Learning Centres: A lazy child? No, just one in need

A private remedial programme of one-on-one instruction works wonders, says Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

In the week that the Commons education select committee described the provision of special needs education as "not fit for purpose", a remembrance day was held in west London in honour of Patricia Lindamood, a Californian speech and language pathologist who pioneered learning programmes that transformed the lives of children labelled lazy or failing.

Lindamood, who died earlier this year aged 83, co-founded the Lindamood Bell learning programmes. There are now 40 Lindamood Bell Learning Centres in the US and one in London. For parents struggling with an education system that often sidelines those with special educational needs, even as it preaches inclusion, the Learning Centre in Notting Hill is a refuge.

"We were desperate by the time we heard of Lindamood Bell, but when we walked in it was like a huge weight had been lifted off our shoulders," says Suzette Shahmoon, whose daughter Danni, now eight, had difficulties learning to read.

"She was labelled a lazy child by the school," recalls Suzette. "But I knew that wasn't the case because she would come home from school and work with me solidly for two hours, desperately trying to get it."

A year on, with Danni in Year 2, falling further behind and growing increasingly frustrated and demoralised, Suzette considered pulling her daughter out of school. Then she heard about the Lindamood Bell Learning Centre.

Lindamood Bell is a private organisation, founded by Lindamood and Nancy Bell in 1986, that delivers intensive one-on-one instruction. Programmes draw on models of human cognition and brain function to stimulate sensory functions related to learning and can treat a wide range of learning disabilities, including dyslexia, hyperlexia and autism.

The dyslexia programme - called Seeing Stars - tackles the brain function disconnect between word and image that creates so many reading and spelling problems for dyslexic children. The Visualising & Verbalising programme helps those with hyperlexia, where children can read well but cannot make sense of the information.

The programmes are tailored to each child's needs and taught one-on-one for four hours a day, five days a week, usually for six to eight weeks. This intensity is important when you're teaching sensory-cognitive processes, says Dan Morgan, Lindamood Bell's clinic director in London.

"At this level, you start to make new neurological connections in the brain so the process becomes almost automatic," says Morgan.

Children from all over the world attend the London centre. It works with children of all ages but the average is 10 or 11: this, according to Morgan, is panic time for many parents.

"The children have had difficulties before but when they hit this age suddenly there are more tests, they're expected to be more independent in their learning and things can go downhill fast," he says.

By the time these ten-year-olds come to Lindamood Bell, their confidence is rock bottom, they may be in trouble at school or causing problems at home and, because of difficulties processing and verbalising information, they may be growing increasingly isolated from friends and peers. It's no wonder parents grow desperate, willing to raid their savings (the Lindamood Bell diagnostic tests alone cost £475) and prepared to pull their children out of school for months at a time.

"It was a big commitment," admits Liz Ellerton, whose daughter Lucy attended the west London centre when she was 10. Previous tests by educational consultants had resulted in a series of unspecific and confusing diagnoses.

"They seemed to be saying the wires in her brain hadn't matured enough yet," says Liz. "Perhaps things would have worked out for her in the end but the education system doesn't allow for children to develop and mature at their own pace."

Lucy grew frustrated and tried to divert attention from her difficulties by playing up in class. Teachers labelled her lazy and distracted. Yet eight weeks on the Visualising & Verbalising programme resulted in major improvements: Lucy, now 13, is in the top 20 per cent of her class.

"It opened up a whole new world for her," says Liz. "She surprised us all by doing extremely well in her 11-plus and getting into the school she wanted."

The results speak for themselves but they have a price and are only for the lucky, affluent few. For now, too many vulnerable children are bound to an education system that remains unfit for purpose.