Wednesday 4 June 2014

A life in Balance: a Review

A life in balance is the biography of Frank Belgau written by his son, Eric Belgau.
Learning Breakthrough Program Review
Frank Belgau is the founder of the Learning Breakthrough Program which is a system of exercises designed to improve vestibular (balance) function in children with a variety of learning challenges including dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The program not only promises to improve vestibular function but to improve or even remove the symptoms of the dyslexia or ADHD.

Learning Breakthrough Program Review

Frank Belgau has had a fascinating life. This biography, written in the first person, starts with Frank as a child with reading difficulties in a high performing family. Over one summer, he spent hours on the beach exercising and then went back to the classroom as a competent reader.

Frank was influenced by some inspirational teachers particularly in science. On leaving school he joined the US airforce and determined to learn about the inner workings of planes. He had hoped that this would lead to becoming an airline pilot but he was turned down on sight grounds. After working on aeroplanes and teaching about their mechanics, Frank turned to school teaching. Almost by accident, he started teaching art to pupils with learning difficulties and was inspired by what he saw. What had started as a kind move to help a fellow teacher struggling with a class of children with learning challenges turning into a life's work. The attitude to teaching is described as

Problems are made to be solved; challenges are made to be overcome; if something doesn't work, throw it out and if something does work, explore it.

Several of the chapters are named after inspirational people. Perhaps the most moving it that of Edward, a boy with cerebral palsy, little sight and speech difficulties. Edward made a glass bowl in the art class and then dropped it. Of course, the bowl shattered but Edward determinedly used the fragments to make an award winning table. 

Mr Belgau developed on interest in teaching children with learning difficulties and went on to take a class of 14 "Minimally Brain Injured" children. These were children who could learn. They could think. They were just terrible readers. I guess what we would now term as dyslexic. His early work included finding age appropriate readers and turning this into a multi-sensory exercise by asking the children to follow, in carefully marked books, while he read aloud. Gradually, other methods were introduced. Some were discarded but following a targeted pendulum with the eyes seemed to show success. Reading was assessed before and after reading and in one child seemed to have improvement after 15 minutes of pendulum tracking. Gradually, more exercises were added and seemed to benefit more children. The exercises began to be taken outside the classroom and used with larger groups co-ordinated by parent groups for Minimally Brain-Injured Children. The exercises started to include bean-bag activities, the pendulum, rhythm activities and ultimately the Balance Board. Improvements were noted both by parents and therapists.

The plot then moved to the University of Houston. The system needed to be validated and properly researched. The College of Optometry within the University of Houston seemed to be the place. Sadly, conflict between the more conventional structural optometrists and those working in the Perceptual Motor and Visual Perception Lab became intense and ultimately, Frank Belgau had to leave. He was able to take his work to the Pacific States University where he entered a new doctoral programme. Sadly, this wasn't accredited and this left to Mr Belgau leaving academia and setting up a freelance programme: the Learning Breakthrough Progam.

Towards the end of the book is more detail about parts of the program such as the use of bean bags and the space walk as well as its postulated neurological basis. The chapter on the space walk gives details of assessing gait and how to perform the walking exercises.

The book is primarily written for adults. I wouldn't have a problem with older children reading this but think that this type of book is more likely to appeal to parents.

What did I think:
  • The book is a fascinating read detailing the exciting intellectual environment in Texas at the time of the space race.
  • The parts of the book about teaching children in schools with learning difficulties are fascinating. The story of Edward is inspirational.
  • I enjoyed reading about this approach to learning difficulties particularly dyslexia.
  • My main concern is the lack of evidence. Obviously, there were political problems at the University of Houston but I would have loved to see some link or report of the findings of the research. How much was each group helped and by how much? The Program is said to work for various difficulties including dyslexia and ADHD but less expectedly for older adults trying to keep mentally fit. Presumably, for children with reading difficulties, the programme needs to be supported by reading instruction. What reading instruction was used? Was there a control group with the same reading instruction, level of intelligence but who did not receive the Learning Breakthrough package?
A Life in Balance is available, as a 216 page paperback, via Learning Breakthrough Program. It costs $16.94 (about £10.12). It is also available from where it currently costs £13.49.

Further information about the Learning Breakthrough Program can be found via the company's social media sites.

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