How do we best prepare our children for future success?
For nearly 25 years, our Minnesota Learning Resource Center has addressed this question via S.M.A.R.T. (Stimulating Maturity through Accelerated Readiness Training), a movement-based program designed to enhance brain development in elementary-aged children.
With decades of proven results in academic settings, the S.M.A.R.T. team took the next logical step: In 2020, they launched S.M.A.R.T. Steps, a version of the program adapted for Family Child Care providers working within their homes with newborns to five-year-olds.
“This crucial stage in a child’s development sets the foundation for a wide range of skills and learning capacities,” says Katie Hansen, Assistant Director of the program. “S.M.A.R.T. activities strengthen these foundations, like balance and coordination, eye movements, and auditory discrimination. Once these skills become automatic, a child is more equipped to sit still in a chair, read smoothly across a page, and hear differences in sounds - all essential for school readiness and academic success.”
With input from the providers, S.M.A.R.T. activities have been specifically tailored to their needs. And the first 18 providers we’ve trained love it! The plan is to take the program statewide in the near future.
Says Darla, a S.M.A.R.T. Steps provider in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota: “A lot of the things I knew in the back of my head, but I just wasn’t putting the two together, like how it was actually helping the child with little things, like sitting or focusing. Knowing that this is really helping my kids in the long run of their lives, and how it can be useful even for me to do, it’s just so positive!”
LaDonna, another provider from Sleepy Eye, says her kids love the activities and are now doing them every day. “We like to do stuff all the time - fine motor, gross motor, at least a taste of it every day. And it’s easy for me because I’m not using a big curriculum,” she says. “When we make our projects or read our books, we can get it all put together quickly, no problem.”
S.M.A.R.T. Steps is designed to give providers all the training and support they need, at times and in ways that work for them, as well as valuable knowledge that helps them provide high-quality care. The goal was to make S.M.A.R.T. Steps very easy to incorporate into any daycare environment. With lots of little ones running around, it needs to be. Providers don’t always have the capacity to orchestrate activities because they are constantly being pulled in different directions. The key to making it work is an online learning management system, called Thinkific, that gives providers easy access to training and resources necessary to integrate the program into their day.
As with other S.M.A.R.T. programs, we provide mentoring services, something other programs don’t always offer. LaDonna says she loves the mentor visits and the hands-on instruction she receives. “They give ideas and help us fine-tune movements - like the pencil roll, for example, to use their hips and to get some speed - I wouldn’t have known those things, but the mentors watch closely to see if we’re doing it correctly.” Currently, these services are offered in person; as the program grows, they will be online to keep the program affordable and accessible.
Alissa and her kids like the visits too. “I have some kids that I kind of worry about,” she says, “and Katie can tell me what to do with them. It’s great watching the kids’ eyes light up when they finally get something. We all benefit from it.”
Making a Difference
According to our providers, their young charges have embraced S.M.A.R.T. Steps activities. “They do the majority of the activities without even being told.” says Darla. “They’ll hop in to wash their hands or do different balance moves like flamingos. Today, we’re working with scissors and cutting with two hands. We’ll do courses with tunnels, balance beams, we do hopping and jumping and helicopters. They like doing fine motor, but their favorite is getting out the large muscle movements.”
Providers said that their children’s behavior and social skills have improved as well since the activities were introduced. “The kids get along better,” says Alissa. “The older ones attempt to help the younger ones learn things, like how to do the courses. They challenge themselves and each other to go faster.” Likewise, Darla says her kids' ability to work together has improved, especially when it comes to sharing.
For the S.M.A.R.T. Steps providers, that’s what it’s all about. “You think you may only have a child for a little while, but why not help that kid out?” says Darla. “Why wait until they get into school when they’re so frustrated? The teachers have 20 other kids, and that poor kid is so frustrated and behind. We can help them out before.”
If you are a Family Child Care Provider, or know of a Provider who may be interested in learning more about the S.M.A.R.T. Steps program, please visit our S.M.A.R.T. Steps page and complete an application. Details on our next training cohort will be shared soon. For questions, please contact the S.M.A.R.T. Steps team at email@example.com.
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.”