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Interview with Nonfiction Author Etta K. Brown on Understanding Learning Disabilities

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Q: Hello, Etta K. Brown. Thank you for joining me here today. Would you mind introducing yourself?

A: I am a retired School Psychologist, who began writing after retirement from a thirty-year career in public education.

Q. You are currently on virtual tour with your book Understanding Learning Disabilities: Understanding the Problem and Managing the Challenges. Can you tell us about your book?

A: Part I of the book addresses the incidence of learning disabilities that is increasing at the rate of 10–20 percent per year every ten years. When I first studied Exception Children in the 60’s only 2 percent of a school population was expected to have special needs. Our society changed after World War II, and the environmental influences to which children are now exposed is the primary factor interfering with the normal development of children.

Part II addresses the fact that the Federal government has abdicated its responsibility for assuring an appropriate education for all children by delegating the responsibility for appropriate education to parents. This is accomplished by empowering parents with rights that far supersede those of the school. These rights cannot be claimed by parents without preparation for the assumption of the responsibility. In this section parents are empowered with information which the schools would rather they did not know. Specifically, parents are empowered with an insider’s view of the whole special education process. Parents are equipped with what to say, when to say it, questions to ask, and what to do if they don’t get the right answer. With this information, parents can take an active role in their child’s education and co-partner with the schools in the educational process by supporting at home what they are asking the teacher to do in the classroom.

Part III of the book is an introduction to each form of learning disability, how it manifests behaviorally at home and at school, along with suggestions for modifications and accommodations needed at home and in the classroom. This information explains the child’s behavior, and recommendations actions to take to prevent the child’s behavior from interfering with his ability to learn.

Overall, the book is a road map through the special education process, as well as managing the learning disabled child at home.

Q: You mention that in section one you talk about environmental influences on the increase of learning disabilities. Would you share what you feel is/are the top one or two influences?

A: Research on a number of levels suggests that what parents do, or do not do, has profound impact upon how the child’s mind develops. The process of sequential development of the brain is guided by experience. As different regions of the brain are organizing, they require specific kinds of experiences targeting that region’s specific function (e.g., visual input while the visual system is organizing, hearing the human voice while the speech centers are organizing) in order to develop normally. These times during development are called critical or sensitive periods.

For millions of abused and neglected children, the nature of their experiences adversely influences the development of their brain. Many learning disabilities occur because the family as it is presently constituted does not have the available resources to accomplish identified ideal childrearing objectives, and there is no substitute.  

Even when a child survives childhood development with parental bonding and attachments intact, emotional trauma can have a significant impact. Trauma results from events like natural disasters and physical assault, including rape, incest, molestation, brutal whippings or beatings, automobile accidents, and/or experiencing or witnessing horrific injury or fatality as in war or inner-city gang wars and dive by shootings.

Unfortunately, children comprise the largest group of victims of these traumatic experiences. Taken together, a conservative estimate of children currently at risk exceeds 15 million, and grows as traumatized children carry their scars into adulthood and new children are traumatized each year.

Q: Do you feel that many children are wrongly put in special education classes? That they are wrongly diagnosed?

A: There is a long history of children being placed in the wrong educational setting. I think this is often because we do not have the proper diagnostic instruments with which to diagnose. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children has been revised three or more times, and has come under fire for its lack of diagnostic consistency, yet many school districts continue to use it and place much credibility upon its results, when it is well know that the test measures academic achievement and social exposure rather than intelligence. This evidenced by the fact that non-English speaking and other minorities who are reared in diverse cultural settings are over represented in special education.

Further, the training of the individual professional administering the test determines the outcomes. The test manual identifies specific settings in which testing is to take place, questions must be stated exactly as they are written in the manual, etc. As professionals we sometimes deviate from these standard administration procedures, and ignore the fact that they invalidate the test results. Only the professional who administered the test can interpret resulting scores based upon the child’s behavior during the test. Did the child appear to be making his best effort? Does he comprehend the English language? Or something as simple as, “Did he eat breakfast, was the child hungry are all factors that must be considered when determining a child’s ability.

So, my answer is yes on both counts. Children are sometimes misdiagnosed, and wrongly put in special education classes. The politics within the school, the social status of the parents, how active the parent is in the PTA, the child of an active volunteer is not as likely to be placed in special education as the minority child whose parent does not speak good English. This is why the Federal government empowered parents with rights that support their demands for an appropriate education for their child. Parents are unprepared for this role, and cannot protect their child’s rights. 

Q: Do you feel that the rise in learning disabilities is a fault of the educational system? Parents? Environmental factors? Something else?

A: First, let’s eliminate the education system from the mix. Schools are designed to educate the child that comes to them. Very often, children enter school with their limited abilities very much in evidence. Schools cannot parent children, provide them with adequate nutrition, or protect them from social and emotional trauma.

So the problem has to be in the early childhood pre-school age environment. Parents are the key ingredient, but the average new mother has no experience with childrearing. Extended families with grandparents, aunts and uncles who helped the young mother are no longer common in our society, so young mothers rear children by trial and error. Unfortunately, the danger of this method may be that some trials aren’t successful, and the damage is done to the developing child very often during the first three months of life. This then becomes a problem within the culture at large. The question is, without the experienced extended family members with child rearing expertise, where does the young mother get help with childrearing? Where does the young middle class mother acquire childrearing skills. How does she learn that a lack of sleep will interfere with the child’s ability to learn, or that sleep is necessary for learning to take place? Or, that a child should take a nap right after school because it is during sleep that learning fixed in the memory of the child.

Nutrition is also an important factor in learning. The brain is composed of fat, and omega 3 fats are necessary for normal brain function. The majority of processed foods in our diet do not contain the nutrients necessary for normal brain function, omega 3s are not in processed oils, and are slowing being eliminated from the fish we eat. Sea food which provides necessary nutrients cannot be eaten because of pollution.

In the same way that we have polluted the environment, caused global warming and nearly extinct polar bears, we have polluted the brains of our obese malnourished children, and the incidence of learning disabilities is increasing at the rate of 10–20 percent every ten years. Currently, as much as 50 percent of some school populations is learning-disabled. And this incidence is slowly manifesting in all economic areas. No child is immune from this creeping scourge upon our society. Our culture has lost sight of its future.  

Q: You call your book a resource. What sort of things does it provide? Is it specifically geared towards parents?

A: The information in the book is equally useful for parents, teachers, students and administrators. It is designed to any question about learning disabilities from causes, identification, diagnosis, design of appropriate education programs, writing the IEP, modifications and accommodations at home and in the classroom, some child rearing practices, as well as social and educational interventions and treatment. There is something for everyone presented with simple clarity and as easily read as a newspaper. The book is short and simple, relating only the findings of the latest research. There are no studies to decipher, no statistics to interpret; just readily applicable information.

Q: You also have a website here you provide various services. Would you tell us more about the website and services?

A: The book can be purchased on the site which also contains helpful information about different types of dyslexia, the law, writing the IEP and other helpful information not included in the book. The book is featured on the site with excepts to read, the table of contents, about the author, and if you are really interested, you can download and read chapter I for free.

Ceres Psychological services are limited to the Bay Area of California, however, telephone and fax services are offered nationwide, and are free to those who purchase the book and are trying to follow its suggest approach to the special education process. We are not attorneys, we are educators, but we will do our best to be as helpful as we can.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share today?

A: Thank you for the interview. It is greatly appreciated.

Q: Thank you so much for your time.


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