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Understanding between humans does not always come easily. Take, for example, the sometimes fraught relationship between parent and child – especially when the child is struggling at school.

Imagine that the child seems incapable of performing what the parent deems essential tasks: cleaning her room, for example, or doing basic math, writing legibly, remembering instructions. There are numerous possible explanations for why the child cannot accomplish these tasks, and one of them is cognitive weakness. The child’s brain is not naturally suited to the task. But neither child nor parent know that yet, and some will never know.

So labels are applied. The parent thinks the child is “lazy,” and that’s why the room stays messy. Or the child is “inattentive at school,” and that’s why the arithmetic won’t sink in. The child is “careless,” so the handwriting is scrawl. Or the child “lacks focus,” and thus a list of things to do “goes in one ear and out the other.”

Given those labels, it’s difficult for said parents to have compassion and empathy for their own child. Frustration builds on both sides, leading to conflict and impacting the entire family. And the child herself starts to believe the labels, yet is powerless to change her behaviour – no matter how hard she tries and no matter how smart she is in other ways. Everyone in this family is suffering.

To repeat: there is a very real possibility that the child’s brain is wired in such a way that any or all of the aforementioned tasks are exceedingly difficult, even impossible, for that child. The child no doubt has cognitive strengths, but also particular cognitive weaknesses. Everyone on the planet has those, for every brain of every human is unique.

So what are the options for that parent and that child?

Before answering that, anyone reading this should understand four key words: neuroplasticity and cognitive learning profile.

Neuroplasticity simply means the ability of the brain to change. For almost four decades, Arrowsmith Program founder Barbara Arrowsmith Young has argued that when the brain is stimulated in precise ways, its physiology and function change and cognitive deficits can be addressed. Barbara’s own life story (told in her bestselling book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain) is ample evidence of this, for she overcame her own quite severe learning disabilities by applying those principles to herself and devising – and, over decades, revising — specific, targeted brain exercises.

Cognitive learning profile refers to how an individual learns, or, in some cases, fails to learn — owing to that individual’s brain strengths and weaknesses. On the Arrowsmith web site is a questionnaire that anyone can fill out to get an approximation of one’s cognitive profile.

But the first question here is not, is my child right for Arrowsmith? The first question – and here lies the road to empathy – is this one: Should I as a parent be trying to acquire a fuller picture of my child’s cognitive profile?

In a subsequent blog, we’ll take a deeper look at the cognitive learning profile that is developed after the Arrowsmith Program assessment. Typically, the first response on seeing the extensive written report and on hearing the school’s principal go over the results verbally is relief – for both the parents and the child. There is this eureka moment when the parents come to realize two things: one, that the child’s troubling behaviour owes nothing to laziness or inattentiveness or carelessness and two, that the principles of neuroplasticity can be harnessed to address the issue.

One child assessed several years ago in the Toronto Arrowsmith School had this to say about the assessment briefing: “This lady was inside my head.” The Arrowsmith staffer, a professional who is specifically trained for this work, was saying to the child, “I’ll bet when you play tennis, it goes like this . . . Or when you call a friend, the conversation unfolds like this  . . . And if I read a poem to you, you can’t picture it, am I right?” All these failings at school and in society were quite predictable – given the picture that emerged from the testing. But no one had ever offered that child what amounts to a user guide to his own unique brain.

Another child put it this way: “I got to see for the first time what rocked my block.” Finally, these children (and their parents) had an explanation for their inability to learn like other children – along with a path forward that held out the very real possibility of strengthening the brain weaknesses that are the heart of the problem.

Arrowsmith teachers, regular classroom teachers and parents find the Arrowsmith cognitive profiles – which offer an explanation of each student’s cognitive, academic and social differences — easy to understand. For the first time, many of these parents grasp their child’s behaviours, strengths, and weaknesses, and this understanding leads them to increase their patience, support and advocacy for that child.  As one parent said, “It explains so much why she is the way she is – or used to be.”

Everything has changed for this child, a student at the Camperdown Academy, a school in South Carolina for children with dyslexia. (We won’t name her to protect privacy, but let’s call her Annie.) Annie’s parents report that “she no longer panics when routine is changed but is able to remain calm and find a solution. Annie is less resistant to trying something new and no longer sobs when asked to clean her room. She develops a plan to accomplish simple goals that used to overwhelm her.”

We asked Annie’sparents, “Did you find the cognitive profile useful?” “Yes!” came the response via e-mail. “Now we understand why she couldn’t find her shoes sometimes. Why she struggled so hard with a simple chore.”

Annie’s parents now see her in a new light. Understanding someone else’s behaviour through a cognitive lens leads to compassion, and is the starting point for change.