Building 'Bridges' To Learning

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As much as some people have difficulty talking on a cell phone and driving, some children need help getting the various parts of their brains working together.

A new learning program offered at First Southern Baptist Church is helping students overcome learning difficulties by teaching them skills like multi-tasking.

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Teacher Patrick Wright helps Ryan Morris with a workbook lesson. "The learning development book just has a lot of exercises that test the brain -- handwriting skills, focusing, how you see things," Wright said.

"It's a developmental program that helps kids re-attach some of their brain synapses," Patrick Wright, one of the program's instructors, said. "If you find a student has a problem focusing, if they can't see straight, how are they supposed to read a textbook?"

Called Bridges, the program was developed by psychologists Mary and Robert Meeker based on the premise that the human intellect is made up of multiple intelligences, each of which can be assessed independently from the others. Because intelligence can be molded, the program provides cognitive training exercises that improve learning abilities.

Thirty students are currently working through the 40-hour program, usually at the rate of two hour-long sessions per week.

But first they undergo a three-hour pre-test that identifies key areas where improvement is needed.

"It consists of 24 written and two physical tests that take two to five minutes apiece, and they just measure all sorts of different areas -- memory, comprehension, thinking skills, problem solving," Wright said.

The test, for example, measures vision acuity, but goes beyond a simple eyesight test.

"We're also looking to see do the eyes work together to track an object, to look at something far away," Wright said.

Test results are fed into a computer which generates a treatment program.

"It has all the exercises and how many times they do each one," Wright said.

When students arrive for their sessions, they begin by choosing a word from a "feelings list" that best describes their current mood.

"That helps give us an idea where they're at for the day," Wright said. "If they write ‘angry,' we sometimes ask is there something wrong that happened at school today. If they're ‘dead' it means they're exhausted. ‘Frisky' is a scary one because you never know what are they going to do while they're here."

The session begins with some simple warm-up exercises, then a series of exercises customized to the specific areas of need for each student.

Ryan Morris, a fifth-grader at Frontier Elementary School, is enrolled in the program in part because his mother, Terry Morris, is one of the teachers. His first exercise involved jumping on a trampoline while following instructions on a wall chart. He called out the commands as he executed them with his arms:

"Right ... up ... left ... down ... right ... down ... left ... down ... left ... right ... right."

"First we have them do it, then we have them do it and call out what direction they're doing, then the final step is to do the opposite of what is on the wall," Wright said.

"A lot of these exercises cause these students to use more than one skill at a time, which is multi-tasking."

Another exercise, one of Ryan's favorites, involved walking along a beam wearing 3D glasses and reading an eye chart as he moves closer to it. He handled the task effortlessly.

"When he started, he was falling off the beam without even reading the letters," Wright said.

Each session also includes work in an exercise book.

"The learning development book just has a lot of exercises that test the brain -- handwriting skills, focusing, how you see things," Wright said.

Results obtained from post-tests show the program works -- sometimes dramatically. Comprehension improves an average of 203 percent, memory 108 percent, problem-solving 114 percent, and creativity 57 percent.

Perhaps more important, students like Ryan can see the value themselves.

"I think it's a better place to help me get my grades up and do better in school," he said. "It's helped a lot, and now I get things easier."

While the program is offered at First Southern Baptist Church, it is non-denominational, Wright said.

"Arizona Baptist Children's Services runs the program," Wright said. "They've been around for 40-plus years. In Phoenix they run an in-house living program for 50 boys. They also do foster care and adoptions.

"We're not here preaching at the kids," he said. "We're not here to share any faith issues. The church wanted to do something to help the community."

The Gila County probation department sends children to the program, and some parents send their children on their own.

So far, public schools have not been involved, but Wright and Morris expect that to change.

"With the budget cuts, they just can't afford programs like this," he said.

"The schools are very supportive, and we're starting to build relationships where they refer parents here when they see a need," Morris said.

Wright believes that the program as it's structured can be more effective than schools, parents or probation officers.

"We're trying to provide a source that is not an authority figure they can feel comfortable with so they can work on things and succeed," he said.

"A lot of kids have been told they are not going to succeed, and we don't want that attitude," Wright said.

Cost is $150 for the initial testing and $30 an hour for the treatment plan lab hours, but financial assistance may be available for those who can't afford to pay.

For more information call (928) 474-2837.

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