Brain Aerobics

Two children with disabilities try a European method to overcome their difficulties with learning

Almost a year ago, Ethan Jones, a 6th grader from Fort Worth, Texas, was having a tough time in school.

"I couldn't concentrate when other things were going on around me," he says. "I compared myself to everybody else and it was a lot hard for me for some reason."

Ethan's parents, Shari and Leon Jones, couldn't understand why their son was falling behind. "He was having to work so long, so hard, just to get his homework done. Things that should take an hour were taking hours, multiple nights instead of one night," says Leon.

Eventually, Ethan was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder, a condition that makes verbal instructions hard to understand. This problem led Ethan to become frustrated, making him lash out at his parents from time to time.

Ethan needed help fast, and a school counselor suggested William Nicholsen, of the Institute for Learning Abilities. Nicholsen is an enthusiastic proponent of a therapy developed in France called Bellefonds, which he believes can help children overcome many learning disabilities, including dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Peter Van Sant reports.

Dr. Nicholsen met with Ethan's parents and explained the problem with his brain. "The way they explained it was, the right and left sides of his brain were not communicating," says Shari. "The example they gave was, where we have a pipeline flowing information between back and forth between the left and right sides of our brain, he has a slow drip."

The Bellefonds method uses visual and audio exercises to increase the flow of information between the two sides of the brain.

One of these exercises consists of placing Ethan's nose to a blackboard while drawing circles and loops. By placing his nose so close to the blackboard, Ethan's left eye is unable to see what his right eye is doing, forcing both sides of his brain to work together.

Some call it 'aerobics for the brain.' After three months, the Joneses call it miraculous.

It didn't take long for Ethan and his family to recognize the method was working. "The first time Ethan noticed, when he said 'It's Bellefonds, it's working, is when he brought home his first report card for this year, and almost all were very high A's, " says Shari.

7 year-old Hanna Stonecypher is just beginning the Bellefonds program. She has dyslexia.

Hanna's mother, Maggie Stonecypher, recognized that she was having trouble reading. "I just kept saying, she's not reading, she can't figure it out, what's going on," she says.

Les Stonecypher, Hanna's father, hopes the method will offer a new approach to learning for Hanna. "We're not looking for any miracles or anything like that because I don't think we really need one here," he says. "I just think we need a little retraining just to make her life a little bit better."

Dyslexia used to be considered a visual disorder. But research now shows it involves hearing problems, too. Therefore, some of Hanna's exercises include recognizing words from distorted sounds she hears on a tape. The goal is to teach her brain how to concentrate. This allows Hanna to accurately associate a sound with the correct letter.

For Hanna to succeed, she and her parents must be diligent. Bellefonds workouts must be performed 30 minutes a day, 5-7 days per week. The total cost is about $5,000.

Right now the Bellefonds method is available only through Nicholsen's non-profit learning centers in Pittsburgh and Ft. Worth, though it's used all over Europe. One day, Nicholsen hopes to offer the program in all American schools, free of charge.

But skeptics say there's no scientific evidence to support the Bellefonds claim that 8 out of 10 kids will show improvement. It could be the placebo effect, the result of children trying harder to learn.

Nicholsen wants to do clinical research, but Ethan's parents have all the proof they need. "Sometimes I'll watch him while he's in there doing his homework and I'll see this precious, precious little child and I'm so thankful that we have found a way that can make learning an easier adventure for him," says Shari. "So he can enjoy it."