Is Brain Gym Effective for Students with Learning Disabilities

It’s a Monday morning, and Mr. Michael’s high school special education class is about to begin a lesson in science. He prepares for the day with a warm-up. However, the warm-up has little to do with the curriculum.

The students are advised to stand by their desks and go through a five-minute drill of doing stretches, breathing methods, hand gestures, and water replenishment. When asked what this was supposed to accomplish, Mr. Michael’s response is frank: “It’s suppose to help the students clear their minds and focus on the given assignments.”

The exercise, known as Brain Gym, was not Mr. Michael’s idea. In fact, several special education teachers in the same school and district took part in a district-funded workshop to learn how to use the program and implement them in their classroom.

Although having his doubt, Mr. Michael was willing to try anything to help his students. After three weeks of trying, however, he is ready to drop it from his daily lessons. So far, he hasn’t seen the type of “concentration and learning” the program instructor had promised.

Mr. Michael isn’t alone. Although Brain Gym has its fans, it also has its critics who are not convinced by the program’s claim of being “committed to the principle that moving with intention leads to optimal learning (Brain Gym International, 2011).”

As a result, a growing number of researchers, educators, and skeptics have deemed this program ineffective in terms of helping students with learning disabilities become better students.

Brain Gym has always been a controversial program since its inception in the early 1980s. It was created by Dr. Paul and Gail Dennison as a system to seek “more effective ways to help children and adults who had been identified as learning disabled.” However, it was not based on sound scientific studies.

According to the Skeptic Dictionary, the Dennisons called their creation Educational Kinesiology. This name was derived from a diagnostic method known as applied kinesiology (AK) created by George Goodheart, D.C.  This system used forms similar to chiropractic practices with Chinese medicines to evaluate one’s “chemical and mental” health through muscle testing. This particular system has been discredited and deemed as pseudoscience by researchers and skeptics alike.

The official website for Brain Gym claims that a series of movement-based programs can do the following (Brain Gym International, 2011):

1. Promote play and the joy of learning

2. Draw out and honor innate intelligence

3. Build awareness regarding the value of movement in daily life.

4. Encourage self-responsibility

5. Leave each participants appreciated and valued

6. Empower each participant to better take charge of his own learning

7. Encourage creativity and self expression

8. Inspire and appreciation of music, physical education and the fine arts.

And exactly how are these done? Several You Tube videos demonstrate some of the techniques. One video states that there are 26 movements divided into four categories. The video’s narrator – a certified Brain Gym instructor – stated that the exercises helped with pacing, reaching a “state of being”, and moving past times of getting “stuck” (exactly what that means is unclear. It’s possible that she may have been referring to something akin to writer’s block).

The types of exercises or movements appear to be a combination of aerobic exercises, yoga stretches, and meditation. All of these are suppose to create the ideal situation for learning or – as one instructor put it – to achieve PACE (Positive, Active, Clear, and Energetic).

Another important part of the program is drinking water and a variety of “cross-curl” movement (twisting the arms). Again, this is meant to reach PACE. How it exactly does this is never made clear.

Another video made by a parent/teacher trained in the program and her child, indicates another part of Brain Gym. It is relient on eastern philosophy. In the instructional video, the parent – along with her teenage son (who has ADD/ADHD) – placed her hand just below her throat on a depression between the “rib and collarbone” (she calls a brain button) and massages it three times. It was supposed to trigger the brain and clear one from distractions. This concept follows a belief found in numerous far eastern philosophies that certain parts of the body controls or triggers another part of the body.

There are many teachers, parents, and students who have bought into the system. They believe that it has shown positive results. Many of their claims are found in testimonials on blogs and forum groups created on the subject.

However, these testimonials are not enough to convince everyone of the program’s validity.  Many researchers and bloggers have pointed out that scientific research on Brain Gym – as well as applied kinesiology – has either been inconclusive or has yielded negative results.

In fact, according to the site, it is a program that offers “textbook woo.”

“…it was notably given an entire chapter in Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” book,” the site states, “and all peer-reviewed studies into its efficacy have come up negative. The fact that the usually painfully neutral and balanced Wikipedia almost directly calls it fraudulent pseudoscience should be a big indication…”

Further criticism came from Professor Usha Goswami of Cambridge University’s Centre for Neuroscience in Education. In an article published in “Nature”, she criticized Brain Gym and other programs such as Right Brain Education as being “neuromyths” (Rationalwiki, 2012).  She believed (as many researchers on the subject have stated) that the success of Brain Gym can be attributed to a form of placebo effect in which the students and teachers believe its working, despite recorded outcomes.

Despite negative results from researchers, Brain Gym has endured. They still train instructors in their methods, and they continue to find school districts willing to give the program a try.

Still, Brain Gym will need to win teachers over, especially those who expect to use an effective program to help their students. At this moment, Mr. Michaels is not buying into it.

“If it doesn’t work,” he said. “at least we tried something.”