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.”
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!”