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.”
Most days during the 2017 school year, Jamie Bartels’ classroom at South Central Calhoun Elementary was full of young students neatly packed into a 24-station computer lab. They would come in, put on a pair of headphones and quietly click away as they steadily stared into a glowing screen.
“I was concerned by my student’s lack of engagement,” said Mrs. Bartels. “I felt it was time to make a change at our school. We needed to get our kids moving!”
In an effort to shift this trend, she inquired with her school’s instructional coach (staff member that helps bring evidence-based practices into classrooms) to seek out an alternative program for her students. The coach recommended S.M.A.R.T. (Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training) -- a developmental approach to teaching built around a variety of physical exercises that provide specific brain stimulation associated with learning.
These activities, designed to be done daily in a single 30-minute period, strengthen a child’s visual and auditory skills, body awareness, fine motor abilities and primitive reflexes. Since 1999, more than 5,000 educators in 300 schools across the country have implemented the program to prepare their student’s readiness to learn. It was the exactly what Mrs. Bartels was looking for.
When the school year ended, Jamie traveled from Rockwell City, Iowa, to Minneapolis to attend a three-day S.M.A.R.T. workshop at A Chance To Grow. The summer-time workshop provided Jamie with lots of ideas to get her students moving, and the notion of transforming her computer lab into a S.M.A.R.T. room began to percolate.
“I didn’t realize the impact these simple activities could make in a student’s overall ability to learn,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get back to school to share with the other teachers what I learned and to begin implementing S.M.A.R.T. activities in my room.”
Mrs. Bartels returned to her classroom in September and immediately began clearing out computers to make room for the new S.M.A.R.T. stations. With support from school administrators, she was able to create a 12-activity circuit in her S.M.A.R.T. room (formerly known as the computer lab), comprising of a hanging ladder, two rebounders, fine and gross motor activities, word ladders and more.
“The kids really like it”, she said, “they’re excited to come to class.” Mrs. Bartels is now the school’s official S.M.A.R.T. Teacher. In its inaugural year, she says, pre-K through third grade classes spend 30 minutes in the S.M.A.R.T. room, twice weekly, as part of the curriculum.
In her brief time working the program, she has already seen several positive changes in student performance.
“I had a second grade student who wasn’t interested in trying anything new,” said Mrs. Bartels. “After a few weeks in the S.M.A.R.T. room, his attitude completely changed. I’ve been able to connect with him and he’s a whole new kid when he comes to school. He doesn’t need any convincing to do the activities and his other teachers say he’s more engaged in their classes too.”
Jamie has also seen changes in a few students with behavioral issues. She loves that students are able to come in and do a few stations to burn off some restless energy. She says the program allows her to work one-on-one with these students to build a level of trust that helps in all aspects of the school day.
“All the teacher’s love it and our class aids are starting to learn some of the techniques as well,” she said. “Parents are very curious, too. We sent a letter home explaining the program and invited them to tour the room during parent-teacher conferences. It was so fun to see the students walk their parents through the S.M.A.R.T. room to explain the stations and the reasons behind the activities.”
Mrs. Bartels’ third-graders recently completed a survey and voted S.M.A.R.T. as their favorite “special” class during the week. Jamie hopes to expand the program going forward, but admits the biggest obstacle is finding enough time throughout the week to make sure each student gets adequate S.M.A.R.T. time. To address this, she plans S.M.A.R.T. activities during recess.
“I really enjoy finding new ways to implement activities and adapt stations that become repetitive,” she said. “The difference between last year and this year is amazing. We have a whole lot more fun learning now, and we want to keep it that way!”