November 16, 2018

The Arrowsmith program gets results with ‘physical therapy for the brain’

Third-grader Yaakov Sobel is a talented painter and sculptor. And he can deliver a spot-on imitation of his teacher discussing Midrash. But when it comes to reading, things don’t come so easily.

“He can sound out words, but doesn’t have the visual memory to recognize groupings of letters as words,” said Yaakov’s father, Scott.

Yaakov’s day school provided a number of resources to help, including speech therapy, reading assistance and occupational therapy for his handwriting.

“Altogether, it was seven to eight hours a week of pull-out sessions,” said his mother, Julianne, a neuropsychologist. “He was improving, but not enough.”

Although they liked the idea of integrating their son into regular classes, the Sobels concluded that Yaakov needed a special-education program. They wanted to keep him in a Jewish environment, but only found programs that included children with emotional and behavioral problems.

Last May, the Sobels learned that Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox preschool through eighth-grade day school in West Hollywood, would become the second school in the United States to pilot an innovative approach to learning disabilities. The Arrowsmith Program uses cognitive exercises designed to strengthen the underlying brain functions responsible for learning disabilities. While new to the United States, the program has been offered in private schools in Canada for 30 years, among others by the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

“We’re taking somebody who has certain areas of the brain that don’t function up to speed … and building the cognitive capacity of those weak areas,” said program instructor Josh Horwatt, who completed a three-week training in Canada. “By rebuilding their cognitive base, it allows them to grasp concepts more quickly.”

The Arrowsmith approach targets brain neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can be rewired as a result of training. The program has identified 19 specific learning dysfunctions — including symbol recognition, memory for information and spatial reasoning — and designed specific written, auditory and computer exercises to stimulate those cognitive areas.

Children who may benefit from the program include those with difficulties in reading, writing, math, memory and understanding, as well as dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. It is recommended for children of average or above-average intelligence who do not have behavioral issues. Students typically remain in the program for three to four years. The goal is to reintegrate them into a regular academic program, with minimal need for special education assistance.

At Maimonides Academy, the 10 Arrowsmith students (the maximum capacity per instructor) range from third- to eighth-graders. All attend a minimum of four 40-minute daily sessions in the Arrowsmith Lab and spend the remainder of their day in regular classes. They also complete an hour and 10 minutes of Arrowsmith homework daily. Exercises, formulated to retrain the brain, are repetitive by design.

One involves tracing a full page of what looks like hieroglyphics to build fine- motor skills and symbol recognition. Another involves reading a succession of analog clock faces, in which all the clocks’ hands are of equal length. Students strengthen their mathematical and logical reasoning abilities by deciphering the time through the positions of the hands.

“They can be fun, but they can get really annoying,” Yaakov said of the repetitive drills.

The Sobels are willing to have their son invest the time, believing he can catch up on academics relatively quickly if his underlying skills are enhanced.

In addition to time, the program requires a substantial monetary commitment, with participants paying $4,500 over regular tuition. Dr. Anne Arensen Winter, director of special services for Maimonides Academy and coordinator and supervisor of the Arrowsmith Lab, notes that the children might otherwise need three to four hours a week of private therapy, which can cost $100 to $125 per hour.

The school absorbs about 50 percent of the program’s cost. Maimonides principal Rabbi Karmi Gross learned about Arrowsmith from Rabbi Heshy Glass at Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, N.Y., the first U.S. school to adopt the program. (Glass is now principal of YULA Boys High School.)

Gross feels the program’s potential is worth the investment. “We’ve seen a tremendous amount of resources being put in [to special education], but year in and year out, almost nothing changed [for the students],” he said. “We’re taking a program that could significantly change the way learning disabilities are dealt with…. If it means us going a little out on a limb here, that’s where we should be.”

Research from Canada points to the program’s effectiveness. In 2005, Dr. William J. Lancee, head of research in the Department of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, completed a three-year study of 70 Arrowsmith students. He found “all deficit areas identified by the Arrowsmith Program improved as a result of the application of Arrowsmith Program cognitive exercises.”

With the program in effect for only four months at Maimonides, it cannot yet be evaluated. However, instructor Josh Horwatt said that all 10 children have made progress according to program benchmarks. And parents have noticed changes.

“One mother told me she caught her child reading in bed,” Horwat said. “Her child’s not a reader and never would have done that before.”

Yaakov Sobel’s family has also seen improvement. They report that he reads faster, remembers words better and has neater handwriting.

Still, progress is slow. “We wanted an overnight miracle…. I’m still waiting,” Julianne said.

Yaakov’s father, Scott, has his own perspective. When he was a child, “reading was impossible,” Scott said. “I’d forget the beginning of the sentence by the time I got to the end.”

He attended remedial reading classes through his sophomore year in high school and has unpleasant memories of time spent in math detention. Although he graduated from Hastings College of the Law and is a practicing litigation attorney, Scott says that even today his reading remains slow.

So when he attended an Arrowsmith parent orientation, it was a revelation. “Everything that they talked about, I related to,” he said. “I hope the program is successful, and I hope my kid benefits from what I didn’t get.”

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