Programs Use Neuroscience to Inform Special Education Teaching Practices

January 19, 2012

Programs Use Neuroscience to Inform Special Education Teaching Practices

[caption id="attachment_948" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of dream designs"][/caption] With the state of most education research today, it takes a lot to get me truly excited. It seems every article I read touts new and better ways to “improve test scores” among benchmark and special education students alike. But, life and education are not about test scores, they’re about learning. That’s why when I read about the several pilot programs across the country that are focused on using research in neuroscience to help customize learning programs for special needs students, I finally got excited. The Brain: Our Last Great Mystery Throughout the course of the 20th century, many of the bodies “mysteries” began to unfold. We began to understand the relationship between diet and heart disease, carcinogens and cancer, and we unlocked the genetic code. However, the workings of the brain remain one of science’s greatest unsolved mysteries, as evidenced by the label Autism Spectrum Disorder (ADS). Autism, as we commonly refer to it, is not one disorder, but a range of neuro-cognitive impairments that we have only just begun to understand. In that vein, neuroscience has focused a lot of its energy over the past few years onto unlocking some of that mystery and understanding how, if not why, one person’s brain functions differently than another. The logical application of these findings into the education of that individual is what makes the marriage of special education and neuroscience so fascinating. The Progress Made There are several, reputable programs across the country that are focused on using a variety of neuroscience research techniques and blending them into the special needs and mainstream classrooms. Like any research, nothing that is being used is perfect, but the progress being made is extremely encouraging for the future of special needs programs as well as education in general. Some of the mist significant programs are:
  • A doctoral program at George Washington University in DC called “Applied Neuroscience in Special Education”
  • A Harvard University center dedicated to training educators and other auxiliary staff in using cognitive science and neuroscience to improve teaching methods.
  • The Center for Applied Technology, located in Wakefield, MA. This center employs neuropsychologists with the goal of expanding learning opportunities to students with disabilities.
  • An MIT professor, John D.E. Gabrieli, whose brain mapping program is being used to predict reading problems in kindergarteners. The hope is to pinpoint problems like dyslexia which are not usually diagnosed until 3rd or 4th grade and begin students on a plan that allows them overcome the problem earlier, thus bringing them up to grade level along with their peers.
  • In Rockville, MD, the Ivymount School has begun a groundbreaking Model Asperger Program designed to integrate research-based interventions into social skill building. The research is based on neuroscience and psychological principles, among others.
  • Finally, BrainWare Safari Software, made by the Learning Enhancement Corp., has begun to break ground in equalizing learning patterns through repetitive play. The program is used by children for 30-45 minutes a day for three months and helps to reform neuro pathways that will allow them to successfully acquire skills such as note taking at the same time the teacher talks.
An Exciting Future Once we have the scientific proof of people’s differing needs and learning styles, adapting our curriculum and our testing practices to accommodate them is the obvious next step. Also, by eliminating many of the barriers that prevent so-called “special” learners from progressing at the same rate as their peers, we can begin to tap the potential of all individuals and, I think, we will see a far more educated and able population as a result.



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