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Lifting the fog: Vancouver school brings clarity to students with learning difficulties

Posted on August 15, 2016


Grace Wyatt remembers Grade 10 as one of the darkest times in her son’s life.

Josh, then 16, had studied really hard for a particular test. But hours of work didn’t help and he still failed.

High school students skip class, don’t study and flunk exams all the time, but Josh wasn’t a slacker. He had the study habits of an “A” student and the grades of an “F” student.

And the test was simply the breaking point.

“I came home that day and told my mom I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt as if I was living in a fog,” Josh says.

Like many students with learning difficulties, he needed a radical intervention.

“There’s no point in trying to pour ‘learning’ into a child if it’s running out through the holes,” says Grace. “You have to plug the holes first and then the information will stick.”

With that philosophy, Grace pulled Josh out of school in Australia and enrolled him in Eaton Arrowsmith in Vancouver – a school with a unique approach to teaching students with learning difficulties. Grace knew it was worth the risk.


The road to recovering Josh

Unlike other alternative schools for children with learning difficulties, Eaton Arrowsmith isn’t giving students tools to cope or work around their weaknesses; it is changing their brains to make learning easier.

Experts used to believe the human brain was fixed – that people couldn’t alter the brains they were born with. Modern research has since proven this to be false. The brain can create new neural pathways and alter existing ones.

Howard Eaton, founder and director of Eaton Arrowsmith and author of Brain School says: “It’s stunning to see a program alter neurological functioning in children with learning difficulties.”

The Eaton Arrowsmith method, developed by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young, involves rigorous programs of cognitive exercises based on each student’s individual needs and learning difficulties. Children take two traditional subjects: math and English. But the rest of their days are spent strengthening weak connections in their brains so they can eventually return to mainstream schools with a better ability to learn.


Eaton Arrowsmith in action

Josh had many learning challenges before EA. Cognitive thought, comprehension, memory and reasoning were all difficult for him. While he loved reading, he never understood what he was reading. His mom remembers her son devouring book after book – loving the process, but never being able to discuss characters or even plot.

Josh couldn’t hold commands in his head, so if a teacher asked him to read a sentence out loud from a book, he couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to read. He also had trouble understanding patterns, which made math seem like a foreign language. Josh struggled to remember facts, too. Grace recalls her son making flash cards for history tests and watching him walk around the house trying to memorize what was written on them – often with minimal success.

“I’ve always had a great work ethic, but it was soul-destroying to put in the effort and not see results,” Josh says.

Josh always knew he wasn’t like other kids. Mostly, he saw how he struggled in school and his friends didn’t.

But at Eaton Arrowsmith his differences no longer mattered.

Josh likens his early days at Eaton Arrowsmith to running a marathon. He says the work took concentration and persistence, and then he had his first breakthrough.

“I remember coming out to the car and telling my mom ‘I’m not dumb after all.’ I realized I could learn,” he says.

After days of struggling with one exercise, Josh not only mastered it, he understood the next level too!


After the Fog

Eaton Arrowsmith showed Josh that his learning difficulties don’t determine his goals; he does.

“Don’t accept the verdict,” Josh says to parents of children struggling in school. “There is a solution and there is light at the end of the tunnel. For me it was EA.”

After two years of Arrowsmith exercises, Josh returned to Australia where he achieved A-level grades. He then attended film school and landed a job at one of the top production companies in North America.

“I am so grateful I had the courage to take Josh to EA – to step out of a ‘regular’ learning environment so he could become the incredible man he is today,” Grace says.

EA taught Josh how to learn and, more importantly, restored his confidence.

“My family tells me they don’t recognize the boy who went to EA,” Josh says. “Given where I am today, I know this school changed my life.”

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