New Charleston Montessori program to help students with learning disabilities

The Charleston Montessori School will introduce a new program this fall that will help students retrain their brains and overcome learning disabilities.

Called Arrowsmith, the school-based program will be used to identify weak cognitive areas in a student that can then be targeted for improvement through various learning exercises.

“With learning disabilities, you have to look at the underlying causes of what prohibits a student from learning,” said Jessica Poulin, managing director for the Toronto-based Arrowsmith.

Using dyslexia as an example, Poulin said students who have difficulty reading can be hampered by any one of five brain areas not functioning properly.

“If one isn’t working, reading becomes a virtually unattainable task,” she said.

Originally started at a set of schools in Canada, the Arrowsmith Program has expanded and is now represented in private and public schools in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

While psychologists, neurologists and other child development experts have been critical of the program, citing its high cost and a lack of evidence that supports its claims to improve learning skills, those who have enrolled their children swear that it has changed their lives.

Shanna Thompson, who moved her two daughters from Charleston to Virginia last year to enroll them in an Arrowsmith Program, said her dyslexic 8-year-old daughter Nila has gone from not recognizing letters to reading at grade level.

“She couldn’t even read the alphabet,” Thompson said, recalling a time she showed her daughter the letter “M” on a flashcard only for her to not recognize it minutes later.

“There are different parts of the brain that the program targets,” she said. “It uses cognitive exercises to retrain the brain and get the synapses firing the right way.”

The program’s utilization of that method relies on research into neuroplasticity, which suggests that the brain is dynamic and able to rewire itself. It also relies on exercises developed by Barbara Arrowsmith Young, the program’s founder and author of “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain.” Her research and exercises are based on her own struggles with learning disabilities.

Thompson moved her daughters after years of struggling at school. Her husband remains in Charleston where he works.

But, now that the program is coming to Charleston Montessori, the Thompson family can look forward to being reunited this summer.

“We’ll be moving back,” said Thompson, who was instrumental in bringing the program to Charleston.

Susanne Coffield, Charleston Montessori director, said Thompson pitched the program to the school. After some research, Coffield was convinced a partnership, which was announced this week, would be beneficial.

To offer the program, a school must teachers trained by Arrowsmith, a process that takes about three weeks. Like any teaching position, routine professional development courses are needed.

The program will be part of and housed in Charleston Montessori’s building on the West Side, but a student doesn’t have to be enrolled at the school to attend.

“It’s possible that we’ll get some home school students or some from other schools in the area,” Coffield said, adding that students not enrolled at Charleston Montessori would come to the school and spend about four hours a day on campus.

While it is a school-based program for students, it’s not limited to children, Poulin said.

“People assume only students can benefit, but that’s not the case,” she said. “Brain functions can be changed regardless of a person’s age, whether they’re 5 or 55.”

Several schools partnered with Arrowsmith offer adult courses.

Because bringing the program to Charleston Montessori is still in the early stages, Coffield wasn’t able to provide specifics about enrolling, though she said it likely would be handled the same way students are admitted to the school.

“We’ll give parents a tour and get to know them and their family’s needs,” she said. “Then, we’ll invite the child to come meet with teachers. If it seems like a good fit, we’ll admit them.”

Once enrolled in the program, students are assessed to determine their cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Data from that test is then used to individualize the program to a student’s needs.

“It’s my understanding that the assessment is used to help Arrowsmith coaches know what lessons and exercises to start the students out on,” Coffield said.

The program will be piloted at Charleston Montessori starting in September. Coffield said up to 10 students will be admitted the first year and that interested parents can contact her by calling the school at 304-340-9000.

Contact writer Samuel Speciale at or 304-348-4886. Follow him at

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