Monique from Brain Wise Learning sat down and shared with us the ups and downs of navigating learning challenges as a parent.
I’ve never been really sure of where my journey as the mother of a child with learning challenges truly begins. For me, it has always been a rollercoaster of a process, with all the highs and lows that metaphor allows. Perhaps it’s the idea of hanging on for dear life that I identify with, because whether we were going up, going down, or being knocked around from side to side, it was happening so fast and I couldn’t predict what was around the corner. I felt I was hurtling through space with absolutely no control.
Having said that, many learning challenges are not obvious until children start school, when the process of learning to read, write and work with numbers begins. That’s also when they’re expected to develop socially, and practice executive functioning such as managing their belongings.
These aspects of formal learning can be really difficult for some children, as it was for my son. He started kindergarten on par with his cohort, but by Year 2 it was becoming more apparent that he wasn’t keeping up with them. He’d forget what he learnt the previous day, kept making the same spelling mistakes over and over again and began avoiding doing school work at home and school. He was reading, so I ruled out dyslexia, but he laboured over every letter and his comprehension was very low.
His teachers kept reassuring me that he would be okay, and that I needn’t worry. As a boy, he could be expected to be a little slower than the girls, which (at the time) made sense to me. I stopped comparing his progress at primary school to my own, which had been very different. So, the teacher in me went to work, and I put together a number of worksheets to help him with spelling and maths. I made them very repetitive, remembering that when I was at school back in the 1970s, that was how we made things “stick”. I felt instinctively that there wasn’t enough repetition at school for him to remember the work.
I also remembered during the 1980s and 1990s there had been a move away from “rote learning”, which everyone, including me, agreed was boring. But having since learnt about neuroplasticity and that repetition is the only way to build neural pathways in the brain, I’ve came to realise that I was on the right track back then. Little did I realise how much.
While my worksheets helped a little, it became apparent that the load of extra work was too much for both of us. Years 3, 4, 5 and 6 now meld into memories of assessments, speech therapy, behavioural optometry and naturopathy. I was also trying to remove gluten, sugar, additives and dairy which was a real struggle. Trying to get him to do his homework and assignments turned us into adversaries, while talking to the school every second week about yet another bullying incident defeated me. If you’ve had similar experiences, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Nevertheless, an assessment had brought up markers for autism and ADHD, but not enough for a diagnosis. This meant that he didn’t ‘qualify’ for learning support, which never made sense to me. It had to do with funding of course, but in my eyes, a child who is struggling should have the help they need, regardless of a diagnosis. Inside I was seething mad, but I put that sleepless energy into researching. Surely there had to be something out there that could help him.
Then finally, when he was in Year 6, I read a book called The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr Norman Doidge. I learned about auditory processing disorder (APD) and it’s connection with autism and dyslexia. With APD, the brain doesn’t process the sounds of language fast enough, so it struggles to put words together and make sense of what it is hearing. I was surprised that it’s not a hearing problem, which would explain why he passed two hearing tests in those years. Rather, the brain has trouble hearing the difference between sounds like “e” (for egg) and “i” (for igloo). So it scrambles to make sense of words. Imagine not being sure if you heard “big” or “beg” for example.
Reading about my son’s struggles in that book was surreal. It explained everything, the problems he had with spelling and comprehension, his inability to remember instructions and his habit of getting phonemes (the sounds of speech that make up words) mixed up. I researched more about APD and was fascinated to learn that it is common in the neurodiverse spectrum, explaining the markers for autism and ADHD in the assessment. With further research, I have discovered that the language, learning and reading difficulties often experienced with autism, ADHD and dyslexia are because of APD and that APD is in itself on a spectrum, and not limited to the official diagnosis of a learning challenge.
The lack of a diagnosis is a complex issue. It creates a gap, where children like my son fall in. Because their challenges are not obvious, recognised or understood, there is a lack of empathy, and labels such as “lazy” or “disruptive” persist when the poor child is actively trying to work harder than the neurotypicals in their class. It’s heartbreaking because this can often be a slippery slide into mental health issues and delinquency.
Children with APD often have a weaker working memory, so besides having trouble with spelling, reading and comprehension, they may also have trouble understanding what a teacher or parent is asking of them, and can’t carry out instructions well. They’ll also have trouble understanding speech in a noisy environment like a classroom or playground. The catch cry of many children with APD is “huh? what?”.
But the best discovery of all from The Brain That Changes Itself was that APD was a condition that could be improved. Not cured, but improved. And I felt that as hope. Hope that my son would have more choices in life, hope that he would be able to communicate his brilliant ideas and hope that he wouldn’t have to endure being bullied anymore.
So he did an online program presented in the book, one that understood the repetition that the brain needed to build and strengthen it’s auditory processing pathways. After three months of working 5 days a week for 40 minutes, his speech became more natural, his spelling was vastly improved, as did his comprehension. It felt great knowing that I was on the right path with the repetition. I remember being so relieved, as high school was just around the corner.
Life however, doesn’t always go to plan. Even with his new and improved learning skills, he continued to be bullied. He had come to believe that he was someone that was always going to be bullied, so he made some poor friendship choices that he later came to regret. These problems further stifled any joy he may have found in learning at school and by the end of Year 10 we’d been through enough. A chronic health issue related to stress, changing schools and more social issues. We prayed for the ordeal of school to end sooner rather than later.
At the same time, I had started working with a Sydney speech pathologist that was using the same online program my son had used. Between 2015 and 2018, I supported more than 80 families and learned a lot about learning challenges, the effects on families and communities and neuroscience research. In 2018 it all crystallised into a mission, to empower people who find learning a challenge with neuroscience technology. Particularly in greater western Sydney, where I live.
So now I run Brain Wise Learning. My flagship product is called Learnerobics™ and it is the combination of the online neuroscience program designed to improve auditory processing skills like attention, memory, language and reading. And because I came to understand that no-one will learn unless they feel safe, I’ve also studied up on growth mindset coaching to improve perseverance and delay what’s comfortable in order to learn new skills.
My son took a few years to recover from school, and COVID certainly didn’t help. But he’s just enrolled in a business course and is looking forward to the challenge of completing it, starting a business and finally getting his brilliant ideas out there. Needless to say, I am chuffed.
Learning is a process of communication, and communication is easier when the brain’s auditory processing pathways are better connected and strong. I’m deeply grateful each time a parent tells me how much better their child can learn and communicate after working with me, because it means they get to speak up more confidently for themselves.
The rollercoaster that is life continues. These days, my mission gives me direction and I feel more in control than I ever have before. I realise my journey doesn’t have a definitive start or even a definitive end, as it will be a chapter in my son’s story, which I can’t wait to hear.