Helping Children With Learning Difficulties
IN life, there is nothing as exciting and more fulfilling as doing what one is passionate about. For Mrs. Anayo Ezennia, dealing with children and seeing them progress in life gives her so much joy. The woman who specialises in helping children with cognitive problems had a successful career in the banking industry and Information Communications Technology (ICT) before following her passion.
Narrating how she started, she said: “In 2005, a friend of mine who had undergone cognitive skills training in the United States asked me to help her set up her learning centre in Ikoyi. She trained me and we provided cognitive training together to children living in Ikoyi, Lekki and Victoria Island for three years before she returned to the US in 2008. During the course of training children in Ikoyi, I was better able to appreciate the pains that children with learning disabilities and their parents experience.
“So, I made up my mind that I was going to continue providing learning solutions to such children and I believe that is where my calling is. After she left, I travelled to South Africa, got further training and certification, came back to Nigeria and registered Cogniskills Ltd in 2009. It was at Adeniyi Jones in Ikeja. Then my husband lived in Port Harcourt while I was in Lagos with my children and doing my master’s. Upon completion of my master’s programme in 2010, I closed the centre, relocated to Port Harcourt to join my family and opened an office there.
“People started requesting for my services in Lagos. I no longer have an office here. So, when I visit, I choose a location. I have a place in Lekki where I stay and parents on the island bring their children for me to train. When I am on the mainland, I work out an arrangement with them. It is either I do the training from my parents’ home or visit their homes and do the training,” she says.
On her reason for focusing on children, she said she has always liked children. “I have this compassion towards children. I come from a family of seven children. My mother had always been a teacher and retired school principal while my father was a civil engineer. In fact, we had a strict upbringing. I seem to have this attraction for children and I’m comfortable with them.”
According to her, cognitive skills are the underlying fundamental skills which are often overlooked but essential tools of learning. Cognitive skills must function well for you to efficiently and easily read, think, prioritize, understand, plan, remember and solve problems. Examples of cognitive skills are: attention (selective, divided and sustained); memory (long and short term); visual perception; processing speed; logic and reasoning, comprehension and auditory processing. They are mental capabilities you need to successfully learn academic subjects. When cognitive skills are strong, academic learning is fast, easy, efficient and even fun. When cognitive skills are weak, academic learning will be at best a struggle, she says.
Like every venture, this specialty, Ezennia says, has its challenge which is largely in the area of creating awareness. “Parents do not understand what cognitive training is about. There is little or no emphasis on providing learning solutions through cognitive training in the country. They think that extra lessons for the child is the solution. The child improves with the help of the lesson teacher in a particular year but falls further behind when faced with bigger challenges during the next academic year. But cognitive training helps what is learnt to become permanent so that the child performs his or her academic duties independently.
“Illiteracy is another challenge. A lot of people do not understand the meaning of cognitive skills. 75 per cent of Nigerians think that the word ‘cognitive’ refers to ‘mental’ problems. Because of this, parents whose children have learning difficulties that can easily be corrected by undergoing cognitive training shy away from seeking proper intervention because they do not want people to label the child as having ‘mental problems.’
“We often come across parents whose children are obviously struggling, but they claim that there is nothing wrong with the child. Or that it’s just a spiritual problem. When we come across such parents, we ask them to take their time to make up their minds because they will never believe that what you have done has made any difference in the life of the child.”
Ezennia says that whenever she comes across children with cognitive problems, she tries to be very patient with them. “We realised that most children have that problem. So, what we do is work on their attention by training their brain to be able to stay focused for a longer period of time. Memory is the ability to retain information in the brain and get it ready for use. If the brain is not able to store information, everything that has been learnt will be lost because the brain has very little ability of retaining information.
“Another thing is logic reasoning, which is the ability to reason and solve spatially defined problems, which require high level conceptual abilities. If these abilities are poor, then problem solving math, and comprehension will be poor.”
On what parents should do, she says: “Parents should seek early intervention and address the problem immediately because as the child suffers psychologically, emotionally, socially, mentally etc., so do the parents. This problem must not be allowed to get out of hand. The good news is that there is hope for all children no matter the learning challenges. The only difference is the length of time it takes to overcome the challenge after cognitive training and this in turn depends on the severity of the challenge.”
From experience, she has come to see that some parents are impatient, and would expect that magic will be performed in a short period of time. However, she notes that it is important to know that her programme does not cure specific disorders; instead, it helps correct the learning problems that come with such disorders. “We only deal with the learning aspect so that when the child gets to school, he or she can perform easier, faster and better in his or her academic work.”
She admits however: “Coping with learning disabled children is not a very easy task but as I am training them to sharpen their mental skills. I am also sharpening my own skills because one needs to be mentally alert to know when the child makes a mistake during training. Although the programme goes with practice, repetitions and immediate feedback, we also give the children positive re-enforcements to encourage them and motivate them when they pass a very difficult level and it’s fun knowing that the child will overcome the learning challenge at the end of training.”
In this work, she says, she has trained at least 200 children with different learning disabilities since 2009 and not one of the parents of these children has come back with complaints.