More on learning difficulties and their impact

Another area that Barbara Arrowsmith Young has defined is called “symbolic thinking” – for anyone with a deficit in symbolic thinking life is very difficult. They have great difficulty developing strategies for studying, are easily distracted and appear to have a short attention span. Organisation, planning, self-direction and establishment of long-term goals are all major challenges which means they live only for the moment (as they are unable to look any further) and may be viewed as flighty and/or untrustworthy.

One of the students with a deficit in this area described it like this: imagine a wall in front of you that extends in either direction as far as the eye can see – you have to get past that wall – the wall is a problem and that problem requires problem-solving. Imagine that the wall provokes no thinking at all, only mental paralysis. This is what it is like to have this deficit – you have no mental initiative, leaving you distractible, disorganised and unable to plan and set goals. You can never get past that wall.

Being described as flighty is never a good thing- such a person as described above will often make social arrangements and then get distracted by what they are currently doing and not turn up – and I am sure you can understand that there are only so many times you can let people down, your friends, your boss, your family. Another example of a real life situation, which Barbara quotes, is that such a person may have a medical condition but not think to go to see a doctor which would seem so obvious to  you and me! Many people have difficulties keeping their jobs or maintaining relationships – the impact of this difficulty is enormous.

And finally, a deficit in symbolic recognition leads to poor word recognition, slow reading and difficulties with spelling. The part of the brain that is not working here is the left hemisphere which allows us to recognise and remember a word or symbol. Those with this deficit have to study a word many more times than average before being able to memorise it and this recognise it, and say it correctly next time they see it. In many cases, they cannot learn sight words even with multiple repetition, and every time they are presented with a word that should be familiar, they need to sound it out as if they are seeing it for the first time. This means that learning to read and spell is a very slow process. This will obviously impact on their future employability as well as having profound effects upon their self-esteem.

These are just some of the areas Barbara Arrowsmith Young has defined and I hope that these few posts have shown how learning difficulties in these areas can have significant long term implications if they are not addressed but the marvellous thing is that they can be addressed. Each of the exercises Barbara has devised address a specific difficulty and Simon says all of the exercises are very hard!  Particularly because once you have mastered a level in a specific exercise, then you have to go onto master the next level of that exercise until you get to a rating of average or average to above average or even ultimately above average. The length of time this takes depends upon where you are starting from and there are many levels you have to go through and it also depends upon the effort that the student puts into the exercise and how precise they are in doing the exercise. Always you can hear a pin drop in the classroom, such is the level of concentration and the determination of the students, but oftentimes it looks as if they are simply daydreaming as they are working on the exercises by thinking! That these students have the chance to overcome their learning difficulties is (excuse the pun!) mind-boggling, that mainstream education has yet to embrace the concepts of neuroplasticity is equally mind-boggling but I continue to be hopeful of change, as well as being awed and inspired by the dedication of the students, teachers and  by Barbara Arrowsmith Young and her life’s work.



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