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Cognitive therapy sessions provide ‘mental boot camp’ for brain-injured youth

ROANOKE – While doctors recognize the importance of cognitive therapy, and educators talk about it, it is often a subject that is simply discussed.  The value of it is always acknowledged but, if you’re trying to seek out someone who offers cognitive learning skills, you can find yourself on a seemingly wild-goose hunt.  That was the case for Cheryl Smith at least until she found Wendy Wall, owner of Learning & Behavior Specialists, LLC.  Located at 3812 Concord Place, Suite C, just off of Brambleton Avenue and near the Brambleton Rec Center, Learning & Behavior Specialists offers professional tutoring and consultations as well as PACE (Processing And Cognitive Enhancement) therapy, something affectionately referred to as “mental boot camp.”

It was in October 2005 that Cheryl Smith and her children Caitlin and Connor were involved in a tragic multi-car accident that killed two people in their vehicle as well as people from other vehicles.  Though buckled in, Caitlin, now 16 and in 11th grade at Glenvar High School, was thrown from the vehicle.  She was found in a nearby field with injuries that left her paralyzed.  Since then she has regained her motor functions and is busy preparing for college.  Her younger brother Conner, now 14 and in 7th grade at Glenvar Middle School, suffered more severe injuries.  He was almost eight at the time of the accident, and was in a coma for over two months, emerging slowly from it.  “I was playing peek-a-boo” said Conner when his mother recounted how, for quite a while, all the young boy could do was open one eye to look at them. 

Wendy Wall works with Connor Smith, 14, during a recent PACE program session to help his memory.  - Photo by Carrie E. Cox
Wendy Wall works with Connor Smith, 14, during a recent PACE program session to help his memory. - Photo by Carrie E. Cox

Connor suffered Traumatic Brain Injury as a result of the accident.  In May 2006 Conner finally progressed enough to begin outpatient therapy along with his intense physical therapy.  It was the cognitive therapy though that Smith knew he needed and yet she couldn’t find anywhere close by.  Charlottesville was the closest place she could find to Roanoke.  Finally, in the Fall of 2011, she found Wall and her business.  Wall had been in Colorado at the time, receiving her training to be a PACE instructor.  One of the requirements for her to be able to do this was that there isn’t anyone else offering this training within a 50 mile radius of her office, a criteria easily met.

PACE was founded, and is now directed by, a group of professionals from a variety of disciplines who share a common interest in helping children learn more easily and efficiently.  “Good processing skill equals good learning” said Wall of the program, noting that while originally designed for children they’re now finding that the same program can help soldiers recovering from the traumas of war, the elderly, as well as Alzheimer and stroke victims.  “The feedback just keeps coming back positive” added Wall. 

The program helps with children who have problems staying on task, who work too slowly or too hard, who have poor math skills, trouble making associations and conclusions, difficulty comprehending what is read, as well as problems remembering.  It is in that last area that Connor’s mother has noticed a definite change since he began the program.  He’s beginning to remember things again.

The program provides 60 – 80 hours of one-on-one training with Wall over a period of 12 weeks.  It is in this intense, yet affirmative and reassuring, atmosphere that the results are seen.  Wall offers immediate feedback during sessions, either praising her students for a correct answer or gently drawing their attention to an error and encouraging them to try again.  During their sessions Wall gradually increases the demands of the task, based on each participant’s levels of growth, to help them learn better.

This therapy is changing the way people view the brain’s ability to heal and grow.  “It used to just be that, if a person had an issue, they would just try to make work around that” said Wall.  “Now we’re seeing that a brain can be changed, a brain can grow.”

Story by Carrie E. Cox

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