The Story of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain and Left Her Learning Disability Behind”
Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast, EPISODE #132 with Barbara Arrowsmith Young, an incredible woman from my hometown, Toronto, Canada, who is otherwise known as “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain”[i]
In this episode, you will learn:
✔︎The heroic story of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young that Dr. Norman Doidge, the author of The Brain That Changes Itself says is “truly heroic, on par with the achievements of Helen Keller.”
✔︎ What specific learning challenges Barbara noticed by 1st grade, and how she struggled through school during the time of the “fixed” brain, before the concept of neuroplasticity.
✔︎ How her parents prepared her for the legacy she would create years after she graduated from OISE’s Faculty of Education in Toronto.
✔︎ How a Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria and psychologist Mark Rosenzweig would help her to find the solution she was looking for to overcome her learning challenges and change her brain.
✔︎ What is the Arrowsmith School and Program that serves schools in educational institutions in worldwide?
✔︎ How you can connect with the Arrowsmith School to learn more about their programs to change student’s brains.
Welcome back, I'm Andrea Samadi, a former educator who has been fascinated with understanding the science behind high performance strategies in schools, sports, and the workplace for the past 20 years. If you have been listening to our podcast, you will know that we’ve uncovered that if we want to improve our social and emotional skills, and experience success in our work and personal lives, it all begins with an understanding of our brain.
I first learned about Barbara Arrowsmith Young when researching for Brian Fact Friday and EPISODE #129 as she was a case study in Dr. Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself[ii] Dr. Doidge is a Canadian scientist, medical doctor, and psychiatrist who was one of the researchers who put Neuroplasticity on the map and he dedicated a whole chapter in his book to Barbara’s story called “Building Herself a Better Brain” which is exactly what she did. You can read Barbara’s book, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain,[iii] that’s now in its third edition, here. I’ve heard Dr. Daniel Amen say over and over again that “you are not stuck with the brain that you have. You can be empowered to change it for the better[iv]” and Barbara Arrowsmith Young did just that, and more. Her story just below me away. Literally. It was the first time I cried while researching someone, as her story of struggling as a young girl hit a chord for me. The whole reason I do the work I’m doing now, is to help educators or those in the workplace to use the understanding of their brain to improve productivity (whether that’s in the classroom, or the workplace) and when someone is struggling in this area, like many people who have dedicated their life to the field of teaching and learning, most would want to know “why is this person struggling and what can we do to help them past this?”
You can watch Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s TEDx Talk, or read her story in Dr. Doidge’s book, to dive deeper into her story, that began when she was told she had a mental defect with her brain when she was younger, would never learn like other children, and would just have to learn to live with these limitations. For those of us who have children who need a little extra help, or who have worked with children with learning disabilities, we know that many times, even though other areas of the brain are highly functioning, and can even appear to make up for those areas of the brain that are not as strong, not addressing the areas of weakness, fixing or correcting them, can cause years of frustration for the child and will show up eventually when the brain becomes tired of working hard to compensate for the weaker areas. This even showed up in my results with my brain scan at Amen Clinics with the X test, or the Connor’s Continuous Performance Test Score where we had to hit a key on the keyboard of a computer every time an X appeared, and not hit it when we didn’t see the x. Dr. Creado who did my test evaluation mentioned that “he has noticed that people who have weaker executive functions in their brain can develop life hacks to help them to focus and concentrate when they need to. But the problem is, that with time, and not working on brain health, or function, it will just become more difficult to keep up with these life hacks. Eventually, the brain will not be able to keep up with the hack which is why it’s so important to look and see what’s happening in your brain. You won’t know any of this, without looking.”[v]
Her work, begun in 1978, has been recognized as one of the first examples of the practical application of neuroplasticity which, simply put, is the ability of the brain to change and rewire itself over one’s lifetime. As the Director of Arrowsmith School and Arrowsmith Program, she continues to develop and refine programs for students with learning difficulties.
Her vision is that all students struggling with learning will have the opportunity to benefit from cognitive programs utilizing the principles of neuroplasticity, programs that change the brain’s capacity to learn and open to these learners a world of possibilities.
The genesis of the Arrowsmith Program’s cognitive exercises lies in Barbara Arrowsmith-Young's journey of discovery and innovation to overcome her severe learning disabilities. Her inspirational book ‘The Woman who Changed Her Brain’ has become an international bestseller and a third edition updated with new research was published in December 2019.
Barbara is the recipient of the 2019 Leaders and Legends Innovation Award from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto for her outstanding contributions to education in Ontario.
About the Arrowsmith Program
The Arrowsmith Program has been recognized by Sharp Brains as the Most Innovative Special Education Program of its kind, identifying and strengthening the weak cognitive functions that underlie specific learning difficulties.
The Arrowsmith Program is offered in over 90 educational organizations in 13 countries. Ongoing research with neuroscientists, neuropsychologists and psychologists is demonstrating that the program not only changes the brain, cognitive functioning, and academic achievement but also leads to social-emotional well-being.
‘Barbara’s story is truly heroic, on par with the achievements of Helen Keller.’ Norman Doidge M.D. author of the New York Times Bestseller The Brain that Changes Itself.
Barbara Arrowsmith-Young is the founder of the Arrowsmith Program, an assessment process and a suite of cognitive exercises designed to stimulate and strengthen weak areas of cognitive functioning that underlie a range of learning difficulties, which has been delivered for 40+ years throughout the world.
Sadly, Barbara grew up at the time when most medical experts believed our brains were fixed, so she had to defy the odds, and find solutions to overcome her learning challenges on her own. She did and created the Arrowsmith School is Toronto where she now teaches other children many of the strategies that she used herself to strengthen her brain.
Let’s meet this extraordinary woman, from my hometown, Barbara Arrowsmith Young.
Welcome Barbara, I’m so grateful to have found you. It started when I read Dr. Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself and chapter 2 of his book was dedicated to your story. My eyes saw Toronto (where I grew up and went to school) and Peterborough where you were raised, where I still send some Christmas cards to friends and family that way, and now I wanted to know your story. Then I saw your TEDx and the connection grew stronger with my background in teaching (I saw we both attended OISE’s Faculty of Education for our teacher training), and I had an interest in earning additional training in strategies for students with Learning Disabilities. Your story brought tears to my eyes as my focus on for the past 9 years has been to create content to help students/teachers in the classroom to instill a positive mindset for these young learners, and I saw how things were so different before there was such an emphasis on these skills. Thanks so much for being here today.
Q1: Barbara, can you share what you were told about your brain, and learning when you were in 1st grade, (mental block) and the challenges you had growing up at a time when doctors believed that our brains were fixed?
Q2: What specifically did you have a difficult time with and what did this do to your ability to learn at school (thinking of those students in the classroom today with a learning challenge)?
Q3: Things reached their lowest point for you in grade 8 where you just couldn’t see how you could go on with learning being this difficult, but your father, an inventor, helped you to adopt the mindset you would need to soldier on. When I heard what he told you, it made me feel more connected to you. I had a mousepad given to me from a friend back in Toronto as a gift when I was moving to the US, with the exact same saying on it. What did he teach you and how did this help you to move forward?
Q4: This is where my mind started to blow up a bit when I watched your TEDx. A bit because I can’t imagine researching before the internet. How did you come across the work of neuropsychologist Alexander Luria and psychologist Mark Rosenzweig[vi] and what did you learn from them?
Q5: The final missing piece for anyone who has gone through life with a learning challenge like you, or like me as a parent, watching my youngest child, wondering why can one of my kids sail through school, without any effort, and the other, needs constant support and guidance? Or a teacher out there, wondering what else could we do to help that one student putting in extra effort, without any results. Can you share what are the Assessments[vii] you use at Arrowsmith to identify a learning challenge, and what can they do for a student to help them past this challenge?
Q6: This podcast is going into our 6th season, and 3rd year and has a reach of over 148 countries around the world. Our top countries are the USA, Australia next and Canada and the UK not far behind. I saw your participating sites link[viii] on your website, and wonder how schools could become a participating site to access your assessments and curriculum?
Q7: What programs can you tell our audience about at Arrowsmith Schools? I saw a powerful video about your Summer Intensive program in Toronto that drew students from around the world (USA, Australia, the UK and beyond). Do you have anything like this coming up?
Q8: What’s your vision for Arrowsmith Schools, and on the horizon for you that we should all be aware of?
For people who want to learn more about your school, assessments and programs, I have put all of the links in the show notes, in addition to your website. https://arrowsmithschool.org/
Where else can people follow you and your school?
Thank you Barbara for taking the time to speak with me. It’s a true honor to meet someone who has made such an incredible impact on the world, that began with an understanding of your brain. I will continue to follow work and wish you much success!
Here are some videos of students and parents describing the changes from the work:
Summary documents on our research
Participating Sites of the Arrowsmith School and Programs Worldwide https://arrowsmithschool.org/participating-sites/
Arrowsmith Cognitive Enhancement Program https://arrowsmithschool.org/enhancementprogram/
Live Arrowsmith Cognitive Classroom Demonstration with Howard Eaton Published on YouTube March 5, 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epHBDNBPnHg
Cognitive Questionnaire https://questionnaire.arrowsmithprogram.com/
Neuroplasticity: How the Brain Can Heal Itself by Lynn Malcolm April 21, 2015 https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/neuroplasticity-and-how-the-brain-can-heal-itself/6406736
Alexander Luria: Life, research and contribution to neuroscience by Maria Illmarovna Kostyanaya https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/alexander-luria-life-research-contribution-to-neuroscience/
The Man with a Shattered World: The History of a Brain Wound by A.R. Luria Published April 30, 1987 https://www.amazon.com/Man-Shattered-World-History-Brain/dp/0674546253
[iii] Barbara Arrowsmith-Young The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Storis of Cognitive Transformation, Foreword by Norman Doidge. Published Sept. 17, 2017 https://arrowsmithschool.org/books-3/
[iv] Dr. Amen http://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2019/08/14/1901976/0/en/Dr-Daniel-Amen-s-Change-Your-Brain-Change-Your-Grades-Helps-Students-Parents-and-Teachers-Sync-Up-for-Better-Success.html#:~:text=Amen%20Clinics%2C%20Inc.,-Los%20Angeles%2C%20California&text=LOS%20ANGELES%2C%20Aug.,change%20it%20for%20the%20better.
[v] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast Episode #84 “How a SPECT Scan Can Change Your Life.” with Andrea Samadi https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/how-a-spect-scan-can-change-your-life-part-3-with-andrea-samadi/
[vi] American research psychologist Mark Rosenzweig https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Rosenzweig_(psychologist)#:~:text=Rosenzweig%20initiated%20experimental%20research%20upon,than%20rats%20raised%20in%20cages.&text=This%20work%20led%20in%201962,enrichment%20increased%20cerebral%20cortex%20volume