Research & Key Articles

In October of 2002, Athena Oden, Ready Bodies, Learning Minds, and Dr. Denise Kern, Comal Independent School District, began a controlled research project into the effectiveness of the motor lab developed by Athena Oden, physical therapist.  The motor lab, nicknamed “Function Junction”, is a prescriptive motor development program that focuses on helping children to integrate tactile, proprioceptive, reflexive, and vestibular input.  The program hypothesis is centered on the idea that reflex and sensory integration are keys to academic success.  The basic question to be answered by this research was: Do specific experiences in the Ready Bodies motor lab affect reading performance in pre-first grade students?

Two different groups of children were included in the study: those from one elementary school who use Function Junction on a bi-weekly basis, and those from a control group of elementary school students who do not.  Each group was tested during October 2002, and re-tested under the same parameters in May of 2003.  The results were then tabulated and analyzed by Dr. Denise Kern.  Her conclusions were presented in a doctoral thesis for University of Texas at San Antonio.

Data was collected through the use of five different tests:

  1. VMI ( Beery-Buktenica Developmental Test of Visual-Motor Integration); pre and post tests
  2. Ready Bodies, Learning Minds Screening Report; pre and post tests
  3. DRA  (Developmental Reading Inventories )  (Quarterly)
  4. TPRI  (Texas Primary Reading Inventory)  (August and May)
  5. Comal ISD Benchmark Reading tests (Quarterly)

While test results are too extensive to present in this forum, some conclusions can be described that show dramatic increase in reading performance.  Specifically, in a portion of the research project which included only pre-first students of both campuses, there was an average 70% increase in reading profiency in the research group when compared to the control group (according to the DRA test results) over the 7 month period.

The research group (with the motor lab) also exhibited marked improvement in reflex integration based upon the Ready Bodies, Learning Minds Screening Report.  Conversely, the pre-first students of the control group (without the motor lab) demonstrated , on average, a decline in reflex integration over the same 7 month period.

Ready Bodies, Learning Minds performed extensive studies involving more students and more grade levels than were analyzed in Dr. Kern’s thesis.  Overall, we see similar results: for example, phonemic awareness of the kindergarten children appears to have been improved by the presence of the motor lab. Still, further data analysis needs to made to document the correlation of improvement in academic and motor performance.  We hope to be able to do this in the near future.


ABCs of School PT

by Marnie McLeod Santoyo

A preschool-aged girl takes to the stairs of a play structure and makes a beeline for the slide. Not an unusual scene for most children her age, except for one small difference: She requires assistive devices to get around.

Her gregarious nature draws other children to play with her. As the girl takes her turn on the slide, playmates rush to grab her walker and bring it to her at the bottom of the slide.

It’s even better than what Dawn Graeme, PT, ever could have expected. “I simply gave her the techniques to walk up the stairs by holding the rail and then go down the slide, without looking to an adult for help,” says Graeme, a full-time physical therapist with the San Ramon Valley Unified School District near San Francisco. “Teaching her those skills was the biggest freedom I could give her. The rest she did on her own.”

Schooling PTs

In traditional clinical environments, PTs treating children with gross motor impairments or delays generally perform their work in the confines of well-equipped therapy rooms. PTs working in schools, however, may not have more than empty classrooms available to conduct one-on-one therapy. So their therapy rooms become the classrooms, playgrounds, school libraries, and even field trip destinations–any place where students work and play.

School-based PTs see that as a plus: By bringing therapy to the children instead of pulling them away from their learning environments, it helps students build meaningful skills right in their own worlds.

“School-based PTs shouldn’t pull from classes. Instead, they should provide their consultation and therapy support in the student’s environment,” says Susan Effgen, PT, PhD, in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Kentucky.

Educating the Educators

Even when working in the child’s environment, a PT can’t do it all in one or two therapy sessions or consultations a week. So educating and working with teachers, parents, and caregivers is critical.

Athena Oden, PT, worked in a consultant therapist role more than 20 years ago, long before the model became widely used in the schools. She was the only therapist servicing all the special needs students in a 640-square-mile rural school district in Texas.

From her experience, Oden developed the “Ready Bodies, Learning Minds” program, a sensory and motor activity regimen that addresses vestibular, proprioceptive, and tactile systems as well as gross motor demands and primary movement patterns–all of which can be done in the classroom.

“What I can do on campus in one day is only as effective as what the teachers or parents can do after I leave,” Oden says. It’s that kind of collaboration in the school environment that Graeme and Effgen agree will ultimately improve future outcomes for children with disabilities.

“As a therapist in the schools, it is our role to engage everyone working with that child–the teacher, aide, other therapists, parents, librarian–anyone,” Graeme says. “They each work with the same child in a different way. It’s about getting a child as functional and independent as we can, in his or her environment.”


The Preschool Tightrope

RBLM Commentary

Unfortunately, the backlash of “recent” research has spurred a national trend to school children at a younger age. Believing that success of the elementary child begins with laborious instruction at the pre-school level, schools have begun to instruct and test our little ones.

As the article states:

Backers of more instruction and testing say pre-kindergarten should prepare children form the academic rigors of future grades. The San Antonio School District is a pioneer, pumping local dollars into an extended day and replacing recess with instruction. But even some policy experts who pushed for early reading initiatives fear too much work and little play amounts to overkill for children not long out of diapers.

But what SORT of education should these children get? The debate continues, but data must be collected to prove which program is the most successful.

“When you get grant money, the grant money always comes with strings attached,” said Elvia Perez, South San’s director of reading and language arts. She noted that when the Texas Education Agency audited her full-day program, it quizzed her about what the children were doing during “quiet time”. “They don’t want to see a lot of downtime,” Perez said.”

San Antonio School district has moved forward in an aggressive manner to expand full-day pre-kindergarten. But has it proved successful? “The district’s first group of 4-year olds to experience full day pre-kindergarten took the third grade reading test this year, faring slightly better than their peers, with 87 % passing the first time compared to 81% of those not in the program.” This does not seem like a great success rate compared to the money spent: “The district has ponied up millions over the past five years in local funds to offer full-day programs at all its elementary schools.”

Not only does the money appear to be spent in an ineffective manner, but the children seem to be losing out too. “Pre-kindergarteners come to school and leave at the same time as the older kids, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m……….The day doesn’t include recess or unstructured free play.”

But there are some who do not follow this prescription: “At the Acorn – A School For Young Children, a private preschool offering half-day classes to 124 students, founder Rich Lang argues: “There are no valid tests for young children.” …..He worries about highly structured programs where teachers direct students in group activities and prefers a flexible model……… “To use an absurd example, ‘These 2-year-olds are going to have to sit in desks when they’re in the first grade, so let’s train them now,’” he said. “If they’re not ready or interested and you push them, what’s going to happen is they’re going to feel terrible.”

Will we be setting a pattern of failure for these little ones from this point on?


Childhood Pastimes Are Increasingly Moving Indoors

The article begins: The fundamental nature of American childhood has changed in a single generation. The unstructured outdoor childhood – days of pick-up baseball games, treehouses and “be home for dinner” – has all but vanished. Today childhood is spent mostly indoors, watching television, playing video games and working the Internet. When children do go outside, it tends to be for scheduled events – soccer camp or a fishing derby- held under the watch of adults.

RBLM Commentary: Why then do we seem to think that it would be any different when the children come to school? We may have to help the children develop those skills within the walls of our schools now. What has given a child the ability to perform the tasks we deem necessary for academic success? Are they as “ready” to learn as we were a generation ago? What good were all those games we played?

The reporter continues: A child is six times more likely to play a video game on a typical day than to ride a bike; according to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation……..The change can be seen in children’s bodies. In the 1960’s, 4% of kids were obese. Today, 16% are overweight, according to the CDC. (see Research). It can be seen in their brains. Studies indicate that children who spend lots of time outdoors have longer attention spans than kids who watch lots of television and play video games, says Frances Kuo, director of the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

RBLM Commentary: Fear for the safety of our children is a grave concern. Yet my fear is what our children may be missing that will affect their development and their abilities later in life, not to mention their capacity to form relationships with other PEOPLE. …Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods…says… “Parents think their kids are safer in front of the Xbox in the next room.” What will our kids reap as the consequences of this type of safety?

Dakota Howell, 9, went fishing in this town of 7,000 the other day with his mom, dad and little brother. “It’s fun,” he says, happily reeling in sunfish from Spring Lake during a fishing derby sponsored by Wal-Mart. But to be honest, he’d rather be doing something else: playing video games. “That was my first choice,” he confides. “But mom says they rot your brain.”

RBLM Commentary: Smart mom. 


Preschools’ Prep

RBLM Commentary: Even The Wall Street Journal (Marketplace section) has noticed the drive to push our youngsters, albeit from a marketing perspective. Firms like Sylvan Learning Centers and Kaplans, Inc. have added preschool tutoring to their programs.

On a bright summer day, Hank Barnes settles into a chair across the table from his tutor, a pile of work between them and an hour’s lesson ahead. Hank is four years old, and among the worries that prompted his mother to enroll him for two lessons a week at the Sylvan Learning Center here is this: Hank was behind on his scissors skills.

RBLM Commentary: The reporter, June Kronholz, has noted what we all are worried about: As the academic pressure grows on the littlest learners — to recognize their letters in preschool, to read in kindergarten — so does the idea of toddler tutoring. These structured, directed lessons appall some early-learning experts, who believe that young children learn best through play and are being pressured to read before they understand and the idea of letters as symbols of sounds.

“This rote kind of stuff is disgusting,” says David Elkind, A Tufts University professor of child development whose books lament that children no longer have time to play. “It’s against all we know is good for young children,” he says.

RBLM Commentary: From scissor skills to the ability to sit in a chair all day, our young children are being asked to perform at incredible levels. Is this healthy? Will it help our children? Are we actually doing what is best for them? 

Amy Barnes, who is the mother of four-year-old Sylvan pupil Hank and who teaches high-school English here, is all for preschool tutoring. She “panicked” last winter, she says, when Hank’s preschool teacher reported that he couldn’t write his name, identify his letters, count to 30 or wield his scissors — skills that the local school district tells parents it would like to see in incoming kindergartners. “I feel we read all the time, but whatever I was doing at home wasn’t working,” says Ms. Barnes, who enrolled Hank for two reading lessons a week. Hank fell off his adult-size chair during an early lesson, she says.

RBLM Commentary: What will Hank be doing in 3rd grade? Will he have the skills necessary to complete his assignments AND sit in his chair?