When Barbara Pheloung’s second child – a cherished little girl called Karen – was born, Barbara had no idea that her daughter would become the catalyst in her professional life for the last thirty years; helping the 15-20% of the population who have learning disabilities of one kind or another learn to overcome their difficulties and begin thrive and fulfil their potential. Back when their daughter was young however, Barbara and her husband didn’t realise that their daughter had what would later be identified as “learning disabilities”; they were concerned that their daughter who was so bright and had such as wonderful sense of humour was also somehow “different” and had a range of academic and social problems that left her struggling and unhappy for most of her years at school.
It wasn’t until Barbara attended university as a mature student and heard a lecturer give a case history of a child who had been identified as “learning disabled” that she realised that her daughter had been suffering from an identifiable condition – and one that could be remediated. Thus began a journey in which she developed a theory and practice of fostering the development of the “whole child”. She started The Beach House in Manly, NSW, Australia, a multi-disciplinary private therapy centre for children with learning difficulties utilising the skills of teachers, physiotherapists, and occupational therapists who work together to help children overcome the developmental deficits that underly their academic, coordination and social problems. In addition she referred children to health professionals with relevant skills such as doctors (so that children could be screened for heavy metal toxicity, iron deficiency, food and chemical sensitivities etc) osteopaths and chiropractors (to treat those children in whom misalignment of bones in the skull or spine were contributing to impairment of brain and nerve function). The skills of other relevant professionals – such as developmental optometrists so that children could be tested to identify vision difficulties that could be missed in standard assessments and develop a programme of exercises to improve any deficits detected such as weakness in visual tracking, which can make fluent reading impossible – and audiologists – so that difficulties in both hearing sounds and processing auditory information could be identified – were also utilised as appropriate as well as referrals made to therapists offering sound therapies, Feldenkrais and other relevant therapies in the cases of children who would benefit from these treatments.
As is probably becoming evident, identifying the cause(s) of a child’s learning difficulties (whether the child has been labeled as dyslexic, dyspraxic, ADHD, ASD etc or is just not doing as well as they should at school) can be a complex, time consuming and financially draining exercise. This was the impetus behind Barbara Pheloung’s first book “Help Your Child to Learn”. Written in a straightforward and sympathetic style, the book begins with case histories of a number of children who have passed through The Beach House, describing their difficulties so that parents (or teachers) reading the book will be able to identify those children who suffer from similar difficulties to their own child – or any pupils whose learning, development or behaviour is a cause of concern. A few short questions at the end of each profile then directs parents to chapters that focus on specific areas of development such as the Chapter 8: “Eyes” that focuses on vision and visual processing, Chapter 7: “Communication” that includes hearing and auditory processing and speech issues, Chapter 6: “Movement” (on body awareness and coordination among other relevant issues) while possible medical problems are covered in Chapters 4 and 5: “Food and Food Intolerance” and “Seeing the Doctor and Osteopath/Chiropractor”. (Barbara Pheloung recognises that it is vital to identify and eliminate foods and chemicals to which children are sensitive before significant progress can be made in other areas, acknowledging that sensitivities can cause “angry outbursts, addiction and inability to concentrate and learn.”)
Chapter 9: “Organisational Skills” focuses identifying problems related to an impaired ability to recognise how much time is passing, problems with learning information that is organised sequentially (such as the days of the week) and difficulties with budgeting time that is crucial to accomplish more complex projects as children progress through the school system.
Each of these chapters has a checklist at the end that parents (or teachers) may use to assess whether their child (or pupil) shows any of the symptoms associated with any of the main areas of development listed above. If more than a few indicators are present in a child once the checklist at the end of a chapter has been completed, it is likely that s/he would benefit from an assessment by a professional who has skills in the relevant area. An overview chapter for parents “Where and How to Find Help” gives a basic overview of the skills of professionals that may be unfamiliar to many parents (such as orthoptists and sound therapists and websites for further information about some specialised forms of therapy.) It also has useful suggestions for how parents can help children develop an understanding of time and games that help with overcoming difficulties with sequencing. Chapter 12 “Things to Do at Home” also has excellent ideas for games that can be played at home that help children overcome developmental difficulties and begin to fulfill their potential.
Much of the information in this book is focused on school age children. However, there is a chapter specifically for parents and teachers of pre-school aged children that includes a checklist on development of children in this age group so that parents or teachers who are concerned that something may not be quite right about the development of their preschool aged child can identify any areas of concern and get help early. It is a checklist that will prove affirming for parents who have a gut feeling that there is something different about their child that needs addressing who have previously had their concerns dismissed by others on the grounds that they are “overconcerned” – or some other synonym for neurotic.
Barbara Pheloung emphasises that early help is the ideal for children with any sort of learning difficulty. The longer it takes for any problems to be identified and an appropriate remedial programme instituted the further behind a child will have fallen behind his/her peers in academic, social and other skills. This can have profoundly damaging effects on a child’s self esteem – especially as the age at which children start school is an age from which they are increasingly becoming aware of the differences between themselves and other people; thus for a child to find him or herself lagging behind classmates in significant areas can be a cause of significant personal stress – even if s/he is lucky enough to be in a positive school environment in which they are not teased or excluded because their academic, social skills or performance in sports are poorer than that of their classmates. If difficulties can be identified when they are still preschoolers, or by their first or second years at school, the adverse psychological effects caused by a prolonged sense of failure can be avoided. (Parents will also be spared much awful behaviour at home due to a child becoming frustrated at school and acting out once they reach a safe environment.)
Barbara Pheloung recognises that perhaps 1% of children who have learning difficulties or disabilities of one type or another are getting the specialised help that they need, since help through the public education system is patchy and often inadequate and parents often do not have the time or money necessary for the interventions that may be indicated for their child. This leaves about 19% of the population who have learning difficulties who require help without the services that they need to develop their potential. The waste of lives is staggering and especially tragic when you consider that one study of juvenile offenders found a 100% rate of learning difficulties. Even those with learning difficulties who have sufficient family support and other positive aspects in their lives that do not become alienated from society to the extent that they become involved in crime, may be handicapped to some degree throughout their lives because their disabilities reduce their ability find and retain decently paid work.
In order to bring some equity to this situation Barbara Pheloung therefore developed a DVD called “Move to Learn”. The DVD gives an overview of the types of medical problems such as allergies, vision and hearing problems etc and developmental issues such as retained primitive reflexes that can have profound effects on the ability of a child (or even adult) to function at a normal level for their age. (These primitive reflexes are involuntary actions on the part of the baby that assist the baby through the birth process and foster his/her survival in the early months after birth, such as the moro reflex and the sucking reflex. However, if these reflexes do not become inactivated as the child increasing develops conscious control over his or body, the persistent reflexes can impair the child’s ability to acquire increasing complex age-appropriate skills.)
This information is presented in the form of interviews (or monologues) with a variety of professionals including a medical doctor, osteopath, optometrist, physiotherapist etc.
The second part of the DVD features a demonstration of the exercises that Barbara and her colleagues have found over the years to be the most useful to help the majority of children with learning disabilities. There are nine exercises in all. They address retained primitive reflexes that interfere with learning as well as help to strengthen the function of the corpus callosum, the part of the brain which links the left and right cerebral hemispheres. Developmental weakness of the corpus callosum is especially likely to occur in children who did not crawl for six months (or miss the crawling phase entirely such as in the case of babies who “bottom shuffle” and then progress to walking.)
Practising these exercises for 15-30 minutes a day for 6-12 months can have a profound affect on the ability of children with learning disabilities to overcome their neurological immaturities and develop a true readiness to be able to the acquire academic, social and other skills that will set them on the path for success in life, rather than frustration and failure. These may be done at home or integrated into physical education lessons in a school or preschool setting.
Research published Barbara Pheloungs’s website www.movetolearn.com.au documents the benefits of these exercises in a school programme. Children with normal abilities also benefitted from the programme, with their teachers reporting that their concentration and behaviour had improved. (In a classroom setting, normal children and those with above average abilities also stand to benefit indirectly from the use of this sort of programme since many children with learning disabilities “act up” in class. Once the neurological immaturities of children with LD begin to be resolved and they become more ready to attempt age-appropriate work, their behaviour generally improves, which benefits all the children in the classroom, since their teacher can concentrate on teaching, rather than managing disruptive behaviour.)
In New Zealand, disparities in academic achievement worsen as children progress through the school system. By Year 4, the best performing students are working at a level that is higher than the “average” students in Year 8, while the poorest performing students in Year 8 are working at a level that is lower than than “average” Year 4 pupil. These underachievers make up 20% of the school population. Reasons for their failure have been variously blamed on poverty, poor parenting and poor teaching. While it is certainly true that there are some clueless parents and schools in which teachers use “whole language” approaches to reading that do not work for a substantial proportion of students, these factors are probably not the whole problem. According to Professor Terry Crooks of the Educational Assessment Research Unit at the University of Otago College of Education, “The high and low performers always include students of both genders and all ethnicities.” Moreover he states that “Such variability in student achievement is common in other countries.”
I propose that a significant proportion of the children in the bottom 20% who are struggling with academic work do have neurological immaturities and health issues (such as food sensitivities) that are holding them back from reaching their potential. This sad state of affairs has been accepted for years in part because a large proportion of the population (including educationalists) have been brainwashed into believing that intelligence is distributed in a “normal distribution curve”, meaning that there will be a small proportion of people whose intelligence is above average, a large cohort of people who have “average” intelligence, and an unfortunate (but biologically determined) minority of people of low intelligence who will naturally have difficulty achieving in a school system that is geared towards helping the “average” child gain the literacy and numeracy skills that s/he will require for an average job, and the “superiour” child to advance their education to a level that will allow him or her to enter intellectually demanding tertiary education programmes for professions such as medicine, law, engineering and the like. The fact that twenty percent of the population is general condemned to educational failure with often severe repercussions for their adult lives is accepted as if this were normal, natural and unavoidable. I believe that this is rubbish, pure and simple since, biologically it makes no sense for a species to generate such a large proportion of offspring who are ill-equipped for survival.
I argue that this attitude also represents a betrayal of the 20% of children with learning disorders – regardless of whether they may have been at least partially inherited, or acquired through exposure to harmful substances, such as food additives, toxic metals (including those in vaccines) or developed in biologically normal children who didn’t receive age appropriate care and stimulation in infancy and early childhood.
I believe we can go a long way to help improve the learning of children by instituting programmes such as the Move to Learn exercises in early childcare centres and all new entrant and Year 2 classrooms (as well as offering tuition in the exercises to older children who have missed out on important developmental steps – such as those who didn’t crawl in infancy.)
Barbara Pheloung’s books and DVDs are for sale through the website www.movetolearn.com.au
Books are available as both traditionally printed and e-book options. There is also the option to subscribe to a free newsletter and to learn about workshops that parents and professionals may attend. Barbara Pheloung has made her material available in translations into many different languages in an effort to help this information reach children from ethnic communities in Australia fulfill their potential, as well as informing teachers around the world about the benefits of the Move to Learn programme.