The bell rings as Bonnie Willingham and her 13-year-old son Nate walk through the door of Brain Works.
They are greeted by owner and operator Diane Daniels, who opened her brain training center to help children like Nate who have learning disabilities.
Nate steps into the first room, puts on the bone conduction headphones and adjusts the balance board. The modified classical music begins, and he carefully gets on the board, grabbing a hold of the tennis ball hanging by a string from the ceiling.
His goal is to stay balanced while maneuvering the tennis ball over blocks marked with different patterns.
Nate Willingham focuses on matching three cards based on color, shape or pattern during his Brain Works session on Friday. This card game is used to improve visual perception. Madison Schultz / WUFT News
Triangle, circle, cross, square. Repeat. Triangle, circle, cross, square. Repeat.
It is visual-motor-balance activities and other brain-stimulating tasks paired with audio played at different frequencies that help stimulate neural growth.
Daniels, an educator and education psychologist, said the brain training can improve attention span, auditory processing, sensory integration and motor skills.
While a wide range of clients has sought her help, Daniels said the majority of her clientele are children in late elementary or middle school.
She recently finished working with her youngest client, a 4-year-old with autism. Adults also come for treatment after strokes and concussions.
For Nate, the brain training is to help with his dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia—problems he’s been struggling with since he was in elementary school.
Doubts That Resulted in Progress
As Nate’s home-school teacher, Willingham first noticed her son’s learning disabilities when he was 8 years old and multiplication tables were added to the curriculum.
Initially, she was not sure if he was being lazy or just being resistant to home-schooling.
A year later, she decided something needed to be done, trying other forms of curriculum like one-on-one training and using more flashcards, but nothing worked.
“I’m supposed to be the teacher, I’m supposed to figure out how to help a child and I wasn’t able to do so. I was frustrated with myself,” she said. “And then as a mom I was horribly frustrated with myself again. I’m supposed to be able to help, I’m supposed to be able to fix things, and it just wasn’t happening.”
She began researching online, finding several websites about dyslexia. Some included dysgraphia, a processing issue with handwriting, but none covered dyscalculia.
After six months, she finally found information about dyscalculia; it said he would never learn.
“It was pretty hopeless,” she said.
A Glimmer of Hope
Prior to resorting to Brain Works, Willingham attempted using the Wilson Language Training program to re-teach Nate how to read.
The program explained that children like Nate learned backwards.
“When you’re in kindergarten, you learn ‘A-ah-apple,’ but with dyslexic children, you have to teach them ‘A-apple-ah,’” she said. “That’s where we started, getting word associations to learn the sound.”
She began noticing improvements in his spelling, hearing him phonetically pronounce words before spelling them out.
Nate said reading syllable cards helped improve his reading, but it was a very slow process.
After a year and a half with barely any progress, Willingham and her husband, Dan, knew they needed to begin researching again to find another curriculum to help with math.
“Yes, he learned how to use a calculator well, but that’s not something he can always rely on,” she said.
The next morning, Dan Willingham attended a Business Networking International meeting where Daniels spoke about working memory that helps store and process new information.
After researching Daniels and her business, they brought Nate in to see Daniels for an interview. They were interested, but the financial aspect stood in the way.
Daniels offered Willingham a job, asking her to help at Brain Works in exchange for a discount on the treatment.
“It really helped me to make the decision,” Willingham said. “I was able to work with this little boy and just in the time frame that I was there, I saw improvements.”
In his 13 sessions at Brain Works since March, Daniels has noticed similar improvements in Nate including speed of reading, mathematical calculations and articulation.
“Three weeks later I noticed a difference in his reading. I had a mommy moment,” she said while holding back tears.
Nate notices the changes, too. His face lit up when Daniels told him he shaved a minute off his time completing a set of fast-paced math problems.
“Multiplication and division are easier,” he said. “I learned tricks with multiplication, like with the 9s, and I’ve memorized a lot of the others now.”
Willingham is overjoyed knowing that Nate is not going to be limited by his learning disabilities.
“It has given me hope that he is going to get to go to college and be able to choose a career and not have a career choose him.”
As a teacher at a small, private homeschool, Willingham wishes the training available at Brain Works were available to every child.
During her 14 years operating Brain Works, Daniels tried unsuccessfully to bring the training exercises into the school system.
“I would go back to the school that I worked at and offer my services,” she said. “And they weren’t convinced that they could find the time or the place to do this training,” she said.
Daniels admits the training techniques at Brain Works are not well known. The two main companies involved in brain training, Lumosity and Posit Science, produce computer software that focuses on visual activities and auditory training exercises. Her business combines those practices with visual-motor-balance and interactive language activities.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together,” Daniels said, quoting a phrase often used to describe the Hebbian theory. This theory in neuroscience seeks to explain how neurons adapt during the learning process.
Susan Leon, a research assistant professor in the University of Florida’s department of neurology and research investigator at the Brain Rehabilitation Research Center at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center, said she’s not sure how effective these methods can be on traumatic brain injuries, where damaged areas of the brain cannot regrow.
“I think the applications to developmental disorders, especially those involving an acquired or congenital auditory processing problem, may be legitimately beneficial,” Leon said.
Daniels said she doesn’t see her efforts as a cure-all for her clients, but rather a supplement to speech and occupational therapies that many of her clientele are engaged in.
“There are many pieces to a puzzle to get somebody functioning in the norm,” she said.
For Nate, who has only eight sessions left at Brain Works, it’s been a big piece.
“He’s already 100 percent better than he was when he started,” Willingham said. “I cannot wait to see how much further he’s going to be when he finishes.”