Ball and sandbag therapy for kids

by Lim Ang Nei

AFTER more than a decade of reviewing therapies, Bal-A-Vis-X sounded like fun and something that was doable. My son was 14 at the time and I was looking for something that does not look like therapy anymore. Besides a brief description of the training, the flyer stated that it is for everyone, from learning challenged, gifted, regular children to senior citizens. What is this programme that uses balls and sandbags to improve overall body coordination and cognitive function? And the man himself was coming to teach it.

I first heard of Bill Hubert in 2000 when my Brain Gym instructor, Cecilia Koester, mentioned a technique that uses balls and balance boards to help students improve their academic performance. She distributed notes on it and I duly put it in cold storage because I was still grappling with the enormity of my son’s full-blown autism. Furthermore, it was happening in the US and I did not have the time or money to entertain the thought.

So when Bal-A-Vis-X appeared on my e-mail, I looked for the note. All it had was a list of exercises and I had written, “timing, rhythm and movement” at the top right hand corner. The timing was right on the dot.
“Balance Auditory Vision Exercises”, or Bal-A-Vis-X, was born out of a desire to help struggling students in a traditional academic setting. Every year, as a teacher, Hubert saw countless students struggling with their studies and failing. He set out to do something about it. In his search for an answer, he studied and reviewed works by various key people.

Among them were Carl Delacato on the importance of hand dominance; juggling as a shortcut to hand dominance by Ingolf Mokk; the importance of balance and use of balance boards from Frank Belgau; that bodily movements are necessary for the growth of our cognitive functions from neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford; and the importance of whole brain integration for optimal learning from Paul Dennison.

Hubert combined the knowledge he derived with his own observations to create Bal-A-Vis-X.

During the training in Singapore, I had the opportunity to engage in a practice session with Hubert. We were doing a pattern called “2 bag rectangle” in which one hand has to toss a bag to a partner and the other hand catch an incoming bag from the partner. I kept missing the incoming sandbag.

Hubert stopped and suggested gently that I look at the incoming bag. Voila! I did not miss any catch after that. He had noticed that my eyes were not tracking properly. Once something is out of whack, I am out of rhythm.

Bal-A-Vis-X is not random bounce-juggling of balls or tossing of sandbags. It requires precise techniques: the catch, the bounce, the toss and the eye movement when done properly will come together, resulting in improved bodily balance, eye-hand coordination, vision, auditory precision and sense of rhythm. All these are important precursors to learning.

In 2008, a study carried out by elementary educator Jacque Groenendyk showed that the implementation of Bal-A-Vis-X by classroom teachers did raise academic achievements and improved social behaviours in students of Douglas Elementary, Michigan. The data collected, using standardised tests, also showed improved eye movements along with improved maths and reading scores.

To date, there are more than 300 patterns, many of them created by Hubert’s students. During the training, we started off with simple patterns. Once we had mastered those, we moved on to more complex ones with partners. Then, Hubert added another dimension. The participants who could follow the exercises had to ensure that their friends could do likewise. In this way, Bal-A-Vis-X also fosters peer teaching.

By requiring his students to help their peers, Hubert discovered some naturally gifted teachers among his students. He calls them assistant instructors. At all his training sessions, these assistant instructors demonstrate techniques and teach alongside him.

Bill Hubert (left), demonstrating the way to apply Bal-A-Vis-X.

In Singapore, when the Bal-A-Vis-X training was held for the first time in the region, Tiffany Mercado, 16, came along to teach. With quiet confidence and patience, she corrected and taught people who were much older than her.

“The biggest impact Bal-A-Vis-X has made in my life thus far is in learning the different ways people learn and function,” says Tiffany. “It has helped me personally, making an enormous difference in the way I learn. I plan to go to college to become a physical therapist and learn more about children with disabilities who could benefit from Bal-A-Vis-X,” says Tiffany.

“Many teachers understand that not all students learn the same way, but not many teachers understand how to teach every student. I am a highly visual learner who also needs auditory input and Bill knows that. So when he is demonstrating something and I don’t understand, he will immediately use words to explain it once or twice and I get it. He knows exactly what to do when someone is struggling.”

Singaporean Zohra Abdul Rahim, 11, was introduced to Bal-A-Vis-X in 2009 by Sumiati Said, a Brain Gym instructor. One year later, she was so at ease and adept at Bal-A-Vis-X that when Hubert met her, he made her an assistant instructor.

Prior to 2009, Zohra was not doing well academically and failing in her Mathematics, in particular. However, by the end of 2010, Zohra got a B for her Mathematics and passed all her other 11 subjects.

Says Sumiati: “Bal-A-Vis-X requires the use of both hands to bounce the balls and this has allowed Zohra to access both her left and right brain hemispheres. Her eye tracking is also better, leading to improvement in reading and comprehension abilities. She is also calmer and more focused.”

According to Hubert, once the dominant hand has mastered the pattern, the non-dominant hand is able to do the same. So first you practise with your dominant hand, then do it with your other hand.

Studies on brain activity by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the United States, showed that performing activities with the opposite non-dominant hand can help to strengthen existing neurons and encourage the growth of new neurons.

Recent studies in neurological science also found that physical exercises increase Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF, a protein in the brain that can help to generate new neurons and synapses.

According to Dr John Ratey of the Harvard Medical School, “exercise can profoundly increase the levels of BDNF and improve neuroplasticity”. So it is not surprising that Bal-A-Vis-X is able to improve academic performance and also has found its way into nursing homes.

Hubert has made Bal-A-Vis-X such that anyone can learn the techniques and patterns. The initial patterns are simple and achievable. Each success builds up confidence and self-esteem.

Phoebe Long, Director of Breakthru Enrichment Station in Kuala Lumpur, uses Bal-A-Vis-X as part of her work with some 10-year-old children who have learning and emotional challenges. She found that the children responded well and were motivated to master the techniques shown. More importantly, they enjoyed the exercises.

Although Bal-A-Vis-X was created to help students with learning difficulties, everyone can benefit from it. It is people-friendly and enjoyable. My learning disabled son can do the “2 bag rectangle” with his older brother or younger sister with ease. Perhaps that is the best part for me, to see them learning together, each making sure that the other can follow the exercises.

As for me, I could do with some improvement to my memory, and increased flexibility and movement.


How it all started

In his book, Resonance, Bill Hubert chronicled the development of Bal-A-Vis-X and how it has impacted lives. In this e-mail interview, Hubert shares his thoughts on the series of exercises he developed.

Where did the idea of Bal-A-Vis-X come from? Was it a single “eureka” moment?

Bal-A-Vis-X wasn’t born in a eureka moment. It evolved as a long process of connecting dots.

Dot One: Each year many of my grade one students didn’t function well.
Dot Two: My martial arts experience enabled me to watch these six- to seven-year-olds through the twin lenses of balance and rhythm.
Dot Three: I felt it important that all these students have fundamental balance and rhythm capabilities, so I taught them such basic physical skills as throwing, catching, walking balance beams and skipping.
Dot Four: Slowly I became aware that, of all my students, the ones most deficient in these basic skills were the same ones who struggled academically.
Dot Five: I noticed, as we all worked on balance and rhythm, that now and then when a struggling student’s balance and rhythm improved, his academic performance also improved.

Connecting these dots, then posed this question: might fine-tuning a child’s balance and rhythm simultaneously address his academic difficulties? What followed were more than 20 years of trial and error to find out. The result, as of 1999, was the still evolving programme now known as Bal-A-Vis-X.

How does Bal-A-Vis-X differ from other programmes related to physical movement?

There are several similarities. First, rhythm. And I mean natural rhythm. Not matching a tone or a metronome or a musical beat or any other outside source. The rhythms of Bal-A-Vis-X are the natural outcome of proper techniques which one learns and commits to muscle memory during our training.

Secondly, visual tracking. In a typical 30-minute Bal-A-Vis-X session, one tracks across three “midlines” (side-side, up-down, near-far) probably 1,000 times.

Third, entrainment (group synchonicity). The majority of our exercises are done with a partner and/or in concert with others. Synchronicity is always the goal. In a Bal-A-Vis-X setting, no one is allowed to be a lone ranger.

Fourth, responsibility. As soon as you are fully competent with even a few exercises, you are immediately set the task of teaching those exercises to a new or less competent student – under the trained eye of your instructor.

You are responsible for the new student, while the instructor is responsible for both of you.

In time, as your competence grows and you become less a student and more an instructor yourself, your responsibilities and confidence grow exponentially. Earned self-esteem naturally follows.

This article was also published on http://ParenThots.com

Bill Hubert will be in Kuala Lumpur June 8-12, 2011 to conduct the following classes:

> Children six years and above: June 8, 9am-5pm
> Children with learning difficulties (six years and above): June 9, 9am-5pm
> Three-day training for adults: June 10–12, 9am-5pm

For enquiries, call Hasanah Hassan at (012) 200-5830 or e-mail: hasanah_hsn@yahoo.com. You may also call Phoebe of BEST Centre at (012) 329-2681 or email bestcentre@breakthru.com.my.


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