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Book Review: The Learning Tree: Overcoming Learning Disabilities from the Ground Up by Stanley I. Greenspan and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan

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Being a parent is far more exhilarating and distressing than I’d ever imagined. While I want my kids to become useful adults and find their place in the world I’m in no hurry to see them get out in it; the world is a harsh place, for the most part, and I worry a great deal about how their life will turn out. How will they cope with the ubiquitous jerks of planet Earth? What kind of career will they seek? Will it be what they want or will they just be labor whores, like me? Will people take advantage of them? The list of questions is infinite.

All of this is intensified if your child has a learning problem, if they seem to not quite grasp concepts and relationships and the like. You see them struggle in school. As a parent, you worry even more about their future. I don’t know about other parents, but I know I often feel inadequate to the challenge of raising children, and those feelings morph into guilt over being a failure as a parent when I see my kids struggle. It must be a failing on my part, because my children sure didn’t want the world to be harder for them than it already is.

So I was eager to read the Greenspans’ book, The Learning Tree: Overcoming Learning Disabilities From the Ground Up. Stanley Greenspan was Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School and has written several books regarding child development. He is an expert in the field and, based on a few articles I read about the doctor, very enthusiastic about assisting kids. He imparts hope to them and to parents. That was one of the aspects of this book that was so endearing and, indeed, professional. His wife, Nancy, is a writer and former economist.

The book uses the metaphor of a tree to examine the methods of thinking. The root, trunk and branches are all important parts of a tree, to be sure. But a tree can only be blossom and be healthy if the roots and trunk are healthy. Academic performance is the branches of this particular tree, and that’s where a child’s problems will be first noticed. But it’s important to trace the issue back to the fundamental problem.

The fourth chapter is important as it lays out the nine levels of thinking. These thinking levels are the fundamentals. Once you have these firmly in mind you can see where your kids might have gaps. These gaps, these problems, will lead to the academic issues you’re facing with your child. Once the gaps are identified, there are a few exercises in the book that can be used to strengthen that particular gap. Strengthening the weak area bolsters the abilities of the other areas. There are a number of real examples in the book used to show how to identify these gaps. There are also question boxes in most of the chapters; using those also helps you identify your child’s weak areas.

Since we as parents we are the first educators of our children, this book can be an invaluable resource for us. It is important that parents take an active part in their child’s education, at home and at school, and all the more so if they have learning problems. The book provides excellent tools and information for teachers, too, so their classroom can be successful. It reviews problems in deciphering sounds, facial expressions, sequencing commands and many other issues. Some of the points for classrooms can be used whether or not children have learning difficulties.

The writers provide an eloquent explanation of learning and understanding, revealing that a child’s experience motivates learning. As an example, they use an apple. How did your children learn what it was? Did you read the definition to them from a dictionary (for those of you out there who know me, I only did it once)? No, in most cases Mom showed her child an apple; he tasted it, played with it, etc. The red orb became an impression on emotion. That’s what an apple is. Mommy’s interaction and nurturing about a variety of subjects helps baby learn. This is an important realization to come to.

At times, as parents (and probably teachers, too) frustration or guilt can get to us and make us want to just give up. Here’s another reason why this book is invaluable. It does not add to these negative feelings. On the contrary, it advocates a hopeful and positive outlook. The book stresses patience and avoiding a tendency to cast blame. As the Greenspans write, “Who is to blame or what is to be done are not the first priorities. The more parents are relaxed and patient (infinitely patient is good), the more the child will respond to empathetic overtures.” This is advice to take to heart.

I noticed that while reading I did not stop often to take notes. The research, narrative, conclusions were just too interesting, thought provoking. This is a book of immense value to all educators.

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