Culture

Using bikes to ride over learning barriers

NICA coach Anne Rock found the one tool that helps advance kids with learning differences: the bike.

Teacher Anne Rock sensed Bella would be a hard nut to crack. And she hoped a bike would be just the right tool.

Rock teaches at AIM Academy, a Pennsylvania school focused on children with language-based learning differences. Bella, a high school sophomore, suffers from dyspraxia, a childhood disorder affecting coordination, which means things like balance are a challenge. Add the complexity of anxiety that often washed over Bella, and embarking on new adventures were taxing. Rock’s goal? Get Bella rolling on a bike as part of her NICA-supported school riding program in Philadelphia.

“We had a ride day, around a loop, and she simply couldn’t turn a bike,” Rock recalls. “When she wanted to turn, she’d stop, pick up the bike, and turn it around. I began the loop with her and she said ‘I can’t do this.’ I walked her through it, saying that we’d get through a full lap together. She completed the lap, and both she and I were sobbing. Now she’s riding a mountain bike and just loves it.”

Bella’s story within Rock’s NICA-supported program is the rule rather than the exception, proof positive that the bike has the ability to be a transformative tool for kids with learning differences. Rock’s kicked off her dirt curriculum at the independent private school that teaches first through 12th-grade kids. When NICA arrived in the Pennsylvania area in 2016, she brought her bike-focused education under NICA’s umbrella.

“I expected maybe four kids — and got 12,” Rock says.

The team is now 18 and growing as the student-athletes learn how the bike can take them to another plane.

“The kids have learning differences, but with it is often a dual diagnosis, usually anxiety,” Rock says. “So we don’t stress results. We stress the experience of riding for as little as 20 minutes, that anybody can do it. Our criteria is: Did you have a good time? We’re about friendships and fun. Cycling can be competitive — but it doesn’t have to be.”

For Rock’s student-athletes, bikes have been a game-changer, both technically and at the heart.

“Having done this for 30 years, and teaching high school, it’s still gratifying to hear from middle school teachers about how their kids are more alive in the classroom. Biking requires balance and scanning and signaling, total engagement, all of the time, which helps them. But really, it’s just physically relaxing for them. To get these kids out in the woods, it’s like you’ve taken them to another planet,” Rock says. “For many of these kids, they’re part of something for the first time, part of a team … but it’s more of a family. They have a social group, because of biking. It’s transformative.”

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