Clickbait versus innovative therapy

Last week, I watched a panel hosted by Harvard University on “Emerging School Models: Moving from Alternative to Mainstream.” During the discussion, John Kirtley of Step Up For Students noted that Step Up had allowed ESA families to purchase paddle boards because they were a useful form of balance therapy for children with disabilities. Kirtley noted that children with disabilities could develop balance and strength because they fall in the water without getting hurt.

“We saw that as a legitimate physical education activity,” Kirtley said. “I guess that was viewed differently by others.”

Stand Up Paddle Boarding Aquatic Therapy (SUPAT) is in fact a therapy that is being practiced and is being formally evaluated in medical journals, for example, regarding benefits for students with cerebral palsy:

These findings support the notion that the SUPAT program is beneficial for increasing gross motor function, improving balance, and decreasing the number of falls. SUPAT could be a viable alternative therapeutic intervention to traditional aquatic therapy and an opportunity to participate in an outdoor sport.

A Georgia newscast segment provides a glimpse into SUPAT therapy in action.

“We are showing them the world that doesn’t need to be inside a clinic,” program instructor Alyssa Walz explained. “A paddle board is an unstable surface, so just sitting on the board, even if you are not doing anything on the board, you are working on your core.”

According to the segment, paddle board therapy provides an activity “where you can stand tall and independent in a world that might focus on the things you cannot do.”

“How do I know it’s working? I see it! I see kids go from not being able to stand on an unstable surface to standing on the paddle board standing by themselves,” Walz said.

Alas, there has been no small amount of effort put into scoring cheap political points, both by choice opponents and by journalists. For example:

Journalists tend to be drawn like moths to a flame to something that sounds controversial and don’t always bother to gather much in the way of context. Here is an example:

The much dreaded “raised eyebrow” can at times translate into “repeating uninformed grousing by opponents eager to take things out of context.” As Alan Kay once famously noted:

In a discussion of this issue on the platform formerly known as Twitter, Isabella Lopez, the parent of a child with a disability noted:

Lopez makes a crucially important point: it is of unspeakable importance to give people the space and flexibility to try new approaches. Experimentation is literally the engine driving progress: novel approaches that improve the human condition. The ESA mechanism gives families the incentive to maximize the utility of funding by seeking not just good education services, but the optimal services for the individual needs of a particular child.

SUPAT, thus must compete with other techniques-Equine therapy for example, which is also used to develop core body strength for students with disabilities and has also been the subject of poorly thought-out efforts to discredit ESAs. I’ve even seen grousing from choice opponents that public school students don’t often get access to innovative therapies.

Whose fault would that be? Remember that most ESA students are only receiving a fraction of the average weighted total per pupil funding provided to students in districts. Could it be that hopelessly complex bureaucratic structures with overlapping and sometimes contradictory local, state and federal governance authorities are not the ideal context for innovation?

In any case, dear reader, you’ll continue to see this sort of grousing from opponents, and the allure of a controversial headline will be too much for reporters to resist. Just recall going forward that for any ESA purchase, context is crucial.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of Next Steps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.