“As a kid, I had a harder time reading,” says Leah, a veteran educator currently with the Eau Claire, WI school district and a long-time S.M.A.R.T. advocate, whose passion for teaching and love for her students are palpable. “And I want to do everything in my power to prevent others from struggling.”
After several years in the classroom, Leah found herself in a position to support other teachers – as an educational consultant, instructional coach, literacy coach, Title I teacher, among other roles. While teachers were telling her that student behavior was their biggest problem, as a literacy coach and Title I teacher, she noticed that many children were having reading issues. “I had several kids, I could actually see their eyes doing different things on the pages, or they’d look at me and their eye would bounce, and I thought ‘something is going on there.’” Then she attended a training for a movement-based program that dealt with dyslexia. Her original teacher training had included very little about brain-related issues or the importance of movement to development. This new perspective changed her. “I started telling parents, ‘you might want to get their eyes checked, I’ve been noticing some things’ and parents wrote to me to say, ‘There was an issue, thanks for telling us!’ I thought, this is knowledge that everybody needs to have. It’s great and more students could be helped.”
Several years later, when she attended a three-day S.M.A.R.T. training, it was revelatory: “Every time I heard a story I thought ‘oh, that was that kid.’ I remember having an a-ha moment: They showed us how the alligator crawl is really good for reading comprehension, and I thought, ‘why have I not been doing this the whole time with the struggling readers?’”
Movement Anchors Learning!
Movement influences the ability to concentrate in a classroom and to learn to read and write. The body is designed to move. Research shows purposeful, specific, and systematic physical movement can affect the brain in a very positive and dramatic way. Physical activity helps create an optimal learning condition for the brain by:
Leah began to advocate for all teachers in the district to incorporate S.M.A.R.T. into their classrooms. Last year, district administrators went all in, arranging for all teachers and assistants to get trained. “The first time through the training, some of [the teachers] said, ‘oh my gosh, I thought this kid was doing this because they were misbehaving but really, they had this sensory or auditory processing or vision issue.’ They started to see behaviors differently, which I think is amazing.”
Her S.M.A.R.T. training continues to inform her practice. When her colleagues say, “This child has ADHD” she asks, “’Have you tried spinning? Or balancing? Or pencil rolls? Let’s start with some of those.’ I say to parents, do you ever notice them spinning? And they say ‘yeah.’ And I say, ‘let them, they need it, their bodies are telling them they still need to move.’”
“I have probably three or four kids with high behavioral needs. One of my little guys used to have really large emotions and now you wouldn’t really recognize him. Does he still have moments? Absolutely, we still have to work on it. However, he’s really calmed down quite a bit. His mom said, ‘oh my gosh, he has improved by leaps and bounds.’”
“We are a container society, we are putting our kids in car seats to highchairs to bouncy seats and they are never getting those experiences on the ground, and those experiences are the ones that lead to academic success. We should tell parents ‘Don’t rush them, there are a lot of stages we try to rush through, and quite honestly they need to be on the ground moving.’"
For parents of older children that are having problems academically or behaviorally, Leah says, “There’s a lot of brain-based activities that we can be doing, even at upper levels. My favorite video to show people is The Brain Highway, because there’s always someone who says ‘oh, yeah, I get it!’ when they see it.”
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.”
Thea entered first grade just after her seventh birthday. She was very excited about learning to read. Her parents had no reason to believe that she would have any trouble learning since she had flourished both academically and socially in kindergarten. Her accomplishments up to this point were astounding.
She was born prematurely and required oxygen and intravenous nutrition during her first three years of life. Early in her infancy, doctors said she was both blind and deaf. Later, she was properly diagnosed with dyspraxia and learned to communicate through sign language. She began speaking by her third year and each passing day she became closer and closer to being “on track” developmentally. When she entered school at the age of six, Thea seemed to be a perfectly normal kindergartner. Then came the first grade.
At the first parent-teacher conference, Thea’s teacher informed her parents that there were signs of serious trouble. Thea was exhibiting learning, behavioral and attention problems. The problems were so significant her teacher did not know where one started and the other left off. Her parents were devastated. Even worse, Thea was very upset and became frustrated as she kept falling behind the other students. Her medical team and school began testing.
The test results indicated that Thea also had dyslexia and her frustration was creating the behavior problems. She was eventually placed on an individual education plan while beginning special education and occupational therapy in school in school. At this time, Thea’s mother happened to attend a lecture by Carol Kranowitz, author of The Out of Sync Child. The free lecture was held at A Chance To Grow (ACTG). She had never heard of the organization and decided to take a tour after the lecture. “I was so impressed,” commented Paula. “The very next week I scheduled an appointment for Thea at ACTG’s vision department.
Thea received a complete eye exam and then a developmental evaluation in order to identify visual integration problems. The results clearly indicated that Thea had difficulty processing visual material. Thea’s parents decided to enroll her in ACTG’s vision therapy program.
She received individual vision therapy throughout the following summer and during the first several weeks of second grade. Paula recalls, “The staff that worked with Thea were incredible! They bonded with her and were able to bring out the best in her in a very nurturing way. She began to happily look forward to her vision therapy. Her gains were becoming more evident and each accomplishment of hers was celebrated along the way.” Despite Thea’s gains, her mother witnessed something even more amazing.
Thea, who had struggled to print her name legibly, began writing short stories for everyone to enjoy! Here was a young girl who had struggled to read the simplest of primers, who began checking out chapter books from the library. As the new school year progressed, Thea was up to grade level work in all areas. “Her special education teacher told us that it was a special, but rare treat to release a young student from special education during the elementary years”, remarked Paula. “The teacher told us that it is incredibly rare to have such a young child make as much progress as Thea had done in such a short amount of time.” It was clear that the vision therapy played a major role in her success.
Her mother concluded by saying, “We are all so proud of Thea and so thankful for the people at A Chance To Grow. They have helped her become the audaciously, securely intelligent child that she is!”