Monday, June 2, 2014

A Life in Balance (A Schoolhouse Crew Review)

A Life in Balance, Discovery of a Learning Breakthrough is the autobiographic story of Frank Belgau's journey to create the Learning Breakthrough program.  This book, aimed at adults and older teens chronicles Belgau's experience as a student, his life experience in the US Air Force and as a teacher, and how he has taken what he has learned about special needs students to create a program to help students who seem impossible to reach become successful.

A student in the early 1940s, Frank Belgau struggled to learn.  He wasn't stupid; he just felt it. Things were harder for him - to call reading a challenge for him would be a huge understatement; he was often the target of bullies on the playground because a lack of coordination left him in the dust.  Eventually, he got a bit of advice from his mother about Biblical living and parlayed it into a David-and-Goliath battle, complete with flying rocks.  Eventually even his bully was impressed with his thinking skills.  After a summer of "old fashioned playing" - running, jumping, and making up games outdoors, things started to click, and school became less of a chore.  Because of a few teachers who exuded a love for learning (not necessarily knowledge), he went from a child who dreaded school to a man who learned everything he could.  He became a crackerjack plane mechanic during WWII because of this.  In post-war America, he became a student again -- studying how to be a teacher.  When he reentered the classroom,  he brought the serious ethics of being an Airman - "If the plane goes down because you didn't put it back together right, you've killed a man," - together with his love of learning.

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Today, most schools have good programs for special needs students.  They may not be ideal for every child, but generally speaking, schools at least attempt to do right by all children even if they are handicapped by their checkbooks.  Conversely, in the seemingly idyllic Camelot era of the 1960s...there wasn't much happily-ever-after for learning disabled students.  At best, a teacher or two tried to reach them between first grade and when they dropped out; often, disabled students were written off and classes were little more than holding pens that operated from 8 to 3, with no expectations for the students. Taking pity on the "remedial teacher" at her wits end with her wild hooligans, art teacher Mr. Belgau offered to cover her class for an hour each day to give her a break.   At the time, the best "advice" the principal could give him was to tell the kids to sit down, put their heads on the desk, and cover their heads with the newspaper.  (Can you imagine?)  When given nothing to do, the students found something to keep themselves occupied -- usually exploring the room and others' projects, breaking them in the process.  Unwilling to watch his other students' projects be destroyed by these seemingly human-in-form-only animals, Teacher Belgau started giving them small projects to keep them busy.  To everyone's shock, they SUCCEEDED!   Slowly raising the bar of expectations, he found that every time it rose, so did the students' attitudes, behaviors, and self-worth.  One student, Edward, showed him that beauty came in perspective.  The assigned project was a glass bowl, and Edward accidentally broke his just as the bowl was deemed "complete." Belgau at first felt sorry for the boy, because all he saw was a broken bowl.  Undeterred, Edward asked for a new piece of metal base, then took the shards and transformed them into a glittering mosaic tabletop - one that eventually became the top entry in a craft fair, bringing honors to not just Edward but also to the school who had not long ago written him off!  Little did Frank Belgau know that in that year, the student who would learn the most was ... him. Thinking back on how it was one or two people who believed in him that helped him turn the corner and succeed, even when everyone else - including himself - saw young Frank as a failure, he realized that the problem wasn't the student.  It was the system.  Like Frank, Edward was a "crippled lamb" whose heart was as fierce as a lion.  At that point, Frank knew that he was being called to help others see the lions' hearts. 

Over the next decades, Belgau's own internal lion fought with just about every "establishment" out there.  The school system? Yes.  Doctors who thought that the "slower" child should just be left to his own devices?  Yep.  I can tell you from personal experiences what a perspective shift there has been over the last 20 years in the educational and medical establishments; I can only imagine being on the front lines and fighting for these kids before that.  Now, every state in the US has a federally-mandated Early Intervention program, and therapy services in the school system. Back in the late 1960s and 70s, the only advocates a special needs child had were his parents.   Using what he learned as a teacher, and through trial and error with special needs children and their parents, Belgau created the Learning Breakthrough Program.  It uses physical and occupational therapy concepts to help organize the brain to help the child succeed.

I could never summarize the program's trajectory in a paragraph here.  If you want to learn how it was created and how it works, then you'll want to read A Life in BalanceTo summarize it in a sentence or two, it is a sensory integration program that helps the child's brain and body learn to work in rhythm. It integrates auditory, visual, motor planning, tactile, balance, body positioning and neurofeedback systems, allowing the entire body to learn function in coordination.  While the first half of the book shows us the path to Belgau's "Aha! Moment" the second have shows us the sweat, heart, and tears that went into helping these "discarded" children.  He has always insisted parents be involved in their child's learning; when teaching the children his system, he wasn't running a drop-off service.  Parents were expected to learn the process, so they could help their children at home.  In the process, they could see the progress their child made in real time.  He readily admits that it's not a miracle -- it's a lot of work.  But he saw the difference that believing in and helping a child makes, and that's what kept him going.

Now, if you're a special needs parent, you're thinking, "Great. Another woo-woo guy."  And yeah, I thought so too.  I was expecting a book that would be proclaiming "You need to buy my program, it's the best thing in the universe, and if you don't, you're a lousy parent who is only paying lip service to wanting the best for your child."  When I was chosen for this review, I even said, "I will read this book with an open mind, but if I think this guy is shilling snake oil, I'm going to call him on it." Is the Learning Breakthrough program a sham? Is Belgau a shaman? I don't know. I haven't tried the program.   I will say that I'm seriously considering it, because having seen how Belgau developed it, I think he's on the right path.

Neal and I have been in the special needs trenches for too long to just accept anything without a Paul-Bunyan's-hotcake-platter sized serving of skepticism.  We had a "best-on-the-East-Coast" neurologist tell us that Luke would "never" walk and we should just accept it, order the wheelchair, and move on.  A second opinion, and that neurologist saying, "I don't see never...I can't say 'next week' or even 'next year,' and I do see a lot of work on everyone's part, but I see nothing in the tests or exam that says 'never,'" has led to 15 years of more doctors and therapists than I have fingers and toes, but not only is Luke NOT confined to a wheelchair, but he's a competitive figure skater who has twice qualified for the National Showcase competition!  Jude's last round of testing deemed him "borderline uneducable."  He's struggling, to be sure, and going into second grade with some serious deficits in language and motor skills, but my little visual/video-based learner will tell anybody who is willing to listen a dissertation on "Double U...Double U...TWO!" learned from Captain America, or Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution learned through Liberty's Kids videos.  Don't tell me he is incapable of learning - he is learning, he just learns differently.  Matthew is going to join our homeschool when this school year ends because the way a school has to be structured for a group setting just isn't how he learns, and the struggle is affecting not just his grades but his self-esteem and motivation, and something needs to change.  Belgau explained in detail all of the skills he has seen needed for success in learning, all of which we have seen deficits and gotten therapy for -- gross motor skills, fine motor skills, sensory integration, balance, core strength, and rhythm.  We know from our experience that sensory input - jumping on the trampoline, swinging, sitting on an air cushion - helps the brain organize itself so it can focus.  In order to read, a child needs to be able to move from left to right, crossing a midline.  He has to be able to balance himself - standing to read the museum plaque, sitting at a table to read a sentence to copy.  All of the skill areas Belgau has seen needing attention and addressed to help these kids succeed are the ones that our 2000-and-later doctors and therapists have focused on -- and Belgau was noticing these details back during the Johnson Administration!

Do I think this is going to "cure" them? No.  Do I think that it's going to mean we don't need medications? No.  There are some people who might be able to ditch meds, or lower doses.  That's fantastic!  Are we going to be in that group? I doubt it.  In order for these coping techniques to have a shot, my gang needs their meds on board to focus long enough to try.  The way I see medications for psychiatric issues is this:  you'd never tell a diabetic to "Go bounce and it'll be better," or "Just suck it up and be stronger." You'd say "Wow...maybe that chocolate cake isn't a good idea...but that doesn't mean you don't need to check your sugars and probably take insulin, too."  If there are non-pharmaceutical ways to help yourself that are safe -- by all means.  If pacing helps you reset yourself, put your shoes on.  Similarly, if eating an apple is better than an orange, then go with it.  But sometimes, it's not going to be enough.   As fantastic as I think what Belagau has done is, it's not going to be a silver bullet for everyone.  Part of the marketing is "Treat ADHD and dyslexia without medication!" and for that one, I'm going to say "It can't hurt to try, but I don't think it's going to magically make things all better for profoundly affected people."

At the back of the book, Belgau includes what he calls the "Space Walk" - a simple series of gross motor activities that are not nearly as simple as they seem.  For a neurotypical person, they're not that hard.  Walk.  March.  Hop.  For a person who has cognitive and/or motor planning difficulties, they can seem impossible.  I took a piece of sidewalk chalk and outlined the Space Walk in our yard, and had Jude (chronological age almost 7, language/motor developmental ages 3-4)  and Luke try them.  Luke had a much easier time of it -- but then again, he's also much older and has been in PT and OT since he was a year old.  But was it EASY for him? No, because of the motor planning.  For Jude, some of the tasks were impossible - like marching and hopping on one foot.  I expected this, because "marching 20 feet" and "hopping 5 consecutive steps 3 out of 5 tries" are among his Physical Therapy goals.  Would the Learning Breakthrough program help them? After seeing them work on the Space Walk over the last few weeks, I'd say it's got potential -- and their therapists and I are researching it.  But we are all in agreement that even if we decide against the main program (it's pretty pricey), the Space Walk should be part of their regular home program.  Is the order of the activities the magic bullet?  I don't know.  But it can't hurt to try this, and if we see success over time, consider trying the full program.  The full program is expensive, but this book is less than $20 ($18.95 list price), so worth the investment to learn Belgau's story, his process, and to try the Space Walk.

Special needs parenting is a true reflection of "God doesn't call the equipped; He equips the called." We take things one diagnosis at a time, one treatment at a time, one day at a time...and sometimes, pray really hard to just get through this moment.  Having read A Life in Balance, I believe Belgau is another one of the Called.  Clearly, he didn't start out looking for answers to help special needs children.  If anything, he was among the most resistant -- he only offered to take the class because the other teacher looked at him with such exhaustion in her eyes that he couldn't say no.  What started as pity turned to a mission to give discarded kids like Edward the tools to succeed.  Taking his own experiences as a child, he combined them with a never-give-up, give-it-your-everything attitude, working day by day, child by child, even just staying in "this" minute out of worry of what the next would bring.  When he began, there was no scientific research, no case studies - just Belgau and his instincts.  I can't help but be inspired by Belgau's resourcefulness and perseverance. 

Click to read Crew Reviews

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  1. martianne stangerJune 3, 2014 at 8:22 AM

    Your review is so thorough, honest and personal. I love it. I, too, enjoyed the book and since I have children who are not as profoundly affected by their neuro-differences and, thus far, have been able to develop med-free, I am excited about seeing how the addition of LB concepts helps them stay med-free. That said, you perspective that some children and adults may not be able to go med-free is valuable and one I had not considered much before... Thank you

  2. Very thorough review. I agree that some cases are so severe that they will need medication. But ... but... but... many, many, many children today could benefit from 2-3 hours spent playing out side and less time in front of a screen. A Life In Balance is only one of many voices speaking out about this issue.

  3. This book sounds really interesting! Your review has really piqued my curiosity to read it!

  4. Meg @ Adventures with JudeJune 3, 2014 at 11:21 AM

    I think ALL children can benefit from playing outside -- neurotypical or not! But expecting that to "cure" ALL kids just is unrealistic. It's no more wishful thinking than assuming that all ANY diabetic needs to control blood sugar is to watch what he eats. It ignores a large portion of the population for whom diet can only ever be part of the equation, because their disease falls into the "the body is failing to produce this chemical" camp. No matter how "few" carbs they eat, their body is never going to handle ANY of them without additional support, because their pancreas just doesn't work. There are some kids who only need supports to function well, and activity/therapy is sufficient. However, society needs to more frequently acknowledge there are some who will never get by on action alone and their brains do not work how they should.

  5. Meg @ Adventures with JudeJune 3, 2014 at 11:28 AM

    Thank you! I agree that there are some who can remain med free, but there are some who just need the chemical balance that medications bring to the party. I've seen too much of unmedicated psychiatric issues in our family to not be grateful that if this is "all" we have to contend with, we are very blessed. I'm all for whatever keeps the doses therapeutic but as low as possible, but having seen what happens with "no" meds, I realize there just are some that we aren't going to be able to discontinue and still have any "normal" function.

  6. Your review has made me want to read this book. I am very aware of Sensory Integration, but would like to read about his personal experiences without what that label officially means.


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