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Using neuroscience to understand why kids struggle in school

The term dyslexia has been a part of the education lexicon for decades. When it was first “discovered” in the 1970s, there were no technological processes yet in place to prove it was a brain-based condition.

However, Martha Burns, PhD, writes in a Science of Learning blog that "psychologists, neurologists, and special educators …. assumed dyslexia [had] a neurological basis. In fact, the term ‘dyslexia’ actually stems from the Greek ‘alexia,’ which literally means ‘loss of the word’ and was the diagnostic term used when adults lost the ability to read after suffering a brain injury."

At the time, the cause, “was deemed not important,” Burns continues. "Rather, the goal was to develop and test interventions and measure their outcomes without an effort to relate the interventions to the underlying causation."

However, using neuroscience to pinpoint exactly why a student struggles in reading or math can help educators come up with specific and effective interventions.
School psychologist Steven G. Feifer, DEd, ABSNP, became interested in neuroscience as it relates to reading when, early in his career, he had an opportunity to evaluate a very impaired student named Jason.

“His IQ was 36,” recalls Dr. Feifer, “but he was an incredible reader. This was pretty difficult to explain using a discrepancy model paradigm, which falsely implies that an IQ score represents a student’s potential. I made a concerted paradigm shift, and tried to find a more scientifically rigorous explanation for Jason’s amazing skills. This quickly led me to the research library at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“As it turned out, Jason was quite easy to explain,” he continues. “He had a condition called hyperlexia. After much research, I presented information about the neural mechanisms underscoring hyperlexia at Jason’s IEP meeting. The IEP team was incredibly receptive to the information and immediately amended Jason’s IEP so he received inclusionary services in a regular 5th grade classroom.

“Jason turned out to be the single-highest speller in 5th grade. I was convinced that discussing how a child learns from a brain-based educational perspective, and not solely an IQ perspective, was the best way to understanding the dynamics of learning and inform intervention decision making.

“The following year, I enrolled in a neuropsychology training program and was fortunate enough to study with the top neuropsychologists in the country.”

Dr. Feifer, who has 19 years of experience as a school psychologist, was voted the Maryland School Psychologist of the Year in 2008 and the National School Psychologist of the Year in 2009. He is a diplomate in school neuropsychology and currently works as a faculty instructor in the American Board of School Neuropsychology (ABSNP) school neuropsychology training program. He continues to evaluate children in private practice at the Monocacy Neurodevelopmental Center in Frederick, Maryland, and consults with numerous school districts throughout the country.

Dr. Feifer has written several books and two assessments that examine learning disabilities from a neurodevelopmental perspective—the Feifer Assessment of Reading (FAR) and the Feifer Assessment of Mathematics (FAM).

PAR staff recently sat down with him to discuss this unique approach to testing students with reading and math difficulties.

What influence did neuroscience and research in this area have on your work in test development?

I have spent most of my career as a school psychologist trying to coalesce the fields of neuropsychology and education. I suppose it stemmed from my utter frustration in trying to explain learning simply through the lens of an IQ test score. After all, when was the last time somebody wrote a meaningful goal and objective on an IEP because a psychologist said a child’s Full Scale IQ was 94?

Why was an instrument like the FAR needed?

The FAR was created for a number of reasons. First, I am especially grateful to PAR for recognizing the need for an educational assessment tool based upon a neuropsychological theory: the gradiental model of brain functioning.

Second, I think the FAR represents a new wave of assessment instruments that does not simply document WHERE a student is achieving, but explains WHY. This allows practitioners to better inform intervention decision making.

Third, with the reauthorization of IDEA in 2004, school psychologists and educational diagnosticians no longer have to use a discrepancy model to identify a learning disability. However, most examiners are a bit leery about switching to a processing strengths and weaknesses model because of the sheer complexity and loose structure of this approach.
The FAR identifies the direct processes involved with reading and makes the process easy without having to rely on a cross battery approach.

Lastly, many states have now required schools to screen for dyslexia in grades K-2. The FAR Screening Form is ideal to function in this regard.

How did using a brain-based perspective guide you when developing the subtests and subtypes for the FAR and the FAM?

I have conducted more than 600 professional workshops worldwide to both educators and psychologists. Most educators readily understand that there are different kinds of reading disorders, and therefore different kinds of interventions are necessary.

By discussing reading, math, or written language from a brain-based educational perspective, I try to point out specific pathways in the brain that support phonemic awareness, decoding, fluency, comprehension, and other attributes inherent in the reading process.

I also illustrate what a dyslexic brain looks like before an intervention and then after an intervention. Cognitive neuroscience greatly validates the work of our educators and reading specialists. In addition, cognitive neuroscience also provides the foundation for various subtypes of reading disorders based upon the integrity of targeted neurodevelopmental pathways.

How do these instruments go beyond just using an aptitude/achievement discrepancy perspective?

The FAR and FAM represent a more ecologically valid way to understand the core psychological processes involved with both reading and mathematics. Many psychologists are used to measuring executive functioning, working memory, visual perception, and processing speed using stand-alone instruments, and then must clinically bridge these results into the worlds of reading and math. In other words, how does poor performance on executive functioning tasks impact the ability to read on grade level? These can be very difficult questions to answer.

The FAR and the FAM seek to measure these psychological constructs while the student is actually engaged in the academic skill itself, allowing the examiner to directly determine the impact of each neurocognitive process on the academic skill itself. Typical achievement tests are important to determine WHERE a student is functioning with respect to a nationally normed sample, but the FAR and FAM were designed to explain WHY. This is the key to really bringing back the “I” into an “IEP,” so practitioners can more readily inform intervention decision making.

Do the instruments give you a reading/math level?

Both the FAR and FAM give you an overall composite score, but the true value of these instruments lies within the factor scores. We chose grade-based norms due to the variability of ages in each grade and thought it was only fair to compare a student’s performance with students in the same grade-level curriculum. In other words, it did not seem fair to compare a 10-year-old in the 3rd grade with a 10 year-old in the 5th grade with two more years of formal instruction.

Academic skills should be based upon the current grade level of the child, especially when we have an educational system where 43 of 50 states follow a common core curriculum. If practitioners are uncomfortable with grade-based norms, there is a conversion by age proxy table included.

Do you need a neuropsychology background to administer and/or interpret any of these instruments?

I think you need a reading or math background to administer and interpret these instruments, which is why these are B-level qualification instruments. This means most teachers can readily administer the FAR and the FAM. It is not necessary to understand the neuroscience behind each learning disorder subtype, but it is necessary to understand the learning dynamics involved with each skill. For instance, most educators readily understand the role of phonics, fluency, orthography, and comprehension in reading. The FAR can catalogue the relative strengths and weaknesses within each of these processing areas to best inform intervention decision making.

Is any special training required to administer and/or interpret these instruments?

There are two types of training from which practitioners may benefit: practical and conceptual. From a practical standpoint, PAR has created a free training portal on the Web site that aids in subtest administration, scoring, and pronunciation of both real and nonsense words for the FAR. The portal is approximately 45 minutes in length and is more than sufficient to allow examiners to begin using the test. A training portal presentation for the FAM will be available in the coming months.

The conceptual training comes from myself. I have written six books about neuropsychology and learning, including a reading book titled Integrating RTI with Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading. This book goes into the neuroscientific underpinnings of each reading disorder subtype and also has scores of interventions matched to each subtype.

I also have a math book, The Neuropsychology of Mathematics: Diagnosis and Intervention, which describes how children acquire basic math skills from a brain-based perspective.
I also do between 35 to 45 professional presentations per year for various school districts and conferences.

PAR’s Clinical Assessment Consults also offer informative Webinar and on-site presentations to help users learn to administer and score these tests.

Using tests like the FAR and the FAM can help educators pinpoint precisely why students struggle in reading and math. Interventions vary based on a student’s particular type of dyslexia or dyscalculia, so knowing why informs decisions about appropriate interventions and, ultimately, allows students to succeed.

Professional Resources

Copyright PAR, Inc. 2012