Special Education

Report Reveals Ways Brain Science Could Improve Special Ed.

By Nirvi Shah — July 14, 2011 3 min read
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Neuroscience research could provide new insights into teaching students with disabilities, but more needs to be done to connect the scientists studying the brain with special education researchers and to educators, concludes a new policy analysis from Project Forum at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

The report offers several examples of how helpful brain-based research could one day be to special education, with the caution that “translating brain research into classroom practice must be handled methodically.”

Despite that note of caution, the analysis emphasizes the importance of using brain research in special education—and all—classrooms.

“Perhaps the most important lesson is that educational policies and practices ... should be guided by our knowledge of how brains (both typical and atypical) work and learn,” writes Eve Mueller, who researched the connection between neuroscience and special education for Project Forum.

The analysis offers some examples of the promise of brain research in the lives of students with disabilities, such as:

• A better understanding of dyslexia. Brain imaging could help distinguish among students with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, cognitive impairments, and limited language exposure. Teachers with this information could determine which brains would respond best to which therapies.

• So-called “biomarkers,” visible through brain imaging, can show cognitive or learning impairments even before a child exhibits those impairments through behavior. Research on biomarkers is now underway on specific language impairment, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, and learning disabilities, including dyslexia and dyscalculia. Another note of caution: While early identification can benefit children, premature diagnoses could lead to discrimination or stigmatizing of children.

In addition, the paper explores three programs that base they way they teach in part on findings from the field of neuroscience. They are the Model Asperger Program at Ivymount School in Rockville, Md.; the Specialized Transition Program at Kennedy Krieger Institute, which is for students with a traumatic brain injury and is in Baltimore; and New York City’s Gillen Brewer School, which serves students who have learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, language issues, and emotional and behavioral challenges.

Ms. Mueller found that experts agree that the primary risk of linking neuroscience and education or special education is that people hear the term “neuroscientific” and assume that means “evidence-based.” But there is limited evidence that many “brain-based” software programs are effective in improving outcomes for students with or without disabilities. “Another concern is that general and special educators will hail neuroscience as a panacea,” she writes.

“Neuroscience is a sexy topic. Everyone is selling it, and the field is being
seduced,” Carol Kochhar-Bryant, a special education professor at George Washington University, told Ms. Mueller. The university has a doctoral program in applied neuroscience in special education. “But we have to be very cautious,” Ms. Kochhar-Bryant said. “The field of education is so hungry for answers. The major message is that we must make sure findings are well grounded in research.”

But when that research does catch up to the classroom, the results could be dramatic, said Monica Adler-Werner, who works at Ivymount School.

“My guess is that as much as what we’re doing now is cutting edge, we’ll look back in five years and see it as very primitive,” she said. “We’re at the beginning of a revolution in human understanding.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.