Ask Susan: Why a Multiple Cognitive Approach Is the Answer to Learning Disabilities

Hello there,

I am interested in finding out more about your program for my son. He is 10 years old and has been diagnosed with learning disabilities, which includes poor phonological awareness. I am looking into options to specifically address this and any information would be appreciated.

Thank you.

Jennifer
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Dear Jennifer

Thank you for contacting Edublox, and I trust that my answer will be helpful.

Edublox addresses multiple cognitive skills, rather than specific cognitive abilities. There are four reasons why the best solution for learning disabilities is to follow a balanced and holistic approach and develop multiple cognitive skills, and not only some:

Correlation does not equal cause and effect

Researchers have known that weak cognitive skills are the predominant cause of learning disabilities for more than a century, but are still unsure which cognitive skills are responsible. For example, in addition to phonemic awareness, cognitive psychology has linked the following brain-based skills to dyslexia: verbal fluency; attention and executive functions; visual attention; visuo-spatial abilities; processing speed; short-term memory; auditory working memory; visual and visual sequential memory; visual long-term memory, especially for details; verbal long-term memory; and rapid naming, which concerns retrieval from long-term memory.

The challenge faced by researchers is this: two things that are linked or correlated do not equal cause and effect. The following, for example, demonstrates a correlation with an incorrect conclusion:   

When ice cream sales are high, the frequency of shark attacks increases.
Therefore, sharks attack in response to rising ice cream sales.

These two things are merely correlated and not cause and effect. The two variables exhibit a common trait — the warm season — when people are more likely to both eat ice cream and swim in the ocean. Yet it’s easy to confuse correlation with causation when you are relying solely on observational data.

Until we have completely mapped the cognitive deficits that cause learning disabilities, addressing multiple cognitive skills is much less of a gamble than addressing only one or two.     

Overtraining one area may come at a cost

Overtraining one part of the body can cause deformity, for example the Popeye syndrome when overtraining the biceps. The same principle seems to apply to the brain. Strengthening only one or two selected brain areas may weaken other brain areas. In Maguire et al.’s 2006 experiment with London taxi drivers, growth in the brain occurred in the posterior hippocampi. This was the result of the taxi drivers having to memorize lots of locations, including roughly 25,000 city streets. However, this seems to have come at a cost, as they had reduced anterior hippocampal gray matter volume (Maguire, Woollett & Spiers, 2006).

Cognitive abilities mutually facilitate growth  

One should consider the role of mutualism. A mutualistic view suggests that cognitive abilities mutually facilitate growth. For example, better reasoning skills allow individuals to improve their vocabulary more quickly, and better vocabularies are associated with faster improvement in reasoning ability (Kievit et al., 2017).

Learning disabilities caused by poor connectivity

Scientists have argued for decades that there are specific brain regions that predict having a particular learning disorder or difficulty, but a study by Siugzdaite et al. (2020) shows that this isn’t the case. The researchers studied close to 500 children and found that the brain differences did not map onto any labels the children had been given — in other words, there were no brain regions that predicted having ASD or ADHD, for example. More surprisingly, they found that the different brain regions did not even predict specific cognitive difficulties — there was no specific brain deficit for language problems or memory difficulties, for example.

Instead, the team found that the children’s brains were organized around hubs, like an efficient traffic system or social network. Children who had well-connected brain hubs had either very specific cognitive difficulties, such as poor listening skills, or had no cognitive difficulties at all. By contrast, children with poorly connected hubs — like a train station with few or poor connections — had widespread and severe cognitive problems.

So, unless the learning difficulty is very specific and minuscule, addressing multiple cognitive skills is the way forward as this approach will build brain connectivity.  

Jennifer, feel welcome to book a free consultation to further discuss your child’s needs.

Regards,

Susan
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References:

Kievit, R. A., Lindenberger, U., Goodyer, I. M., Jones, P. B., Fonagy, P., Bullmore, E. T., & Dolan, R. J. (2017). Mutualistic coupling between vocabulary and reasoning supports cognitive development during late adolescence and early adulthood. Psychological Science, 28(10), 1419-1431.

Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. J. (2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis London taxi drivers and bus drivers. Hippocampus, 16(12), 1091-1101.

Siugzdaite, R., Bathelt, J., Holmes, J., & Astle, D. E.(2020). Transdiagnostic brain mapping in developmental disorders. Current Biology, 30(7), 1245-1257.


Tips for sending questions

Send your questions to [email protected].

Try to give as much detail as possible when sending your questions. Include your child’s age and grade and the specific problems that you have noticed, which concern you.

Sign your letter to Susan with your first name only, or a pseudonym if you prefer. Your identity remains private and we will not publish your contact details.

More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree from the University of Pretoria. Early in her professional career Susan was instrumental in training over 3000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 25 years of research to her name Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 40 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.

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