Breaking the learning barrier

Peter Williams
As a child Barbara Arrowsmith Young struggled to read and write. She had a learning disability. She went on to study at university. But she had to work harder than other students. She once read research that said rats could grow bigger brains when they have lots of activity. Arrowsmith Young decided to design exercises for her mind. She did not know how to read a clock. But after practicing for months she could read a clock, and her maths improved too. Arrowsmith Young has created exercises for children with learning disabilities. Her program is taught in schools in Canada and the United States.
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Peter Williams on 06/08/2012
A side profile MRI of a person's brain.
Brain MRI

Exercising the mind to reshape the brain.

When Barbara Arrowsmith Young developed a program to help children with learning disabilities she found there was little interest in her ideas. The Canadian psychologist was not deterred and began her own school in 1980. There are now over 30 Canadian and US schools that teach her cognitive exercises to children with impaired learning. The Arrowsmith Program has helped thousands of children, who struggled to learn, to achieve academic success.

Arrowsmith Young had a personal interest in developing a therapy that releases the mind from the grip of a learning disability. She struggled with a learning disability herself that left her with depression and low self-esteem. What started as a battle to overcome her disability turned into a learning movement that helps others.

Arrowsmith Young's therapy is based on the idea that we can reshape our brains. The concept is called neuroplasticity. It's when the neural pathways within our brains are rebuilt. Neuroplasticity has been validated by scientific research. It happens by exercising the mind in new and challenging ways to increase mental capacity and strengthen learning ability. It happens more easily when we are young.

A difficult education

As a child Arrowsmith Young was tormented by her inability to learn. She excelled at memorising facts but could not understand their meaning or context. During first grade Arrowsmith Young's teacher told her mother she had a mental block and would never learn. Apart from exercises her mother devised, she did not receive any help to overcome her disability.

But Arrowmith Young made it to university. There, she compensated for her disability by working 20 hours a day. She studied at night in the library, hiding in the bathroom when security guards passed. Through hard work and determination she earned a master's degree in School Psychology at the University of Toronto. She also holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Child Studies, which she completed at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.


At the age of 26, Arrowsmith Young experienced a major turning point in her life while reading The man with a shattered world by psychologist Alexander Luria. The book tells of a Russian soldier whose thoughts became fragmented after being shot in the brain in 1943. The bullet damaged part of the soldier's brain that processes sight, sound, and language. The soldier's detailed descriptions of his mental state closely matched Arrowsmith Young's. She felt maybe the same part of her brain was malfunctioning.

Arrowsmith Young then read about a researcher who discovered neuroplasticity in the brains of rats. In the 1960s psychologist Mark Rosenzweig found rats that lived in a stimulating environment developed larger brains than rats in empty cages. Arrowsmith Young thought if a rat can grow a bigger brain then so could she.

Arrowsmith Young designed exercises for her mind. She had never been able to read a clock. Now she drew clock faces on cards and spent months reading them, all the time adding extra hands to make the task of reading the time even harder. After months of exhaustive training she felt as if a light had been switched on in her head. For the first time she was able to clearly understand the context of information. She also tested herself and found her general mathematical abilities had increased significantly.

Opportunity and resistance

Arrowsmith Young's program is not a cure for all learning and behavioural problems. It's designed for those with attention deficit disorder, dyslexia and similar learning disabilities. The program typically runs for three to four years. After completing the course students usually resume their normal studies with little or no remedial support.

The Arrowsmith Program has its critics. Some are sceptical whether the cognitive exercise program can rewire the brains of children. Traditional belief has it that a learning disability is permanent. The aim of her therapy has been to help children cope and improve their condition.

How well a child learns shapes their life. Arrowsmith Young thinks all students should be tested for learning problems, and if necessary have access to therapy that frees them from the anguish of a learning disability. She also believes all children should experience the joy of learning so they can reach their full potential and fulfil their dreams.

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