Linda Nesenson has been part of A Chance To Grow’s family – and we’ve been part of hers – since 1994. Her journey mirrors ours, as this story demonstrates.
Linda’s second son, Matthew, born in 1988, began having issues with focus and hyperactivity as a toddler. By the time he was in kindergarten, the impact was obvious: “He was so overwhelmed with everything that was going on,” remembers Linda, “he would just laugh and laugh, he didn’t know what to do. He would go full force and conk out.” He was so disruptive to the class, he spent half the day in the hallway on a chair because they didn’t know what to do with him.
By the time he was six, his pediatrician had diagnosed him with ADHD and had put him on Ritalin. “It wasn’t doing anything, so they just wanted to keep upping and upping the dosage,” recalls Linda, “so he developed a tic, eye blinking, and I said, ‘no, we’re not doing this.’ The saving point came when I saw a flyer advertising the Boost Up Program.”
This was being offered by New Visions, ACTG’s alternative school designed specifically to help children like Matt who had trouble learning. As part of his enrollment process, Matt received a number of assessments he’d never had before. “His pediatrician never asked me, ‘did he crawl on his tummy, did he creep on his hands and knees?’ I had no idea that was important. I had taken him to the eye doctor to have his vision checked and they would tell me his eyes were healthy and that he had 20/20 vision, but at New Visions, where they did the telebinocular screening, I learned that he had depth perception problems and his pinch grasp was very weak, which explained playing catch and holding a crayon to color was of no interest.”
At the time, New Visions offered the occupational and vision therapy Matt needed in addition to the Boost Up program, so Linda enrolled him there in 1994. Like Matt, his cousin Ryan was also struggling and he was also enrolled in the school. Her cousin was a paraprofessional in the 1st grade, where Matthew and Ryan started. Linda soon started volunteering in the classrooms, and was ultimately hired as an educational assistant in 1998. Her sister, Ryan’s mother Teresa, came to work in the school office shortly after. When New Visions school came under the umbrella of ACTG and moved to the current location (later in 2003), her husband Gary came to work as a janitor, and so the family affair continued.
At the time, New Visions was housed at St. Bridget’s and offered Boost Up for children in grades 1-8. Students went to Boost Up five days a week as part of their daily schedule. There, Linda knew Boost Up was where she wanted to be. The success of the program with those students led the staff to consider ways to bring the program to more children. Hence the Minnesota Learning Resource Center, and the S.M.A.R.T. Program (Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training) came into being. Designed to easily incorporate the Boost Up approach into K-3 and Pre-K classrooms, the program has trained thousands of teachers in Minnesota and across the country, providing countless children with the brain development needed to succeed in school and beyond.
Matthew stayed with the program through the fifth grade. In addition to occupational and vision therapy, Matt and Ryan received brain training via Audio-Visual Entrainment (AVE), which helps people self-regulate emotions. Both boys began to improve. “Matthew could handle the group situation, he wasn’t sitting in the hallway, he just got more engaged, more involved in what was going on, he could read, he was learning, he was calmer.” Linda recalls that Matt’s kindergarten teacher had predicted that he would never be able to read. After he had been at New Visions for a while, the paraprofessional took him back to that teacher’s room, and said “Matthew would like to
read something for you.” And he did.
Today, Matthew is grown up, steadily employed at a local store for the last seven years, and the father of four-year-old Xander. “If it wasn’t for my experience with New Visions, with A Chance to Grow, I would not have been able to recognize early that Xander had challenges. “First thing is the speech, he wasn’t saying words and he’s not playing like a neurotypical toddler.” He was diagnosed with Autism, low on the spectrum and sensory seeking. She told Xander’s mom that she should bring him to ACTG for an occupational therapy evaluation. Today, Xander is receiving speech and occupational therapy at A Chance to Grow.
While Matthew left New Visions for middle school, and has since gone on to lead a wonderful life, Linda remained at ACTG. It was her second career, after spending 25+ years in the telephone answering service, but, she says, “Boost-Up became my first love.” Over the years, her involvement has grown and changed, just as the agency has. Eventually, she also worked for the AVE program, Vision program, and as it expanded, the Clinical Services department as a clinical assistant. She has never formally retired because, as she says, this has become a family affair too. “The people here, they mesh so well together. I think it’s because the love and dedication they have in helping children be successful is a common goal. She says, because of that shared goal, “the staff is like family, too.”
“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.”
In the mid-1980s, ACTG’s founders, Bob and Kathy DeBoer, brought in Dr. Robert Zwicky, a pioneer in vision therapy, which goes beyond basic eye examinations to look at how visual information is processed by the brain and how the body responds to it. This approach became the foundation of the clinic’s approach today. Dr. Zwicky brought in Dr. Janyce Moroz in 1989, a Developmental Optometrist whose training in reflexes brought a new dimension to the practice. She recognized, without reflex integration, there wouldn’t be a solid foundation to help higher-level visual skills function at a basic level.
Over the years, other optometrists brought in additional perspectives. In the early 1990s, Dr. Garth Christiansen brought programs for binocular vision and dyslexia, while, from 1998 to 2019, Dr. Michele Taylor expanded the clinic’s capacity to provide full functioning eye exams and vision therapy. In 2011, powered by Dr. Moroz’s deep commitment to help children within the community, the ACTG Mobile Vision Clinic was started, providing greater access to vision services for young children from low-income families. Headstart provided basic screenings and referred children to the clinic. Dr. Moroz then performed developmental eye exams and provided recommendations for further services. Children who needed eye glasses would get them from the clinic if their caregivers approved.
In 2019, after more than three decades of service at ACTG’s Vision Clinic, Dr. Moroz and the Vision Team retired. We knew it would take a special kind of doctor to fill her shoes, one who could carry on her commitment to improving lives through vision therapy and continue her legacy of providing innovative, highly effective services to children and adults. We are thrilled to announce that Dr. Shelby May, O.D. is joining the Vision Clinic on July 7. Dr. May is a Developmental Optometrist who, while thoroughly grounded in the multidisciplinary approach that has made ACTG’s clinic unique, will help bring us to the next level in providing vision services that address the whole person.
We’ll let her introduce herself:
ACTG: Who are you?
SM: I’m a Developmental Optometrist. Basically I’m an eye doctor that looks at the eyes and brain as a whole and tries to help those systems work together as well as I can.
ACTG: Tell us about your training.
SM: My dad is an optometrist, so I learned at his knee. I’m a fairly recent graduate from Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, TN, where I had the absolute privilege of working with brilliant people with really powerful thoughts on how developmental optometry works. Then I was lucky enough to have an elective class on special needs in optometry. It really changed how I approach therapy, mostly because it got me to look at vision as a whole, not just as an eyeball in a brain in a head, but an eyeball in a brain in a body in a process and a surrounding socioeconomic situation and a surrounding family. All those extra variables have to be part of the treatment.
So instead of going broad and doing everything, I decided I would focus on vision therapy and just dive super deep, be a specialist essentially, and it’s made me very very happy. It's so much deeper even than I expected it to be because it goes so beyond eyes, which is why we’re here.
ACTG: What is Developmental Vision?
It’s important for people to know that vision is more than 20/20, is more than seeing clearly. It is seeing well, interpreting that, and then doing something with your body that is what you want, that creates a learning space.
Developmental vision is first of all figuring out what the conversation is between your eyes and your brain and your body, then seeing what we can do to make it as strong as possible, and that manifests in a thousand ways. No two patients will ever look the same, so tailoring that program to you is the biggest part of success.
ACTG: What is the prevalence of developmental vision issues, how many children are likely to have them?
SM: The easy number for vision-related learning changes or disabilities, we say one in four. Now that does not mean that one in four children needs vision therapy. It means that one in four have some sort of hiccup in the road, either that child overcomes that hiccup, or has enough power essentially to reteach or learn on their own, but not everyone compensates and not everyone compensates in a healthy way.
ACTG: Can you compare and contrast the approach used by Drs. Zwicky and Moroz and what you do?
SM: Developmental optometry is really exciting field to be in right now because it’s changing at the speed of light. A lot of things that we were doing when Dr. Zwicky and Dr. Moroz were being trained were new theories at the time and not super-well researched, but we knew it worked, anecdotally. For example, Dr. Zwicky was well ahead of his time with his use of colored light therapy to treat the full body through the eyes. The basic concept is using color to change your sympathetic/parasympathetic balance. The body responds to color, the way you feel in a red room feels very different than the way you feel in a green room. When Dr. Zwicky was doing it, it was very broad – red, red orange, red blue, we’re going to mix these and it seems to do things on this. Since then, there's been plenty of research, and now we take that in very small narrow doses in very specific colors, which does very dramatic things to the body. I'm definitely looking forward to restarting that in a way that can both help my vision patients, and others. It can be wildly successful for OT patients as well. How can we make your session more powerful, let’s get you in the right mind and body set before we get you moving?
ACTG: So part of your agenda is to do more to integrate vision therapy with other modalities?
SM: Absolutely. We know this is going to take time, but so many times, an optometrist looks at a kid and thinks, “Gosh, you really need a little OT before we get started.” That’s not something that a stand-alone vision therapy office is going to be able to coordinate. And that’s the beauty of an interdisciplinary site like this.
That’s so exciting for me because we talk a lot about the triangle of vision in my field -- this idea that the body builds the base for the eyes to function, and the eyes starts the conversation to get the body to go. The simple way to put that is “vision is motor and motor is vision.” It's so exciting because reflex talks to that in a way sometimes I can't. It does vision things in a body way that I can't necessarily do.
ACTG: You have a talent for explaining complicated things in an easy way!
SM: My whole job is to teach you what your brain is doing. If I can't communicate that, then I'm not doing my job.
ACTG: What’s one thing you’d like our clients to know about you?
SM: I am so genuinely excited to work with and come to know each one of you, your kids, and your whole families! I look forward to being involved in your development and your eye-brain connection! See you soon!