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New take on learning disabilities: change the brain

REDMOND, Wash. -- A new school in Redmond might change the way we think about learning disabilities. Instead of teaching kids how to accommodate a difficulty, the school hopes to actually change the brains of students, eliminating the disability altogether.

Daily class work at the Eaton Arrowsmith Academy is like nothing you've seen before. Students rotate through exercises like tracing symbols and speed reading time on a clock. They are intense brain exercises, done 35 minutes at a time before rotating to the next task. They are meant to translate into better skills in traditional subjects.

Ten year old Aidan James said in his public school, he was always the last one to finish math assignments. "Not very fun. Horrible," he said, describing the work. "English and math are my favorite subjects now."

Many of the students have been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia or dyscalculia. Some are mild, moderate or severe cases, mixed together in classrooms where each child works on their own program. "Let's look at the child's neurological, cognitive profile and figure out what kind of program, what exercises need to be put in place and then implement them," said Howard Eaton, a founder of the school. "We're not so interested in the label. We're more interested in the cognitive profile of the child's brain."

While the Redmond academy is the first in the U.S., the school is well established in Canada. It got the attention of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his wife Anu, as they looked for a program for their daughter. She started at the Vancouver branch of the school and has grown into a confident learner.

"As parents, we can tell our children, 'you're great and I love you and you're the best and we know you can do it.' But I think until the child senses it for themselves, I don't think it makes a difference in their learning process," Anu Nadella said.

The Nadella's are such strong believers, they invested $100,000 in a research project at the University of British Columbia, studying the effects of the program. Several dozen children had baseline brain scans at the beginning of their schooling. They are being measured again now, three months in and will have a final MRI after one year. "What we're able to do is look at how thick or thin parts of the brain are and how that's changing in response to the intervention," said Dr. Lara Boyd, neuroscientist at UBC.

Researchers know the brain can change. That's called neuroplasticity. "I'm absolutely confident we'll find benefit. But is there a profile of a student who benefits most? I think that's really where we're going to go," Dr. Boyd said. "If you do really focused behavior and lots of practice with these certain exercises, do we see both brain plasticity and then changes in cognition and educational achievement? We don't know yet."

Science might not know, but plenty of people already say the answer is yes. Barbara Arrowsmith designed the exercises to change her own brain, after constant struggles in school and social situations. "There just are some areas in the brain that are a little bit weaker in functioning and there should be no stigma attached to that," Arrowsmith said. "There's a piece here we just need to tweak and improve, then that will be in place and the learning can go forward. The possibility of this work is, it will open multiple doors and give these individuals a different trajectory. A lot of these children and myself, we shut our dreams down at a certain point because we didn't really see a viable future for ourselves."

It is hard work with brain exercises in class and at home. Most students spend around three years at the school. When there's a breakthrough, it's like blinders coming off.

"Amazing, yeah, it's been very life changing," said 15 year old Molly Langton. "It's been incredible because I've been here a short period of time and it's changed so much of my life."

Langton and her mother moved to Vancouver from Sydney, Australia so she could attend the school. Molly could read words, but stories didn't make sense. Recently, for the first time in her life, she read a novel. "I used to come home thinking I was dumb. I'm not going to make it anywhere in life, I'm not going to succeed. Coming here, you change your confidence."

Does that change in confidence come from a changing brain? Families here are believers after seeing students who once struggled in school, daring to dream.

"She, skies the limit for her. Which I think is beautiful," said Nadella of her daughter.

The founders of the school hope their program will eventually be available in public schools. Right now, in addition to the EAA in Redmond, other private schools offer a portion of the program, including Heritage Christian Academy and Gateway Christian School.

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