Reviewed by Miriam Cherkes-Julkowski, Ph.D
Stanley and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan’s book, The Learning Tree: Overcoming Learning Disabilities from the Ground Up, is the latest addition to Stanley Greenspan’s signature view of child development. Based on years of research, the eminent psychiatrist and early childhood expert maintains that real learning takes place through child-directed initiatives—not adult-driven actions. In Greenspan’s view, the role of adults is to support child-driven initiatives and expand upon them gradually, always handing the initiative back to the child. For example, he describes how a little girl works with her mother to organize herself in a fun, everyday learning situation:
She (the little girl) draws on her ideas to plan what she wants, and her eyes, ears and hands to carry out the plans, all in logical order. Packing the lunch, she and her mother talk about shapes—a round apple, a rectangular box of juice, a triangular half of a sandwich. This little girl is more likely to remember all this than repetitive, non-expressive activities, such as flash cards or a shape sorter, used to memorize shapes.
No flash cards? This is likely to be a welcome relief for most parents and even more so for parents whose children have learning disabilities. As implied in the book’s title, learning cannot simply be drilled into place without the requisite developmental readiness. It begins from the bottom (roots) up and takes form through creative, interactive play:
Play excites your child’s interests, draws her to connect to you, and challenges her to be creative, curious and spontaneous—all of which move her forward intellectually and emotionally…. For a child of any age you do three things: 1) follow your child’s lead; 2) challenge her to be creative and spontaneous; and 3) expand the action.
True to their developmental point of view, the Greenspans place the emphasis on early ages. However, throughout the book they provide references on how their model might be applied as children develop through the school years.
It is the whole child that is the focus of concern. Behaviors are not to be taken out of their contexts, and symptoms are not to be disconnected from the dynamic out of which they emerge:
For the most part, inattention is a symptom of other problems. It’s like having a fever. Obviously, a fever is not a disease but a symptom common to many. Taking a pill to get rid of a fever without looking for the cause is not good medicine.
From this holistic vantage point, behaviors that might be seen at first to be problematic, are framed in a developmentally positive light:
Just hearing a child explain what she likes or why she doesn’t want to do something, you can feel proud about how thoughtful and insightful she is becoming, even when she disagrees with you.
Continuing the theme of respect for the child, the Greenspans caution against knee-jerk kowtowing to IQ and emphasize instead a child’s strengths (mostly) and weaknesses (some):
Children are often smarter than we give them credit for, but they do vary in terms of processing capacities. They can be uneven in their central nervous system development. Time, however, is on their side. There’s no horse race. …The most important element, is to engage the child by building on his existing interests and experiences, on what he already likes and feels comfortable with…
While the Greenspans provide an important and humane foundation for understanding, interacting with, and supporting children, their discussion of specific learning disabilities in this book is not sufficient for pinpointing instruction or grasping the nature of the problem. That aside, the reader will be left with perhaps a new respect for the role of experiential learning particularly for students with LD and ADHD.
The Learning Tree: Overcoming Learning Disabilities from the Ground Up, Stanley I. Greenspan, MD and Nancy Throndike Greenspan. Da Capo Press; Philadelphia, PA, 2010