Since our founding more than 35 years ago, A Chance To Grow has relied heavily on the generosity of volunteers to sustain the growth of our organization. As the number and complexity of services grew, so too did the need for volunteers with diverse skills. ACTG’s cutting edge new therapeutic techniques attracted many professionals to support our worthy cause. One individual who saw the benefits of ACTG’s mission was Jo Gascoigne.
Jo began her illustrious academic career in 1958 as a physical education teacher in Mankato. She moved up to Minneapolis and began teaching at North High School and next moved to Wayzata where she served as a physical education teacher and trainer for elementary teachers. She always believed that physical education was a key factor for children to reach their full potential, and was recognized by the Croft Association for her methods that combined music, math and physical education. In 1974, she was one of five teachers that received the “Outstanding Elementary Teachers of America” award.
“Traditional public school’s Physical Education programs were focused on games and sports,” said Jo, “but I felt the curriculum must have an emphasis on developmental benchmarks. There is a need to advance through skill levels methodically, or skills that were missed will show up later in their lives.” With this in mind, Jo established an adaptive physical education course for students that were less physically skilled – the first state funded program of its kind in Minnesota.
Jo was then invited to teach at the Cooperative School Rehabilitation Center (CSRC) in Hopkins, a cooperative program sponsored by the University of Minnesota for students with cognitive impairments, who until then, had not been enrolled in school or an appropriate program. This experience allowed Jo to see firsthand what impact the lack of education had on students with disabilities. During her time at CSRC, she returned to school and earned a Specialist Degree in Administration to address the educational equity gap at a higher level.
In 1972, Jo was invited to lead a summer course at the University of Minnesota for educators looking to get into the Special Education field, where for two summers, she taught them the importance of motor memory and the impact it could have on an individual’s future cognitive abilities. After receiving another degree, she accepted the position of Director of Special Education for a four-district cooperative comprised of Waconia, Watertown, Chaska and New Germany. After several years in this role, the Minnesota Department of Education hired her as the Special Education West Metro Regional Consultant (SERC), where she worked with 22 school districts.
In 1974, Jo became involved with a landmark piece of legislation that guaranteed all children, including those with disabilities, receive a free and appropriate public education in every state. In 1975, the 94th Congress passed Law 94-142, which improved how children with disabilities were identified, evaluated the success of these efforts, and provided due process protections for children and families. The law supported more than 1 million children who had been excluded entirely from the education system, and countless others with only limited access to appropriate education.
This propelled Jo into her next position as the Assistant Director of Special Education at the Minnesota Department of Education, where she focused on the implementation of these newly enacted federal laws. She continued to advocate for parents, students, teachers and programs throughout the duration of her career, which spanned more than 35 years and included stops in Fridley, Osseo and Mahtomedi, until her retirement from traditional districts in 1993.
It was about this time that she began her involvement with the growing charter school movement. She was contacted by the Metro Deaf School, which sought her help in starting the first charter school in the nation for deaf students. Not long after, Bob and Kathy DeBoer approached her to advise them on the development of ACTG’s New Visions School.
”I really liked the fact that A Chance To Grow was trying different and unique therapies - things I couldn’t get into traditional public schools,” said Jo. “I guess I have the same philosophy as Bob and Kathy: developmental movement is key to higher learning and all children, regardless of ability, should be given every opportunity to reach their full potential.”
At the time, New Visions was struggling financially due to unequal funding for students in charter schools. While traditional districts received funds from taxes and levies, charters were not eligible for those funds. It was very difficult to provide programs for students, pay salaries for teachers, and pay for leases to keep the school open. Jo, along with Bob DeBoer and Bobbi Cordano of Metro Deaf School, met with a member of the legislature and convinced her to provide lease-aid based on the number of students enrolled. This legislation dramatically increased charter school funding and was a major win for charter schools around the state.
Over the next 17 years, Jo continued to volunteer her time to help improve ACTG’s financial stability, as well as the organization’s leadership structure. She served as a consultant, helping to streamline the outpatient therapy clinic’s medical forms and intake process, as well as organizing the department procedures and schedules. More recently, she helped Bob and Kathy prepare to retire, facilitating a smooth transition for the new Executive Director, Erica Dickerson.
“For many years, Jo’s been a wonderful volunteer who has helped build this organization in ways most people don’t know,” said Bob. “She’s done remarkable work on behalf of special education across the country and we are so grateful that she saw value in our mission and felt inclined to share her talents with us.”
These days, at the age of 87, Jo continues to support A Chance To Grow’s mission by referring countless families to our clinic.
“I see how grateful parents are when they see their kids make progress, and their willingness to drive far distances to participate in their innovative programs,” she said. “It’s not just the interventions that they offer, it’s the relationship and trust that parents and children enjoy with the dedicated and knowledgeable staff at A Chance To Grow that make it special.”
Oliver is a happy, smart and creative eight-year-old with endless amounts of energy. He and his mom, Annie, first came to A Chance To Grow 18 months ago to address a myriad of physical and emotional development concerns.
Early in Oliver’s life, Annie observed some unusual and worrisome behaviors. “From the time he could walk, he was falling down or crashing into things,” she said, “He’d walk on his toes and I didn’t know why.”
“He had a great experience in preschool,” said Annie. “He was performing well in a school environment, he made friends and his teachers didn’t raise any serious concerns about his behavior or speech delays.” Despite this, Annie and her husband were still concerned with his communication issues and began seeking help.
They decided to have him tested by a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) prior to beginning kindergarten to see if he could qualify for special education services through the school district. The SLP who conducted the test didn’t hear what Annie heard and recommended that he not receive speech therapy. It was the first of countless obstacles in the family’s search to get help for Oliver. A second test, with a different SLP, found that he qualified for an IEP, and at the age of five, Oliver began weekly speech therapy sessions.
“Kindergarten was OK for Oliver. His teacher knew how to head off his meltdowns, and he started physical therapy to help address his balance issues,” Annie recalled, “But there were red flags. I saw attention and impulsivity problems, no eye contact, and perseveration issues (the repetition of a particular response).”
At the end-of-the-year IEP meeting, she fully expected the school’s administration to recommend Oliver be evaluated by a doctor. To her surprise, the administration unanimously confirmed he was ready for first grade. Annie was thrilled, but intuitively, she knew something was still off.
Annie was a teacher at the private school Oliver attended. “He was starting first grade and I had my dream job and things were looking OK,” she said. “But that’s when the storm hit. The demands of first grade were beyond what Oliver was ready to take on. Our school didn’t have the resources to provide support for Oliver or for his teacher. Because of his frequent meltdowns and he’d often spend his days in the principal’s office.”
Meanwhile, Oliver’s physical therapy progress ground to a halt. His therapists would have him do activities that were not developmentally appropriate, like throwing and catching a ball, and Oliver simply stopped participating because he couldn’t do it.
“His first grade teacher commented that Oliver wasn’t comfortable in his body,” said Annie. “She was right. Something was wrong, but we just didn’t know what it was.”
During the turmoil, a family friend named Jo Gascoigne suggested Annie look into an organization called A Chance To Grow, where Jo once served as a board member. Jo introduced Annie to Julie Neumann, MA/OTR/L, Director of Outpatient Services at A Chance To Grow, and together they discussed Oliver’s symptoms, health history and current predicament. “We discussed several options including modifying his school day, moving to a different first grade classroom, or returning to his former kindergarten class. They recommended Oliver regress back to kindergarten because he wasn’t developmentally a first grader yet,” said Annie.
They explained that Oliver’s wild behavior was caused by a sensory processing disorder, meaning his brain was having trouble receiving and responding to information coming through his senses; specifically his proprioceptive system. His body’s way of seeking sensory input from his environment was causing his behavioral outbursts - he was unaware where his body was in space.
“They told me about MNRI and how integrating his reflexes could build a foundation to overcome his emotional and physical delays, but it would take time,” said Annie.
Time wasn’t on their side. Almost simultaneously, Annie and her husband met with Oliver’s teachers and school officials to discuss their options moving forward. They proposed the regression to kindergarten and were hopeful when his former teacher agreed, and the administrators and counselors gave their consent. The administration asked Annie to keep Oliver at home for a few days while they discussed the details of the transition.
It appeared as though everything would work out, until his kindergarten teacher changed her mind because she felt that Oliver was too smart for kindergarten. She was also concerned about the social-emotional impact that regression could have on Oliver and his peers.
What followed were three difficult weeks in which Annie and her husband fought to keep Oliver in school. “It was a fiasco,” she said, fighting back tears. “He was out of school the whole time and his self-esteem was so low. He thought he was naughty. He was afraid he wouldn’t get to learn subtraction. It just broke my heart.”
Oliver was too smart for kindergarten but not physically or emotionally ready for first grade. What could she do? She did what was best for Oliver - she pulled him out of school and quit her job. She didn’t know what school he’d be at or what grade he’d be in, but she knew she had found A Chance To Grow -- a place that understood what Oliver needed to get better.
“The staff said, it didn’t matter where Oliver was at developmentally, they would work with him,” said Annie. Shortly thereafter, she enrolled Oliver back into kindergarten at a new school, left his old therapists and began coming A Chance To Grow twice weekly. “They were so willing to meet Oliver where he was developmentally and knowledgeable about what he needed to move forward.”
Oliver’s OT, Alyssa, addressed his basic reflexes at first, but quickly noticed he could also benefit from speech therapy to improve his social language skills. “She referred us to Carly, who saw what I saw during the evaluation - poor articulation, no eye contact,” said Annie. “Oliver knew he wanted to sound better, so we immediately began speech therapy to help him better communicate his needs at home and in school.”
Carly works on what triggers his meltdowns, practicing expected behaviors in a safe environment by building and scaffolding his social skills. “He used to be scared to lose and it would trigger a meltdown, but he’s learning how to handle that frustration and manage those social situations,” said Annie.
During Oliver’s sessions, Alyssa demonstrates techniques for Annie so she can work with him at home. They work for 30 minutes almost every night on his grounding reflex, helping him to feel more stable, both physically and emotionally. “Once he knew where his body was in space, he stopped falling down,” she said. “There were a few days when we didn’t do the activities and he became restless and couldn’t sleep. He asked me to do some body work and in no time he was back in bed.”
Throughout the first six months at A Chance To Grow, Annie witnessed many breakthrough moments that proved they were in the right place. “Our little dog Maggie used to be terrified of Oliver, but now she comes up to him and he’s able to hold her. It’s just amazing. You can’t be skeptical when you see progress like that.”
Annie says that one of the best parts is that everything he needs is under one roof. “Everyone is working together to help Oliver, sharing information on all aspects of his treatment plan. It’s just such a different approach from the other places we’ve been. It’s become a safe space for all of us.” Annie has also attends A Chance To Grow workshops, including S.M.A.R.T. training, to further her own understanding of what Oliver is going through and how she can help him continue making progress.
As for school, Oliver completed kindergarten and moved into first grade this past year. At a recent parent-teacher conference, Annie asked about his meltdowns and the teacher had no idea what she was referring to. The teacher thought Annie was talking about a different student!
These days, Oliver is able to do many activities he couldn’t do even a year ago, like riding a scooter without falling, throwing and catching a ball, and hanging on monkey bars - not because he’s practiced these activities, but because they’ve built the foundations to be able to advance his balance and motor skills.
“It’s been a really long journey, but he’s the best he’s ever been,” said Annie, “It’s been absolutely life-changing.”
It can be hard for parents or educators to fully understand the difference between the developmental age of a child and his or her actual age. We have expectations of how children should behave at certain ages, and when these expectations aren’t met, adults can often respond to the situation with the child’s actual age in mind, discounting where the child is developmentally.
The right therapist and approach can make all the difference when it comes to helping children reach their full potential. “If you want to learn how you as a parent can help, then this is the place. The wealth of knowledge and resources they provide are amazing. We love being here and we’re all much happier.”
It’s not always immediately visible, but an early childhood health concern can have ripple effects through later stages of adolescent development. In situations like this, it’s vital to address foundational development that may have been obscured by physical needs.
Grace was born with hip dysplasia. By the time she was10-years-old, she’d already had five surgeries to correct the issue. Following her last procedure, she was confined to a body cast for six weeks. The surgeries and subsequent immobility affected Grace physically, causing her to struggle with side-to-side movement, going up-and-down stairs and stunting her gross-motor skills. Grace underwent physical therapy throughout her childhood, but her mom, Anna, a special education teacher, noticed that Grace’s cognitive development was delayed as well.
“As she got older, I noticed she couldn’t connect what she was learning in school,” said Anna. “I saw that she was easily distracted, struggled to read and had difficulty picking up normal social cues.”
Upon relocating to the Twin Cities, Anna learned that Grace’s IEP did not apply to the Minnesota public school Special Education model, and that it was being revoked. Anna set out on a quest to discover the best long-term approach to help Grace reach her full potential.
Anna was referred to A Chance To Grow by a friend and scheduled an appointment for an audiologist to evaluate Grace. “We learned that Grace had an auditory processing disorder,” said Anna. “She had difficulty comprehending auditory information which was causing some of her learning delays.” Instead of treating the auditory processing disorder with traditional therapy, the audiologist at A Chance To Grow referred Grace to the agency’s occupational therapy team to address her foundational level motor skills. After these skills are developed and strengthened, higher-level functions like auditory processing could be treated more successfully.
Shortly after Grace’s evaluation, she started coming to A Chance To Grow every other week for occupational therapy sessions. “She bonded immediately with her therapist, Alyssa,” said Anna. “They began doing a combination of therapies that focused on Grace ‘crossing the midline’ to help the left side of her body and brain better communicate with the right side.” Alyssa observed that Grace had low endurance, poor reflexes and core strength. To address this, she created a treatment plan around the archetype movements of MNRI (Masgutova NeuroSensory Reflex Integration), yoga and a few activities, like belly crawling, from ACTG’s S.M.A.R.T. approach. Anna even attended the S.M.A.R.T. workshop to implement the activities in her own classroom, as well as for Grace at their home.
“Over the last two years I’ve seen amazing progress from Grace,” said Alyssa. “When we first started, she was hesitant to participate in any physically-active functions. She dreaded going on field trips at school because of the physical limitations she had. As we’ve worked together, though, and strengthened her reflexes and foundational levels, that anxiety has begun to fade away.”
Anna says she’s also seen great strides in regards to Grace’s memory retention and executive functioning skills. Recently, Grace moved to a new school with better resources for students with learning disabilities. Anna says that the curriculum has been very complementary to the therapies provided by ACTG.
“Despite her struggles, Grace is a happy, healthy kid who’s on the right track,” said Anna. “Alyssa understands Grace’s personality and Grace really looks forward to her therapy sessions. She’s always been a free spirit, and with Alyssa’s help, she’s gaining more confidence every day.”