Helping your special needs child move

By | September 20, 2013

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, any kind of professional related with child development or even very experienced in helping children, but I am able to use the Feldenkrais Method enough to help my son move better and I am learning daily.

Here is a list of some of my own most important insights that help me the most when helping Nisarga to do something new. I think these are basically good ideas for any and all learning, but they become important with special needs kids, because they have limited energy to waste on things that are not useful. Where possible, I am providing my reasoning for the most common issues I run into when parents contact me for help.

Warning: Some of these ideas will contradict what your physiotherapist says and I leave it to your judgment to choose what is most useful.

  • The goal: Forget perfection. It is not a useful goal for anyone, let alone a child who doesn’t need the pressure. No one is perfect. I can show how inefficiently your body moves, if you wish to be stuck on this.  What is important is continuous improvement. As long as each piece of learning builds on what was learned before, you’re in the green. Wait. Not so fast. Aim for a very high frequency of learning new things. Every minute is good. Every hour or every day works. Any less than that and you need to do more to help your child. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can be something as minor as “beating a new surface makes a new sound”. The key to recognizing this is an “aha” moment. Wide eyes, “Oh!” pause, grin that reflects a world of pride “loo what I did!”. <– this is the goal. Score as many as you can.
  • Nothing is wrong: Let go of the idea of “Wrong”. It is useless. Everything teaches something. Learn to value that. He didn’t “sit wrong”. Sitting in this way is not stable, or leaning like this will topple me. These are important discoveries too. Many results create a library of choice on what to do. Rolling over or waling is like learning t ride a bicycle too. You are able to do it not just by discovering what to do, but what to avoid as well. Celebrate those inputs for learning. The are building toward greater ability.
  • Think sharing more than training: The idea is to build possibilities for your child, not take him through motions or life. A child who cannot do something is not waiting for you to blackmail him or bribe him. He has a greater interest in sitting or standing than your bribe or anger. If you can’t raise your hand above your shoulder, it is no use me telling you I’ll buy you a laptop if you do it or yelling till you do. It is plain lack of support or bad manners. What use is an adult brain with knowledge of the movement if you can’t come up with an easier way for him? So you can’t raise your arm above your head, can you do it if you bend back or to the side? How far can you lift it? What becomes possible with the amount you CAN lift? If lifting hand fully is useful, even lifting hand somewhat is useful too. Find those uses. Let him experience that it is useful to HIM rather than something he can’t do that you expect from him.
  • Make it fun: If you’re acting like you’re saving him from disaster, it will not work. Keep your sense of fun. For example, last week, the doctor tried to teach Nisarga to put his weight on his arms by holding his elbows straight forcefully and holding him in the crawling position. Needless to say, Nisarga, not being able to crawl, did not have the strength or confidence for it, and he cried, and the doctor would have simply overruled him and continued through the crying as something necessary. I didn’t become popular when I stopped her, but two minutes later, I had him in that same position from a different starting position (which he found easier) without holding his elbows. The minute the doctor tried to get involved, he started crying and that was that. The doctor had lost his trust by making the experience unhappy for him.
  • Crying through learning is not learning: Learning is fun. The idea is that the child learns something that he can then do on his own. If the experience is an unhappy one, forcing him to a sitting position will never lead him to WANTING to sit. There’s your war lost over a battle. Even if he can, he will be likely to associate it with something undesirable. Kids are resilient, and will choose opportunities to grow by default, but it is an unnecessary hindrance a child with limited ability does not need. It does not make sense to add unpleasant experiences to be overcome in the way of their growth. No pain no gain is a myth. Science now shows that the damage indicated by the pain needs to be overcome for further progress and over-training SLOWS improvement. Star athletes no longer train to the point of pain. Your child is a star pursuing his peak performance too. Not all that different. It is very easy to over-train, over-tire a child already having difficulties with movement. Take your cues from the child, not prescriptions of what “should” be done.
  • Have variety: This is probably the most important thing, because most physiotherapy will be doing the opposite. Repititions are useless. If he’s experienced one, he’s experienced them all, except for the fatigue, which is not a useful goal. Keep changing things. If he sat up on one way, change something. Change position of hand, position of leg. Elevate his head or legs – does that help? Change direction of sitting. Change speed. Vary, vary, vary. Keep him interested, engaged, watching out for what’s changing and what that will mean. That gives him a library of what to do and what not to do faster than a movement repeated on auto-pilot.
  • Dial it down: The instinct on facing failure is to get frantic, try harder. This is counter-productive. More force into a thing that is not working only makes it more difficult to change. Slow down. Start the movement and return without doing it. Use much less force – you aren’t even planning to complete the movement, just seeing what happens like that. That laid back I’m talking. If something is not happening, back off. Take a look at what is happening without trying to fix it. You need to know what’s happening, to fix it, right? So you tried to make him stand, but he’s not able. So it is okay. Go to your starting position. How is he sitting? If you were sitting like that, would you be able to get up easily? What would you have to do *before* standing up? Is he doing it? What happens if you move him like that without making him do anything at all? Can you move him easily in the manner you would, if you were getting up? If you can’t, forget him being able to. If you can, can you get him to do that tiny initial movement without worrying about the end result? What happens? Is he able to do it? Does he move “wrong” instead? Explore, explore, explore. Forget the standing. Find out what is happening. Help him find out. If this doesn’t work, still don’t get frantic. Do something else altogether that he can do. Return here another time. Remember this: No matter how important the end resulting movement is, in your view, adding energy to something that isn’t working will only fix it in the wrong way. So that is a no-no regardless of whether something else works or not. Just forget it and other ideas will start popping up.

These, I think are the most important things I learned to do to be able to teach Nisarga effectively. Most of these have been inspired by principles of unschooling, behavioral learning theories/experiences and the Feldenkrais Method (They aren’t all that different – only pragmatic and scientific thinking applied to different aspects). To date, if working with Nisarga runs into failure, it is guaranteed I’m doing one of these wrong, and I have to take a look at myself and consciously stop doing things that hinder progress. Usually just dialing down the hyper-activity in me will help the situation considerably.

Hope this helps. Me not being expert or having experience talking about this, I’m not sure if it has come across clearly, but I am convinced from all my learning and experiences that all these are excellent ideas that are crucial to adopt to help learning in general and for special needs in particular and the opposite of these ideas is harmful. Feel free to use the comments to start a dialogue.

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2 thoughts on “Helping your special needs child move

  1. Vivek Sheth

    Nisarg’s Mom you have done commendable work and proved that if mother decides something she can do. My child is 3.5 months and had birth asphyxia with HIE 3, he is facing seizures and spasticity. We have come to know about Anat BANIEL METHOD and would like to learn from you if you can please help us in this. My email id is

  2. Vagisha Sheth

    Great Mom ,
    I am Vagisha Sheth came here at Mumbai for my son’s ABM who had a birth asphyxia and diagnosed with cerebral palsy I would like to meet u once if u can please allow me. I am only here for next two days.

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