One Voice by Pang Hin Yue
With proper intervention, children with learning disorders can make significant progress, too.
WHEN the wiring is faulty, a light bulb blinks and dims. Tweaking the wiring may just do the trick. Similarly, neuroscientists and psychologists are attempting through various ways and means to tease and trigger neurons or nerve cells into working in harmony for those whose thinking process, speech and development have been impaired.
Among them is the venerable psychologist Dr Reuven Feuerstein from the International Centre for the Enhancement of Learning Potential in Jerusalem.
Dr Feuerstein strongly believes that the brain is modifiable. He says the brain is not a fixed, unchanged entity but is elastic and can be stretched like plastic. He postulates that with the right intervention, the brain, no matter the degree of damage or injury, can be made to function optimally.
The brain, he asserts, requires systematic stimulation to build cognitive function, that is, specific methods for interpreting information and problem-solving to support learning and development. This is the heart of Dr Feuerstein’s theory which he first tested out on children who were traumatised by the Holocaust and who showed autistic tendencies.
For the past 50 years, Dr Feuerstein’s teachings based on his Structural Cognitive Modifiability Theory and Mediated Learning Experience have benefited families and teachers in over 80 countries.
On the local front, therapists Foo Siang Mun and K.C. Soo have adopted Dr Feuerstein’s approach to teach their students on both ends of the developmental spectrum – from persons with autism, Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to those with high IQ. They notice the significant inroads their students are making. Those who could not speak, are talking now. Those who could not read, are reading now. Those whose memories had failed them, are now gaining ground in their studies.
“Prior to 2005, I had tried speech therapy, occupational therapy and behavioural modification therapy, but my daughter made little progress. Under the care of Foo, she is talking and reading,” enthuses Dr Ailina about her daughter, Aiman Syafiqah Mahathir, 10, who was diagnosed with autism at three.
“We help students with the right strategies to decode the meaning of words and symbols, understand causes and effects, ask questions, follow rules and ultimately, to learn independently,” says Soo.
“We unblock the barriers to learning and then build up the learner’s ability,” he adds.
Both Soo and Foo are science graduates, each with over 10 years of experience in corporate training prior to their current vocation as certified Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment trainers.
They stress that teaching children with learning issues is never static. “The learning process is dynamic. As you teach, you reinforce what the student knows and mediate in areas where he is weak,” says Soo.
In their daily one-on-one sessions with students, they observe how the students tackle the task and decide on what they need to understand to enrich their learning. It could be decoding the meaning of words, learning how to retain memory for the task at hand, solving problems, decoding mathematical symbols or learning how to ask questions.
“Many with learning disorders do not know how to ask questions,” Foo observes. Because it is an essential skill for communication, Foo and Soo teach their students the need to ask questions and show them how to do it.
“When they learn how to ask questions, they gain knowledge. This lessens their frustration, especially when they are placed in an unfamiliar setting or situation,” explains Foo. When their level of frustration lessens, inappropriate behaviour will decrease, too.
Theoretically, a child with no learning issues, learns directly from his environment. But when a child has a learning disability, he needs a little nudge to help him make sense of the information presented to him. In doing so, he learns to interact with people and blend into the environment.
But that is only one side of the story. The person who teaches must also know how to teach. “The learning does not start and end with the student. The mediator or teacher must first know how to teach effectively and the only way to do it, is to learn with the right tools. We believe Feuerstein’s method is the way to go for parents,” explains Soo.
Concurs Emy Lim, mother of Joseph Diong, eight. She is convinced that Feuerstein’s way has helped her son overcome speech impediment and propelled him to excel academically.
“My son could not speak even at the age of five and had behavioural issues. He was taken to see a few specialists and he was advised to undergo speech therapy. But that didn’t help,” recalls Lim, a pharmacist. But when she took Joseph to Foo and Soo, she discovered that he had a problem with auditory memory. “He could not remember what he heard and saw,” she says. But as she worked hand-in-hand with Soo and Foo, Joseph gradually overcame his problem with memory and began to talk. To Lim, that is a breakthrough.
Now Joseph consistently emerges as the best student in the private school he attends. Talking to him, it is hard to believe this articulate boy with a ready smile once had learning problems. Today one of his favourite pastime is reading books. “I like to read about the adventures of Geronimo Stilton,” says Joseph. Geronimo Stilton’s character is a talking mouse and the series of books based on his adventures are considered one of the bestselling children’s books.
Jane Yeoh is another parent who feels that her children have benefited from Foo and Soo’s way of teaching. She gave up her job as an illustrator to care for her sons Keith, eight, and Ben, six, both of whom have learning disorders. “Ben underwent speech therapy for two years but he did not show any improvement,” says Yeoh.
Hard-pressed, she decided to give Soo and Foo a try two years ago and was amazed to see Ben and Keith improving in speech and behaviour. “What I like about their teaching approach is that they are flexible and creative in troubleshooting,” she adds.
Soo and Foo stress that parents play an integral role in interventional therapies. “The child’s progress depends on how much time the parents are willing to put in,” says Soo.
Wan Chik Hanoom, mother of two special needs boys, concedes parental involvement is vital. She gave up her job with a multinational company to care for Mohd Anas Syed Mohd, 13, and Abu Talhah Syed Mohd, 18.
For years, she had to bear the brunt of the wrath of Talhah’s teachers for his behaviour. While Talhah had no problem reading and talking, she says, he had no comprehension of what he read and his speech was inappropriate. In addition to that, she had to watch over Anas who has Down Syndrome.
But five years ago, she sought the help of Foo and Soo and together they worked through the issues her two sons faced. Now Talhah has not only completed his major government exams, he is looking forward to going to college. “Anas is able to talk without any tantrums and he is better at managing himself,” beams Wan Chik.
A healthy dose of optimism helps, too. As Feuerstein says on his website: “Have faith because there is hope.”
One Voice is a monthly column which serves as a platform for professionals, parents and careproviders of children with learning difficulties. Feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. For enquirie, call Malaysian Care (03-9058 2102) or Dignity & Services (03-7725 5569). E-mail: email@example.com.
Foo Siang Mun and K.C. Soo will be conducting a two-day seminar entitled The Mediated Learning Experience, from March 12 to 13 at Tropicana Golf and Country Resort Club House, Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Fee: RM555 per person; group of four: RM475 per person. For details, contact Foo (019-322 2952 / firstname.lastname@example.org) or Soo (017-886 8295 / email@example.com).