Book review: At Wit’s End
Learning challenges can be corrected permanently.
That surprising assertion is my one-sentence summary of At Wit’s End: A Parent’s Guide to Ending the Struggles, Tears and Turmoil of Learning Disabilities. The author is Jill Stowell, founder and director of Stowell Learning Centers Inc. in southern California. Jill’s experience helping students and adults overcome their struggles with learning, attention, and executive function is the evidence behind the assertion. For those who feel hopeless, At Wit’s End is one of the biggest morale boosters you could find!
The book is divided into two parts. Part One is titled “Navigating and Understanding the World of Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities, and Other Learning and Attention Challenges.” The first few chapters in this section cover how to recognize learning problems and why a student’s behavior or emotions might mask the root of the issues.
The reader is then introduced to the seven learning skill systems that must be functioning properly in order for successful learning to occur: motor system and body control, visual processing, auditory processing, language processing, attention awareness and control, memory, and executive function.
Here’s a quote from the end of Chapter 5:
A weakness in one or more of these learning systems … will make school more difficult than it otherwise would be, even with strong intelligence and good compensating strategies. The good news is that none of these systems is static. With specific and intensive training, the brain can learn to work more efficiently in all of these areas.
When these systems don’t function well, a disruption in the person’s neurological development as an infant, toddler, or preschooler is often the underlying cause.
Next, the book discusses the five levels in what’s called the Neurodevelopmental Learning Skills Continuum. Skills at lower levels have to be performing well in order for skills used at higher levels to function properly.
From most basic to most advanced, the five segments of the Continuum are:
- Core Learning Skills (reflex integration; motor and visual skills development)
- Processing Skills (including memory, attention, auditory and visual processing)
- Executive Function (including organization, planning, problem solving)
- Foundational Academic Skills (reading, writing, math)
- Content area and higher learning (subject areas)
Each of these skill areas is discussed in more depth in the remainder of Part One.
Part Two of the book is titled “The Learning Skills Continuum Approach to Solving Learning Problems.” Here, Jill devotes chapters to how an individual can be trained to overcome deficits in core learning skills, listening skills, processing, attention, and executive function.
For instance, core learning skills are often fortified by training that involves movement (including bilateral movement and awareness) and balance. Auditory processing might be strengthened in part by listening to specially composed and engineered musical recordings. Students with attention problems are taught to recognize when they have lost focus (many of them don’t even realize it!) and adopt strategies to bring their focus back to the task.
The training techniques have been refined over time. Some training activities include products or research developed by other experts in the field of learning disabilities – whatever works to achieve lasting, positive results!
Each new client of the Stowell Learning Center has a thorough evaluation to assess exactly which underlying skills are weak, and the severity of the deficit. An intensive customized training program is devised and possibly refined as training proceeds. Although the program typically takes months to complete, many of the clients see noticeable improvements after only a few weeks of training. The improvements aren’t usually just in academic skills, but in attitude, sociability, and openness to life. How cool is that?
At Wit’s End is a fairly easy book to read, despite the new concepts and vocabulary you might find in it. Jill has made a point of explaining things as clearly as possible – after all, parents are the target readership, not professors. She has included many case histories of students of all ages to illustrate the concepts. If you are concerned about someone whose performance in school or life seems well below the capability that their intelligence would suggest, I’m 99.5% sure you’ll recognize a similar case in this book.
At the end of each chapter in the book, you’ll find “Action items” which involve visiting two websites the Stowell Learning Center maintains and reading (or listening to) information that relates to the chapter’s content. If you want to learn more about the Stowell Learning Center’s approach before you can get a copy of At Wit’s End, here are those links: http://www.learningdisability.com/ and http://fixlearningskills.com/.
I’ve been fortunate to attend two presentations Jill has given to gatherings sponsored by the Learning Disabilities Association. Like this book, her presentations were real eye-openers about how the brain develops and functions, and why some people have a hard time with certain tasks. It is so reassuring and exciting to learn that, thanks to the marvel of neuroplasticity, there is a way for struggling students, teens, and adults to improve how they learn – which in turn leads to navigating through life with more ease.