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Brain Gym®

by Tom Maguire

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‘Children can learn almost anything if they are dancing, tasting, touching, hearing, seeing, and feeling information.’

In 1990 Azasha Lindsey set up a Brain Gym programme in Camp Gonzales, a young offenders detention centre in California. She was in charge of 23 young men whom the centre described as "unable to stay out of solitary confinement." Over a period of weeks she worked with the group teaching them a Brain Gym class. Although the class was only once a week, they showed remarkable improvement in their academic learning. What most impressed the learners themselves was their growing self-control, especially increasing command over temperamental outbursts. By the time Azasha had finished her course with them none were in solitary confinement and all but two of them were home.

Dr. Carla Hannaford is a neurophysiologist and educator with more than 28 years of teaching experience. In her best selling book "Smart Moves", Dr. Hannaford believes that learning is not an isolated "brain" function but very much part of our whole body. Every nerve and cell is a network contributing to our intelligence and our learning capability.

On one occasion Dr. Hannaford was invited to work with a football team of boys aged 14-16 who wanted to win the state championship. They were good players but all too often they lost their self-control during games, were penalised and so lost. She had the team focus on one goal: "We're cool, calm and collected and will win the state championship." Until the championship game came round she also had them drink lots of water and do specific Brain Gym exercises like Cross Crawls, Brain Buttons, and Hook-ups, before each practice and game and also at the intervals. There was a marked improvement in their game, so much so that they qualified for the state championship quarter-finals in Honolulu. There, they won their way through to the semi-finals and made it to the final. Tension mounted during this last game since the championship was so near, yet so far. Tempers began to fray during the match and the players were losing control over their patience. At half-time the boys grouped together and lay down on the field to do hook-ups while the coach, parents and everyone else looked on in amazement. Finally they stood up and won the state championship.

Any goal must have the body and mind working together. That's what Brain Gym all about. Breakdown in performance is frequently a breakdown between the mind and body. Brain gym helps bridge that gap.

his holistic approach has proved successful in education too, according to the study done by Cecilia Freeman and Joyce Sherwood on the effect of Brain Gym on reading scores.

The researchers worked with teachers and students at Saticoy Elementary School in Ventura, California, over the 1998-1999 school year. Twelve teachers of grades K, 2, 3, 4 and 5 took Brain Gym instruction once a week for an hour after school during the school year. In these sessions they learned how to determine which Brain Gym movements and activities were most appropriate for various academic situations, and how to guide the students in doing them.

The teachers then taught the children in their classes how to decide for themselves which Brain Gym movements they needed to implement at any given time. Each class did a minimum of 15 minutes of Brain Gym practice per day and the children became quite skilled in the use of Brain Gym movements for self-help. Additionally Cecilia and Joyce gave classroom presentations and initially provided individual instruction for the children who were having most difficulties in school.

Cecilia and Joyce’s study compared the children's reading percentage scores from during the school using the Stanford 9 test, a standardized reading achievement assessment in California. They also compared the scores of students from control classes with the scores of students from "Brain Gym" classes. The results are a percentage score which shows the comparative standing of the child relative to others. It works this way: If a child scores 30% this means they scored higher than 30% of the other children at their grade level (in schools across the country), and lower than the other 70%.

The results of the study were impressive. During that year, the reading scores of the "Brain Gym group" had got better, rising from 55% to 89%, while the scores of the control group that received no Brain Gym support improved 0 to 16 points.

However a more subtle and perhaps more important change noted by all the participants who included teachers, parents and school administrators, was the shift in self-esteem and attitude toward school that came along with the children's developing abilities. Cecilia comments that recently when she visited the school, almost a year after her last student contacts there, she saw children here and there doing Brain Gym movements as a spontaneous and natural support for their learning process. She is confident that as children integrate Brain Gym throughout their days, they will take on the experience of personal wholeness and self-esteem that will support them throughout their lives. (Cecilia Freeman can be reached by e-mail at cecilia@jetlink.net. Her website is: www.iamthechild.com)

Brain Gym® is a registered trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation a developmental movement program established by Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D., an expert in child motor-development. In their book "Brain Gym Simple Activities for Whole Brain Learning", Paul Dennison and his wife Gail explain that Brain Gym promotes efficient communication among the many nerve cells and functional centres located throughout the brain and body. Blocks occur, they say, when information cannot flow freely among these centres.

Dennison graduated from Boston University and moved to California to teach elementary students in the Los Angeles public schools. There he assisted in the implementation of Dr. Constance Amsden's Malabar Reading Programmme, an innovative approach to teaching reading.

In 1969 Dr. Dennison himself established his first clinic to treat people with learning problems. After having tested and prescribed remedial programs for hundreds of "learning disabled" students at his learning centres, Dr. Dennison came to the conclusion that most students experiencing difficulty in school were sufficiently intelligent for the tasks required of them. The deficits he found were in their physical/perceptual abilities, that had often plagued the child's development, uncorrected, since infancy. Spatial awareness, a concept of wholeness and closure, the ability to focus attention and perceive an organization or a structure, are requisite learning skills, easily taught yet often not available to the children who need them. He discovered that these skills depend upon an innate understanding of our bodies and how they move in space. Children only repeat those movements which are comfortable or familiar. It is as if the person considered "learning disabled" lacks permission to move in an integrated and coordinated fashion. Dr. Dennison's Brain Gym® and Laterality Repatterning procedures were developed as he explored processes to encourage his students to discover new ways to move that were more functional and coordinated. His educational therapy builds the student's self-esteem, trusting the learner to work through mental aspects as physical blocks are released. The teacher's role becomes that of facilitator of the process of learning. The teacher models how to learn and presents the curriculum. She helps the student to notice what makes learning easier or what interferes with learning. The child has control of the process by which he internalises information.

Brain Gym consists of simple movements similar to the movements that are natural in the first three years of life to accomplish important developmental steps for coordination of eyes, ears, hands and the whole body. The Brain Gym movements have been shown over years of clinical experience, in field studies, and in published research reports, to prepare recipients with the physical skills needed to improve reading, writing, and other goals. The ultimate goal of the use of Brain Gym itself is to create a fully functioning mind/body system, also called an "integrated" state.

The Dennisons Brain Gym model is based on their knowledge of how the brain works. They describe brain functioning in terms of three dimensions : laterality, focus, and centring:

- Laterality is the ability to coordinate one side of the brain with the other, especially in the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic midfield, the area where the two sides overlap. This skill is fundamental to the ability to read, write and communicate. It is also essential for fluid whole-body movement, and for the ability to move and think at the same time.

- Focus is the ability to coordinate the back and front areas of the brain. It is related to comprehension, the ability to find meaning, and to the ability to experience details within their context. People without this basic skill are said to have attention disorders and difficulty in comprehending. At a deeper level, focus allows us to interpret a particular moment or experience in the greater context of our lives or to see ourselves as unique individuals within the larger framework of our society.

- Centring is the ability to coordinate the top and bottom areas of the brain. This skill is related to organization, grounding, feeling and expressing one's emotions, a sense of personal space, and responding rationally rather than reacting from emotional overlay.

The Brain Gym movements interconnect the brain in these dimensions, allowing you to learn easily through all the senses, to remember what you learn, and to participate more fully in the events of your life. You are able to learn with less stress, and to express your creativity using more of your mental and physical potential. The movements also assist in clearing emotional stress that can effect you both mentally and physically. Reported benefits include improvements in such areas as vision, listening, learning, memory, self expression, and coordination in children and adults. Teachers typically report improvements in attitude, attention, discipline, behaviour, and performance in tests and homework for all participants in the classroom

[More information : The Educational Kinesiology Foundation e-mail: info@naturalhealth.co.za]

Dr. Dennison’s initial interest lay in reading skills and in his work with dyslexia he discovered three areas that are all necessary to be a successful reader: crossing the visual midline, oral reading and reading comprehension. Dennison and his wife Gail report in "Brain Gym® Teacher's Edition Revised" (1994), that the many skills of reading can be summarized within these three areas:

- "Crossing the Visual Midfield, that is moving the eyes across the page without inhibiting the receptive brain. The development of visual skills for reading begins with the ability to move both eyes in tandem from left to right across the midline of the page and across the corresponding visual midfield. For reading, one eye must be dominant for focusing, the other eye for blending. Although both skills are available to each eye, stress in learning the tasks of focusing and blending for reading may cause visual disorientation.

- Oral Reading - Expressive reading with emotion and interpretation. The reader must discover that he or she is telling a story and communicating ideas through reading. One must have the concept of verbal code in order for true reading to be possible. In Western languages, the code includes an auditory as well as visual and motor component. All three of these must be used together for reconstruction of the code to take place.

- Reading Comprehension - Focused reading involving anticipation and internalisation of language. Reading is an active reconstruction by the reader of the author's message or code. There's nothing inherently meaningful about the code itself. The success of the communication depends upon the writer encoding something meaningful and the reader recoding it, making it his or her own. Thus, communication through the written word depends on the reader's active recreation of the work as he or she reads it."

In gathering this information, the Dennisons created and refined Brain Gym® movements and activities that stimulate brain function in general. They found that the blocks which people experience in reading are due to an inability to move through the stress and uncertainty of a new task. It was through dealing with these reading blocks that they also discovered a way to deal with learning blocks in general.

They based the unblocking process on four concepts:

- Physical movement to stimulate the brain. The 23 Brain Gym movements are designed to activate such functions as communication, comprehension, memory and organization.

- Avoidance of stress, which inhibits learning. Brain Gym movements encourage the learner to use the whole brain, thereby relaxing the fight or flight response in favour of keeping the memory and reasoning centres of the brain switched on.

- Activation of the whole mind-body system to release learning blocks through movement.

- Setting up a personal feedback loop. The learner takes responsibility and control of his own learning by noticing what works and what doesn't as a particular skill is being mastered. The learner can enhance observation through Brain Gym movements to improve performance, thus increasing self-esteem.

Paul Dennison summarises his basis for Brain Gym by saying, "Movement is the door to learning."

On a more practical level : how can Brain Gym be used in the classroom?

Brad Robertson’s who is principal of Westvale Public School in Waterloo says that Sharon Robertson, an elementary school headmistress in Waterloo Region, uses Brain Gym exercises with her staff and students. Teachers in Sharon’s school are adapting Brain Gym activities into their daily routine. She firmly believes that movement through Brain Gym activities enables her students to access parts of the brain previously inaccessible to them. She has also found that the changes in learning are often immediate.

The teacher may start the day off by engaging her students in specific physical movements like cross crawls (crossing the arms to touch the knees), brain buttons (applying pressure on specific points near the neck to stimulate blood flow to the brain) and hook-ups (crossing the arms and legs in a way that automatically induces calm). Teachers who use these techniques often report that their classes are more manageable and ready to learn each day.

Brain Gym is different from many other learning support programmes in that it prepares learners to learn. It enhances, rather than replaces, other programs or curricula. Until now schooling has been based on the premise that learning is a mental activity. The physical components of learning - the visual, auditory, fine motor, and postural skills - have been almost entirely ignored by educators. A student who has difficulty in the early grades rarely does better later unless the physical cause of the stress is somehow addressed. Moreover, since learning is measured by results rather than process, stressful compensations are often acquired and carried throughout a learner's life.

Despite all the good news, Normand Frenette, associate professor at OISE/UT, cautions that there is no magic science to teaching and learning. He says brain-based learning can be very seductive to teachers, who may rush to incorporate as many strategies as soon as possible. Frenette says long-term studies are needed to authenticate the value of the explosion of research on how the brain learns. Nevertheless, many teachers like the ones cited are responding to brain-based educational innovations in the way good teachers have always done – they’re reading, learning, experimenting and using whatever works well for them and their students in the classroom.


Tom Maguire has a BA (English), M-ès-Lettres (French) and Philology degree (Spain). He has 28 years experience in TEFL in France and Spain. At present he teaches EFL in a Spanish State high school near Barcelona and is participating in a pioneering website (www.edu365.com) to give academic support to students, teachers and parents . He is interested in using NLP to enhance Learning to Learn strategies. He is a Master Practitioner in NLP and manages e-groups for those interested in NLP in Education and S.E.A.L.    Email:jmaguire@pie.xtec.es   Website: www.xtec.es/~jmaguire