I recently read a very unique book, A Life in Balance ($16.94), by Frank Belgau. A Life in Balance: Discovery of a Learning Breakthrough is both the autobiography of Frank Belgau and the history of his Learning Breakthrough Program, a program designed to improve brain function, especially for children with learning disabilities. (Adults, both educators and parents, are the target readership for this book.)
Mr. Belgau’s story begins in the 1960’s with his job as a special education teacher. At that time, Belgau explains, the field of educational and intellectual testing had progressed to a point where children were being labeled with disabilities. Unfortunately, the labeling caused children to be marginalized with lower expectations, since the field of special education itself was not yet successful in actually educating children who learned differently. A diagnosis of a learning disability typically tried to explain why a child wasn’t learning, but did not try to provide a means for teaching that child. Belgau describes a principal whose solution for dealing with special-needs students was to require them to sit still, put their heads down on their desks, and cover their heads with newspapers!
At that point, Belgau embarked a mission to find a way to help children learn and to tap into their intelligence. He spent hours researching and experimenting with his students. He tried arts and crafts. He tried various physical exercises. If something seemed to work, he tried it again and refined the process. The biggest breakthroughs occurred when he discovered that exercises that improved balance skills and hand-eye coordination often resulted in immediate improvement in reading ability. Over the next years, he developed his findings into the “Learning Breakthrough Program,” which involves exercises using a balance board, bean bags, and pendulums for brain training. The story continues with his struggles to find acceptance for the program and bring it to the market.
The book includes quite a bit of information about the Learning Breakthrough Program—how it works, how it was developed, and its successes. It also includes a couple of chapters about the brain, how it works, and how we learn in an attempt to explain the successes that Belgau encountered.
I found Life in Balance intriguing. As a speech pathologist, I am familiar with the special education system from the 1980’s on, but it was eye-opening to realize how far we have come from the days when even professionals assumed that a learning disability meant that a child could not learn and was destined to a life of menial labor or dependence on others. It was fascinating to read of the connection between hand-eye coordination, balance, and thinking skills—not only for children with ADHD and learning disabilities, but for normal children and adults and for older adults who want to slow mental decline or recover more quickly from strokes.
The concept of the book was unusual—the story of the program, but not the program itself. However, quite a bit of information was included about the Learning Breakthrough Program, so the reader could try a few activities without purchasing the kit. (Certainly to gain full benefit, one would need the specialized balance board and other equipment as well as the instructions.) Additionally the final chapter describes the Space Walk exercises that Belgau also uses, and is packed with ideas for walking, hopping, and tossing activities that will benefit children’s brains without purchasing additional equipment. These exercises may be helpful for children with ADHD, dyslexia, or even adults who want to maintain maximum brain function.
The story of Frank Belgau’s “life in balance” is both inspiring and educational. Belgau’s persistence in trying to change educational methods in the US was impressive. The reader will learn a lot about the history of education and about the mysteries of the brain. He or she will also glean helpful ideas for working with children who have learning difficulties or children with normal abilities. I found this to be an intriguing book.