Hadley is a shy but sweet teenager who loves her family, friends and especially her dog, Buddy. From the beginning, school hasn’t come easy to her. Her parents first noticed something was amiss in second grade when they’d try to do homework with her and she’d cry and beg not to do it. Her writing looked more like a toddler’s handwriting and she couldn’t seem to stay focused on the class material. Her parents were worried – they knew she was smart, yet she struggled in virtually every subject in school, especially reading and math. They were determined to get her the help she needed and began searching for answers. A full neurological evaluation yielded diagnoses of ADHD and Dyslexia.
In 7th grade, her parents made the difficult decision to pull her from the school she knew and send her to a private school that specialized in students with learning challenges. But after two years, they hadn’t seen much progress. Says her mother, Ali: “A lot of people told us that this school was going to change her life, but it hasn’t.”
“At that point, we’d tried everything with very little improvement,” said Ali. “I had an epiphany that something had to be off in her brain that needs to be fixed at a base level. It felt as if her neurons weren’t firing, pathways were blocked. I couldn’t shake this belief that we had to find the root cause. Otherwise, we will just keep spinning our wheels, losing thousands of dollars in the process.”
Not knowing what else do to, Ali turned to Google. “As I went down the Dr. Google rabbit hole, I learned about primitive reflex integration, something I’d never even heard of but sounded like it could be causing some of Hadley’s challenges. Eventually I came across A Chance To Grow.” She immediately emailed Kelly Pittman, Director of ACTG’s Neurotechnology services, and during their first discussion, she knew that she was on the right track. “Talking to Kelly that first time was so refreshing because she totally understood our plight, having dealt with this type of stuff both as a parent and professionally.”
As she learned more about ACTG’s clinical services, Ali was shocked and disappointed that she’d never heard of the services that ACTG offers. “The holistic, natural, brain-based therapy made total sense to me. For the first time ever, I knew that we’d found a better path.”
"For the first time ever, I knew that we’d found a better path.”
First, Hadley began neurofeedback with Kelly to help her brain self-regulate more efficiently. “It’s very common for people to get stuck in a stress response on a daily basis,” says Kelly. “This can show up in a child’s behavior as “hypo” or “hyper,” either shut down or over-aroused. Neurofeedback addresses this, often improving social and emotional regulation along with academic skills.”
Next up is Neuro Integrative therapy, an approach developed at ACTG that combines several interventions that collectively promote brain growth and social, physical and emotional development through purposeful movement. The goal is to establish efficient neurological connections between the brain and the systems of the body to improve higher-level functioning.
Kelly also recommended that Hadley undergo functional auditory and vision screenings. These differ from the routine screenings where, when a child passes, it’s assumed that their hearing or vision is fine. But functional problems with eyes and ears that can seriously impede the ability to learn are not picked up by routine screenings. Says Ali, “I was floored to learn that vision played into learning as much as it does. We knew Hadley could read, but she still couldn’t comprehend. Now I know. Learning is 80% visual and if the eyes are misaligned or not tracking correctly, it can often be mistaken for ADHD and Dyslexia.” Hadley had a functional eye screening and sure enough, ACTG‘s testing found her eyes were a big part of her challenges. Due to her misaligned eyes, she’d skip words which heavily affected her comprehension. “As ACTG explained to me, she was having to work so hard just to stay aligned in reading words and lines, her brain wasn’t able to comprehend what she was reading. Hence, the enormous academic struggles. There is even speculation that Dyslexia might be a misdiagnosis all together.”
Hadley was also diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder (APD), which affects the ability to understand speech. Someone with APD might be able to hear well, but the auditory input is not correctly interpreted by the brain.
Although happy that she finally has answers that make sense, she wonders why it took her so long to find ACTG. “Never once in all of these years did a doctor say anything about brain-based therapies,” Ali says, the doctors just recommended medication. “I don’t understand why the medical community couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me about these other therapies and methods.” Hadley is 13 now, and if Ali and her husband had known about ACTG and their brain-based approach years ago, it might have changed the trajectory of her life.
"I hope anyone who is on their own neuro-diverse struggle finds ACTG. It’s the best-kept secret and I want everyone to know about it."
Now Ali wants to make sure that people who have neuro-diverse family members are aware of it. “I hope anyone who is on their own neuro-diverse struggle finds ACTG. It’s the best-kept secret and I want everyone to know about it. They truly want to help Hadley reach her full potential and I’m confident we’re in the right spot now, but even more than confident, I am so, so grateful.”
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“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.”
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!”