Special Education

Special Educators Borrow From Brain Studies

January 17, 2012 7 min read
Teacher Krista Vetrano talks to 4th grader Oliver Wayland Thompson about coping strategies, at the Ivymount School in Rockville, Md. The relaxation techniques are among a growing number of interventions drawn from research in mind and brain science that are making their way into special education classrooms nationwide.
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In a corner of a classroom here at the Ivymount School, a frustrated 7th grader tells himself to take a deep breath. Slowly, without distracting his classmates, he calms down.

This exercise is among many strategies derived from brain-science research that educators at this private school are using with students with disabilities. In this case, the technique is being taught to students with Asperger syndrome, for whom self-control in a moment of frustration can be elusive.

The five steps to regaining calm—including breathing deeply, reading directions, and telling oneself to give something a try—are taped to many of the desks of students in the Model Asperger Program.

Ivymount is one of a growing number of schools trying to adapt techniques based on brain research to special education settings, a practice that many teachers and parents may not have even envisioned a few years ago. While some educators remain skeptical, brain research is slowly migrating from the lab into the classroom, both in predicting which students may have learning difficulties and intervening to help students diagnosed with disabilities.

Opportunities Emerge

Among the efforts under way:

• In Cambridge, Mass., a Harvard University center is devoted to training those who want to use neuroscience and cognitive science to improve teaching, including for students with disabilities.

• In Washington, George Washington University has created a doctoral program in applied neuroscience in special education.

Ryan Silverman reads in a quiet spot at the Ivymount School in Rockville, Md. The private school has incorporated research-based strategies into its Model Asperger Program.

• The Center for Applied Technology, in Wakefield, Mass., employs specialists in neuropsychology, along with other experts, to expand learning opportunities for students with disabilities.

• A professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is using brain-imaging to predict which children in a given kindergarten class might eventually struggle with reading, because of dyslexia or other reasons, so intervention can take place as early as possible.

“We are just beginning to understand how big this is,” said Maxine B. Freund, a professor in George Washington’s department of special education and the associate dean of research and external relations. “It’s an opportunity we treasure.”

That’s especially so for students with disabilities, said Kurt W. Fischer, a Harvard professor of psychology and human development and the founder of the graduate school of education’s Mind, Brain, and Education program.

“What we need to do is figure out how to harness those differences instead of making everyone learn the same way,” he said.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t still be some caution about translating brain research into educational techniques, he said.

“There are people that are skeptical, and they ought to be skeptical,” Mr. Fischer said. “There are lots of things happening,” he added, but “it’s still early.”

Turning a Corner

At MIT, neuroscientist and professor John D.E. Gabrieli has been working on using brain imaging to predict which students may eventually struggle with reading. He is clear about connecting his research with the classroom. One of his current projects involves working with about 20 Boston-area kindergarten classes in inner-city charter schools, suburban district-run schools, and Roman Catholic schools.

As many students as possible are brought to his lab for brain imaging—through the use of noninvasive functional magnetic-resonance imaging, or FMRIS—and the students get additional help based on the results. Mr. Gabrieli will follow the students for several years to see if the targeted interventions can stave off reading problems.

“How to diagnose and classify children—the more that we can make that scientific and less arbitrary, the better,” he said. “If something about the brain—the luck of the draw of their brain—is making reading extra hard for them, maybe we could just intervene early and spare them a lot of grief.”

Typically, reading problems aren’t diagnosed until students are in 3rd or 4th grade. Not only do reading problems at that age hamper students’ ability to learn many subjects, they’ve lost hours of reading practice outside of school, essentially falling even further behind, Mr. Gabrieli said. Children who enjoy reading passively hone their skills by reading for pleasure, something poor readers are less likely to do.

Teacher Sarah Reynolds helps student William Turner with a worksheet at Ivymount.

One research-based product that already appears to be helping some students is based on existing practices in special education.

Using BrainWare Safari, software made by Learning Enhancement Corp., based in Chicago, students play what seems like a video game for 30 to 45 minutes a day, several times a week, for three months. The exercises build students’ memory skills, their visual- and auditory-processing skills, thinking abilities, and sensory integration, said Betsy Hill, the president and chief operating officer of Learning Enhancement. The program replicates the work of speech and language therapists, vision therapists, and psychologists, work that is tedious for both students and therapists. Different exercises require students to click to a beat and deal with other distractions that can compete for what’s known as the working memory. Working memory allows students to do things like take notes at the same time the teacher is talking—a skill not all students easily master.

“Kids are doing one level of an exercise 100, 200, 300 times,” Ms. Hill said. “You need that kind of repetition to change those neuropathways.”

While students with disabilities may need to spend more time with the software for their brains to be reprogrammed, in a sense, all students have been shown to benefit, she said. One small study in the 550-student Harbor Beach community school district in Michigan, conducted by a district speech-language pathologist without Learning Enhancement’s knowledge, showed students’ average improvement on cognitive tests was three years and one month in learning progress after using the program for 12 weeks, confirming results published in a scientific journal.

The district was one of the first users of the program, now in about 300 schools across the country. Harbor Beach was so convinced of BrainWare Safari’s effectiveness, it is now required for all 3rd grade students new to the district.

Breaking Some Ground

At Ivymount, Monica Adler Werner, the director of the school’s Model Asperger Program, said she learned about effective, research-based interventions for social skills at a conference 10 years ago and immediately asked, “Where is this happening?” The answer, she found, was nowhere.

About a year later, she started a summer camp based on the interventions she saw at that conference. Students were taught social skills and spent the rest of the day practicing them. Ms. Werner scaled up that summer camp into the program at Ivymount, which also works with students with other types of autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities. Most students who attend had been in regular public schools whose staff felt Ivymount was better suited to work with the students.

All the program strategies, whether based in neuroscience or other research, have something in common: They are meant to make the implicit explicit for students who don’t have the same instinct to detect social cues their peers might pick up naturally. The program is intense, and the school year lasts 11 months.

In one exercise Ms. Werner created, students must each give a classmate a gift, which requires taking the recipient’s perspective—a clear example of what researchers term “theory of mind.”

Rather than follow the impulse to give gifts they themselves would want, students have to consider their classmates’ likes and dislikes. Upon giving their gifts, students have to tell from the recipients’ reactions whether they liked the presents.

And when they receive a gift, they must refrain from blurting out that they have the item already or that they don’t like it. Sometimes, students are given truly undesirable gifts—broken clocks, a single sock, a hole puncher—to work on that skill.

“The whole social world is a problem for our students to solve,” Ms. Werner said. “We break it down for them—help them learn what to look for.”

Ms. Werner has a stack of research studies on the shelf in her office. She also has developed relationships with researchers and sits on a federal grant-review committee to keep abreast of more research in the works.

“We do all believe in evidence-based practice whenever possible,” she said, noting that the process of taking research from lab to classroom isn’t always smooth. “It’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you fix them. ... We need to give ourselves the same space we give our students when they take risks.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Mind and Brain Research Trickles Into Special Ed. Classrooms


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