemisphere handles our ability to see the bits and pieces that make up information – our ability to see the trees in the forest. It controls our ability to sequence information and put it in an orderly pattern. It helps us to see logical progressions and to recognise patterns such as number facts (multiplication tables) and rhymes.
The right hand hemisphere or Gestalt hemisphere handles our emotions, our ability to see the big picture – the reason why. It helps us to make sense of the bits and pieces in a meaningful and emotionally relevant way. The Gestalt hemisphere handles intuition and it is what allows us to make intuitive leaps – those flashes of brilliance when seemingly unconnected information comes together into something amazing. It governs our ability to relate to others with compassion and empathy. It is our creative side, our artistic and musically inclined self. Without it, the bits and pieces supplied by the logical hemisphere are meaningless pieces of information.
To learn effectively we need access to both hemispheres of the brain. In children with high stress levels (aka a learning difficulty,) one of the hemispheres is not functioning as it should. It is suppressed by the dominant hemisphere and its gifts are locked away. These children (and adults) are at a disadvantage – they are operating with only half of what they need to learn effectively. Hence some are dreamers – they can see the big picture but have no way of knowing how to accomplish their dream. Sometimes they are called lazy. Others are so bogged down in the details they get lost in what is called analysis paralysis – they can see the bits and pieces but can’t quite grasp how to put them all together into a cohesive whole.
Regaining the use of the whole brain – what I call brain integration – is the first step we take when working with a new student.
Secret Number 2 – The Ability To Move Forward
For so many students (and their parents!) feeling stuck, clumsy, confused and lost is a daily experience. It isn’t necessarily a physical feeling – although it can be. Mostly it is a mental feeling, one of being stuck in mud, it is a struggle and hard work.
Of thinking you have the answer and then beginning to doubt yourself. Of being unsure that you heard the instructions properly, so you need to check, double check, triple check before you feel confident to move forward with the activity.
Our ability to move forward determines how we approach different situations. If we feel stuck, our self-esteem and self-confidence are eroded over time and our insecurity increases. As it increases we become fearful of making mistakes, of “getting it wrong”, of being laughed at.
On the other hand, if we can move forward without fear – we can sometimes have what I term bull at a gate syndrome. We can rush in where angels fear to tread. Sometimes we can lack the caution which allows us to assess the situation fully. We can have what situations like the one that faced Po in Kung-fu Panda 2. We can see our objective – Gongman City Palace, but not see the wolves prowling the streets, we leap into action without seeing the dangers that lie before us. As Mantis said: “What are you doing? The streets are crawling with wolves!”
A balance between the two extremes – feeling stuck and fearlessly moving forward – are needed for our children to learn. They need to be able to make a decision and see it through. In order to do this, our children need the foundation of Secret Number 1!
Secret Number 3 – Ability To Communicate
What is communication? For many people it is our ability to read and write, to speak clearly and succinctly. However, it is so much more than that. Communication is more non-verbal than verbal. It is the way we hold our self, the tone, the pitch, the delivery speed. It is our body stance, our facial expressions, the way we use or hold our hands. These visual cues are what bring meaning and depth to our communications.
Beyond this, communication encompasses our style of presenting information. Are we logical communicators? If so, we start at the beginning and plod through every detail of what has happened, useful for writing reports, but boring in a conversation!
If we are an emotional communicator, we bring in the full range of expressive language options. We rant, we rave, we may be incoherent at times (especially when excited or angry). We tell the story from an emotional point of view – telling what stood out at the time, not necessarily in a logical progression. So we have difficulty sequencing events as we jump around following the emotional trail. This event reminds me of that one (which may have happened a long time ago) which reminds me of something that I thought I heard yesterday and so on.
When it comes to learning, if we are limited in our communication – meaning our communication is controlled by the hemisphere which is suppressed under stress – we may know the answer but have difficulty expressing it. We have difficulty getting our ideas from our head onto the paper. Sometimes we can talk our way through it, but often we feel tongue-tied. We grow frustrated with our inability to express what is inside of us.
This can go on until we literally explode. The child who is limited in their ability to communicate can feel as though they are living inside a pressure cooker. Once they hit critical levels, steam has to be let out – often in the form of tears, tantrums, escapism, or total shut down where they withdraw inside of themselves completely.
For those around them, this situation is just as frustrating. After all, when they are relaxed and integrated these children show us glimpses of what they are capable of. And these tantalising glimpses leave us frustrated that they aren’t performing at their best, especially when we don’t understand why.
Secret Number 4 – Visual Input
Visual Input isn’t just what we see. It is how we see it, how we then relate it to previous memories and how we then decide to act upon that information.
For the child that is visually limited, the visual world is a confusing place. They can see, but the ability to interpret is not functioning. They can stare at a page of writing or maths and not comprehend what it is they are meant to do. It is as if we had placed a foreign language in front of them and then demanded that they tell us what it means. To us, the language is what we are familiar with, we converse in it, we know that the child knows how to speak this language; they have shown that they recognise some words, some of the time.
So why can’t they read and recognise those words?
The answer lies again, in integration. When the hemisphere that is responsible for visual input is suppressed, it is as though that information doesn’t exist. We record it but we can’t do anything with it (doctors call the Visual Processing Disorder).
When we work on the integration between hemispheres, we allow the information to be “seen”, to be recognised and used. Hence we can teach someone to read, to decode, to follow sentences in a short span of time when they are integrated and accessing all information that is available to them.
No discussion of visual input would be complete without mentioning Irlen Syndrome. This syndrome which affects the visual cortex is highly prevalent in our society – especially among students with the so-called learning difficulty.
Irlen isn’t a dysfunction of the eyes. It is a misfiring of the two nerves that lead from the eyes to the visual cortex. Normally these two nerves fire in sync and present a clear picture to the visual cortex for processing. When Irlen is present, one of the nerves is firing slower than the other creating a distorted message – kind of like looking at a 3-D TV screen without 3-D glasses on…
The brain needs to work hard to straighten this image out, to even out the distortions. But often it can’t and the images move, swirl, vibrate and pulse causing fatigue, nausea, eye strain, avoidance problems as well as focusing issues. For people with Irlen, the world is a visually tiring place.
Often, they have no idea that this is not the experience everyone has when they look at a book, or computer screen or anywhere else that requires them to focus. For them it is just how the world is, so they don’t mention it unless asked direct questions. It is often a surprise to parents to hear that the words on a page move, blur, disappear, swirl, dance, jump or rearrange themselves for their offspring.
Secret Number 5 – Auditory Input
The final secret to learning is Auditory Input. Like Visual Input, there is more to Auditory Input than hearing. When we think of Auditory, we think of the sounds that we hear – usually words.
For the student with a limited ear, they hear but don’t differentiate sounds. It is just one large jumble of noise that has no particular meaning. We could be talking to them, perhaps in our frustration raising our voice to almost shouting, and they would still be blissfully unaware that we are even talking. Like the eye that is limited, noise goes in (the ears work fine) but no associations are attached to them.
For people with a functioning ear, but who are not in an integrated state, the ear continually scans the environment looking for danger. This means that for people like my son, the noise of the wind outside the classroom window is just as important as the teacher’s voice. He can’t focus exclusively on the teacher’s voice – his ear is continually straining to catch the sound of the predator he KNOWS is hiding ready to leap.
When we are in fight or flight mode (stress by any other name), we descend to the level of instinct. Survival is our main concern. Not learning. Not seeing things from different points of views. Nothing but survival is able to capture our interest.
Learning of any description is impossible when we are concerned for our safety. It seems laughable I know – after all our kids are in school, what harm can come to them there? But the body doesn’t know that school is a safe environment. It feels the adrenalin and cortisone pulsing through our veins. It knows that we are primed to run for our life or fight our way out – so this MUST be a dangerous environment with predators lurking, otherwise we wouldn’t have adrenaline or cortisone pumping through our system…
So our children are edgy, easily distracted, jumping or turning towards every sound… (Sounds like ADHD doesn’t it?) They are tense, ready to fight, ready to run. Small things can set them off – and later they don’t know why.
Depending on the combination of senses available to our child (which of the 32 Learning Profiles they have) many responses are possible. Running from the room when the tension becomes too much (looking for a safe place), verbal aggression when approached incorrectly by the teacher or another student (fight my way out of here), a feeling of constriction and being trapped, anxiety attacks, fidgeting, easily distracted by noise when they are meant to be focusing on the task at hand etc.
These children are labelled ADHD, ADD, Auditory Processing Disorder or Sensory Processing Disorder. Very few doctors or specialists recognise that these kids are highly stressed individuals who need to be shown safe, effective stress release methods that they can employ every day, in every situation.
Once again, brain integration and moving from a stressed state to the integrated state can and does have a marked impact on the behaviour of these students. When they feel safe, integration occurs, the unsettling behaviours diminish and viola we have a student who can focus, who can learn.
So what does this all mean for your child?
If we truly want our children to learn to the best of their ability then we need to understand how learning occurs for them. It is unfair to label children who are stressed with “disorders”. Stress is not a disorder; it is a sign that something in a person’s environment is amiss. We, as parents, educators and carers need to teach our children how to manage themselves and their response to stress. We cannot expect to teach children with a one-size-fits-all approach, especially when the world that they live in is rapidly changing and filled with uncertainty.
Learning about your child’s unique learning profile isn’t difficult. Applying that knowledge also isn’t hard. It simply means that we need to change the way we view our child and their education – to learn to recognise the signs of stress and to remind our children of what they can do to relieve that stress. This, as parents, we can do. It is easy, and it benefits us all.