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On Chess: Miriam School Uses Chess As Behavioral Therapy Tool

First-grader Jay Mainard, far left, uses the weekly chess club at the Miriam School in Webster Groves as a tool to combat learning disabilities.
Provided by the Miriam School

Not long after kindergarten began, Jason Mainard began noticing problems in his son’s mood. Socially, the boy wasn’t adhering to the way other kids played. Emotionally, he wasn’t responding the way most kids do in their first year of school. Traditional characteristics that describe a first classroom experience were few, replaced instead by signs of depression, signs of frustration.

Calls home from teachers confirmed the father’s concerns.

“He was a kid in kindergarten, and he wasn’t happy,” Mainard said about his son, Jay. “The teachers told us he kept having outbursts, and I could see it when he came home: He just didn’t like going to school, he wasn’t enjoying it. We kept trying to think what we could do to support him, and the first thing recommended was to run some evaluation assessments on him.”

The Mainards were referred to the Miriam School, an institute in Webster Groves established to serve children with complex learning disabilities. Psycho-assessments on Jay revealed that he had both dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and several therapies were recommended that could be used to help better his chances of success in school.

Tops on that list of therapies: Chess.

Miriam houses 96 full-day students who exhibit a gamut of learning disabilities. It provides those kids with specialized education focused on sensory integration, speech and language, and occupational therapies. Miriam’s Learning Center goes beyond the school’s walls through outreach, equipping charter and other community schools with special education services, psychological testing and an array of counseling therapies.

Many more students like Jay, whose afflictions did not fit the profile of typical Miriam in-school student, visit the school to participate in after-school enrichment classes and summer camps with those therapeutic effects in mind.

“Some of our enrichment classes are less educational and more recreational, and a lot of those classes fill with regular community kids,” said Keith Komorowski, the assistant director of Miriam’s Learning Center. “However, the focus is still therapeutic, we don’t just throw random stuff out there. These classes are important to the community we serve: kids with ADHD and mental health diagnoses, high-functioning autism disorders like Aspergers. The chess program is one of those enrichment classes.”

Komorowski believes that chess, the playable embodiment of problem-solving and planning ahead, also works for those kids who struggle with executive functioning problems: organizing information, retrieving, processing and making sense of it all -- intelligent kids who simply struggle to put everything together.

“Chess is an avenue that requires of you to be able to do all these things, a structure for those kids to practice these specific types of cognitive skills,” he said. “One reason it makes such ideal practice is that it’s hard to make impulsive decisions and get anywhere in chess.

“Plus there is a fair amount of what we’d call behavior management, as well: Waiting to take turns, sitting still, practicing winning, practicing losing. The instruction is about redirecting, encouraging and getting them to practice these things within an appropriate setting -- and all the while, they’re having fun playing chess.”

Mainard is watching those effects first-hand with his son and reports development across the board. Now a first-grader who just finished his first semester of chess at Miriam, Jay is already showing improvements in battling his dyslexia thanks to a simple form of occupational therapy to work on the boy's fine-motor skills: The ability to move specific pieces in their appropriate directions.

Mainard said, “Being able to pick up those pieces and move them in the direction required is an aid to those fine-motor skills. I don’t know if there is any direct correlation but, since he’s started playing, he’s become a whiz at tying his shoe.”

Chess is flexing Jay’s ability for independent thought, figuring things out without asking for help, and forcing him to understand the consequences for his every action. And for a game often characterized by social awkwardness, the chess club has worked wonders on Jay in overcoming that. Mainard says that the 6-year-old has showed clear improvements in his self-esteem and mood, as well as an uptick in competitive spirit.

“Just the conversations I have with him, they’re so much more positive, where his social skills from before were always on the negative side,” Mainard said. “I’ve seen him becoming a lot more social now because he’s playing chess with other kids. Just the general conversation about it, the stuff he says in everyday conversation. It has given him a lot more confidence, he knows what he’s doing is special.”

Ironically, Jay might be discovering that he’s just a normal kid, and not special at all -- at least not where chess is concerned. What the Mainards have come to realize is what Miriam has understood for years: the game delivers therapeutic benefits to all its participants -- regardless of who does or does not fit the school’s profile.

“Even if he wasn’t the least bit dyslexic, it’s like an added bonus that chess can provide him these tools to overcome lots of challenges,” Mainard said. “Now to find something that actually helps him and it’s something he really likes doing, as a parent that’s like hitting two birds with one stone.”

Brian Jerauld is the 2014 Chess Journalist of the Year, and the communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. He is a 2001 graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism and has more than a decade of experience writing about boats, sports and other ways to relax. This column is a weekly look around St. Louis, the U.S. Capital of Chess.

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