“Our goal is simple: to create learning success stories, one student at a time.” —The Marshall School
Since 2006, The Marshall School and Learning Enhancement Centers have focused on two things: success and the individual. Those who struggle in traditional learning environments know all too well that success can sometimes feel completely out of reach. That’s where The Marshall School and Learning Enhancement Centers step in and embrace how students learn as individuals.
Christina Carson, executive director of Learning Enhancement Centers, explains how the center works, who would benefit from its unique style and how she became involved with the school.
Please tell us a little about what makes Learning Enhancement Centers special.
We often use the analogy of a tree to help parents understand how we are different than a typical tutoring place. Starting from the bottom of the tree, we think of the roots. If you saw a tree dying, you would assume it isn’t getting enough nutrients from its roots. The same is true academically; if a student is struggling, it is usually due to weak underlying skills. These skills are the mental tools necessary to succeed. They are things like memory, attention, visual and auditory processing, and processing speed. If a student hasn’t acquired these foundational skills, school will always be a struggle.
The second part of the tree is the trunk or the stem. Its job is to take the nutrients from the roots up to the leaves and branches. Academically, we correlate this to executive function skills. Executive function skills are the mental management skills, which impact things like time management, organization and study skills.
The third part of the tree is the leaves and branches. We associate this part of the tree with the academic subjects such as reading, writing, math and spelling. This is where most tutoring centers and schools focus. However, if there is anything wrong with the roots (processing skills) or trunk (executive function skills), tutoring might help for a while, but it won’t correct the problem for the long term. School will continue to be a struggle. You can try to support the leaves and branches, but the tree is still going to die.
Our speciality is determining what causes someone to struggle. Other tutoring centers and schools focus on the symptom—but if you want to make a lasting change, you need to know what is causing the struggle in the first place, as that will determine how you address the issue.
We tend to overlap with vision therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, but we also know how to address the academic issues. Because we see the “whole child” and not just one of those areas, we are good at knowing how everything fits together to make a plan that will be the best, most efficient way to help each student we see.
Do you mind sharing a little bit of your background with us?
I always knew that I wanted to be a special education teacher. In college, I was taught that students with learning disabilities would always have them. “That’s how they are. That’s how they will always be...they will have to learn how to deal with it.”
We didn’t learn how to “fix” the disabilities. We just learned how to accommodate and modify. For example, if they couldn’t read, we would read it to them. And so on.
When I taught at the elementary school level, I believed when my students went to middle school their teachers would continue to work on fixing their weaknesses. I had no idea that where they were in their reading level when they left me in fifth grade was likely where they would still be when they graduated high school. It was heartbreaking.
My last year of teaching, I taught sixth grade. I had 17 students with learning disabilities that were reading between a kindergarten and a fourth-grade level. I had 45 minutes per day to teach them to read. The focus was on getting them prepared to pass the state test. They were allowed to have their tests read to them. No one really cared if they could read, just that they could pass the test. My students were bright and could pass the test as long as it was read to them.
The weight of knowing I wasn’t going to be with them when they went to take their driver’s test or fill out a job application was overwhelming. Who cared if they could pass the test if they didn’t have the critical skill of reading? I came home crying almost every night. There had to be something more that I could do.
I began searching for ways to help my students and found a website that talked about how they were different than a typical tutoring center or school. Their work was based on how the brain processes information. With the right training, the brain can be strengthened to get rid of whatever is actually causing a learning disability in the first place.
This was so different than what I had ever heard before, but is made so much sense to me. For the first time, I felt a sense of hope that I would be able to help all of my students.
I attended the training and was so excited to use these strategies with my students. I spoke to the administration and the special education supervisor and was told that it wasn’t possible to use these strategies in the school. It didn’t matter how effective they were. (After all, while it’s not the schools’ fault, the way they measure success is the number of students who pass the SOLs.)
I was so frustrated! My hands were tied. I had the knowledge, but I wasn’t able to use it. I couldn’t take it anymore so I opened our learning center in December 2002. There was such a need for our specialized work that we grew quickly. I stopped teaching full time so I could focus on running the center. Eventually, we added a full day program as well.
What’s a typical tutoring session like?
We only work 1-1 with our students, because everything is tailored to the individual needs of each student. We usually do some kind of fun game/activity to get the brain warmed up. We then usually do some microphone work where we are working to clean up the “feedback loop” from the ear to the voice to the brain. You will often find students doing physical exercises—these work on vision, motor and attention skills. Then they do more “brain training.” It doesn’t look like a typical tutoring session or like “schoolwork.” But because we are addressing what is causing the struggle in the first place, the improvements occur much faster. For instance, our average student usually improves at least two years in only 40 hours of sessions.
The Marshall School “individually assesses students, then plugs them into a rich combination of specialized programming, service learning and self discovery.” Can you dive a little more into the admission process?
We usually start with a phone consultation, where the director asks some questions to determine if we are the best place to start. If we think we can help, we will recommend an evaluation. During the evaluation, we examine academic ability, processing skills, visual efficiency and motor skills. The evaluation takes about two hours. At the end of the evaluation, we give a general idea of what we observed during the testing. We then set up a time to meet back to give a written report with the results of the testing and our recommendations on how to best help the student. Sometimes we don’t recommend that a student start with us—we may feel that something would be better. We want to make sure that we are recommending the best, most efficient way to help each person we meet.
What types of students would benefit from Learning Enhancement Centers? Why?
We work with students who are bright, but are struggling at school. We see students who are having difficulties in reading, math and spelling. Some of them are diagnosed with a learning disability, but many are just not significant enough to get help from the school. Many of our students have attention and executive function skills deficits.
What three things do you wish parents knew about how children learn?
I think the number one thing is that you need to treat the cause, not the symptom. Reading is a great example. In the last 20 years of evaluating students with reading difficulties, I have identified three causes of reading challenges, each requiring a different type of solution. For instance, if a student has difficulty processing sounds in words, then phonics will be almost impossible to understand and use. In these cases, we need to train the brain to process the sounds, and then we teach phonics. The results are quite amazing when you treat what was causing the problem in the first place.
But what if the cause is a visual issue? These students often have issues with visual–spatial skills and visual efficiency, such as tracking. They are the ones who have reversals issues, who mix up letters, and who can’t remember the word from one line to the next. They often can decode words, but struggle with reading fluency. While we still teach phonics to these students, we do many other activities to increase their visual skills first.
Finally, the third cause is the one that Sally Shaywitz, author of Overcoming Dyslexia, calls a “double deficit.” (I call it a “double whammy.”) These students have both issues. Unfortunately, it takes much longer to address their issues. They don’t connect the sounds to the symbols. We can teach them phonics until they are “blue in the face,” and yet they won’t naturally apply the rules. These students will need a combination of strategies to learn to read.
All this to say, if someone is struggling with reading, you need to know what is causing the problem in the first place. If someone tells you, for example, that your child doesn’t know her consonant blends—that is good information, but you want to ask, “What is causing that to happen? Where is the breakdown occurring in her brain?” After all, once you know the problem, the solution is easy to determine.
Again, this goes back to what I was saying in the beginning. We must determine what is causing the problem and then teach specific strategies to strengthen the weak area if we want to help students make lifelong changes.
Any myths you’d like to bust about ADD and ADHD?
I think parents need to know that attention challenges are real. However, just like with learning challenges, it is important to know what is causing the attention problems, so you know how to make it better. When we test students, we look at five possible causes of attention challenges: auditory processing, visual efficiency, retained primitive reflexes, sensory integration, and diet and nutrition. If a student has sensory integration issues, medicine won’t usually help that, but treating the cause will make a huge difference. I am not opposed to medicine, I just don’t think it should be the first line of defense. There are times that I have tested someone who is fine in all five areas, but they are still struggling—those are the ones for whom I feel more confident recommending medicine. Many of the programs and strategies that we use with students can be a great way to improve attention without medicine—which many parents often prefer.
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