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An ADHD Dog Trainer Shows Special Kids How To Use Calm Energy

I have been writing articles about safe and healthy interactions between kids and canines for Pediatric Safety for over two years now, and in those articles I have shared numerous personal stories with you all… so I think it’s safe to say that through those stories many of you have gotten to know me pretty well. I have shared about what is was like growing up with ADHD and learning disabilities in a time where it was not really known about in my post: Growing Up With ADHD – Have Things Changed?“. I broached the subject of being in recovery from addiction in Kids, Pets & Your Holiday Party: Read this List (check it twice!) and I got into a bit more detail about it and also talked a bit about suffering for many years with low-self-esteem in Building a Child’s Confidence Through Dog Training“.

So now, I want to combine little bits of all of that into this month’s article, because being a professional dog trainer, and especially being a member of a wonderful organization like the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) has changed me. There are so many observations and realizations I have made about myself since becoming a member; both personally and professionally! The changes I had to make to grow as a trainer helped me take a new look at the struggles I had so many years ago and how I might have handled them today. It is my hope that in sharing this story with you, I may be able to help many of you who have dogs and also a child who struggles with ADHD. I hope I can potentially offer you a different perspective on how they may see and perceive things, not based on years of research, studies and statistics, but based solely on my own personal experiences… who knows, maybe some of those same tactics can help you and your child too.

Early on in my career as a dog trainer, I really did not understand why I did not do well with toy breeds such as Yorkshire Terriers, Maltese, Chihuahuas, etc. It was obvious (even to me) that I did not do well with them, but I just couldn’t grasp the ‘why’ of it. So I shied away from them. I took all the calls for the mid-sized dogs (Cocker Spaniels, Beagles, Wheaten Terriers…) large breeds (Golden and Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Huskies…) and even giant breeds like the Great Dane, Rottweiler’s and Mastiffs!. I was consistently successful with any breed that wasn’t tiny and typically nervous, so I referred those clients elsewhere. But I think deep down, it did bother me! Who wants to admit they cannot succeed in any area of their chosen profession? I sure didn’t!

But it was exactly this time, eight years ago, that I attended my first IACP conference!

To say that I ran the gamut of emotions- from excited to nervous, insecure, and petrified -would be a huge understatement! I do need to mention here that as a New Yorker, we all tend to talk a bit faster than most. I arrived at the conference a New Yorker with ADHD and extreme nervousness! Fortunately most of the other attendees acclimated to my hyperactivity pretty quickly… but I couldn’t help but notice how often words like, ‘Calm, tranquil, peaceful, and consistent’ were used in conjunction with the word ‘energy’ (ie: ‘calm energy,’ and ‘tranquil energy,’ etc.). Even the trainers who had their dogs with them … Both the trainers AND their dogs… were all so STILL! And my first thought was ‘CRAP! I can’t do that!’ I immediately flashed back to my childhood. It was a time in my life when the word ‘can’t’ first became my mantra.

But then came the main meeting…. And the main speaker, Cesar Milan, took the stage. His primary methodology is all about using a calm energy… building the dog’s respect for him by being assertive, firm and consistent…and CALM. At the end of his speech, when it was time for questions and answers, you bet I had some! But when I stood up to take the microphone to ask it, in my nervousness, the rapid speech was tripled, and my words seem to come out in a jumble, all tripping over each other! And Cesar, obviously having no clue what I was trying to ask, came to the edge of the stage, and in a calm and very thoughtful pose, looked at Peter, my husband, and asked, “How often is she this hyper?”

At this time the entire audience of trainers, all of whom had spent the last few days already with me and having already witnessed my hyperactivity, began to laugh… and in front of thousands, I began to cry. All that pent up nervousness, all of those hidden insecurities up until that point, all the overwhelming new knowledge (and with it, the self-doubt) came rushing to the surface.

I somehow regained my composure, eventually got out my question, and he answered it, but it was when we spoke afterwards that some things suddenly started to make sense to me. I envisioned myself arriving at a client’s home with a tiny dog, that is fearful and nervous, and me coming at them at a hundred miles an hour! How would I personally feel if I was afraid, and someone came at me like that? I was just lucky that I hadn’t gotten bitten yet!

As I thought more and more on this, other memories resurfaced…. How as a child, our dog Brandy would often come to me to rough-house and play, but if he wanted to cuddle, or just wanted to be calm and still, it was my sisters he sought out. As a kid, I took it as a personal rejection. Now I realize it wasn’t.

And I started to change the way I worked with my clients.

  • When I had to work with a small dog, when I arrived at the house, I had to take a few deep calming breaths before ringing the doorbell. And I found when I calmly and assertively greeted them, both owner and dog seemed more calm and receptive!
  • Another challenge I had was my impatience and aggravation sitting in traffic for an hour prior to arriving at a clients house…. So to combat that, I left an extra half hour earlier than I needed to to arrive on time. This allowed me to arrive, park near-by and do something (reading, listening to some music, etc.) to bring down my level of agitation prior to arriving at the person’s house… And amazingly, I found this not only worked well for the many small dogs I now worked with, but for the larger hyper pups as well!

When I tried to help my clients with hyperactive ADHD kids, and I would explain the importance of the kids being calm around the dog, there was one key fact that I forgot….

Almost anyone can be calm for an hour during a focused training session. But if I was able to curtail that hyperactivity full time, I would not have the diagnosis of ADHD! Was I seriously asking my client’s hyperactive kids to be calm full-time and expecting them to accomplish it?

I needed to figure out a way to help them interact with their dogs better, because I could physically see the different way the dog or pup reacted to the ADHD child versus older or calmer family members.

  • With the calmer children, the dog was more relaxed, did not mind lying next to them and even cuddling with them….
  • The ADHD child was filled with scratches and nip marks from the dog chasing them and jumping on them. Also a child that feels rejected by the dog that won’t cuddle with them will often try to ‘force the dog to stay with them’ by holding their collar or wrapping their arms around him. If a child physically restrains a dog and the dog wants to get away, there is a very high risk in that moment of the dog biting the child to free themselves.
  • My toughest challenge was trying to figure out a good way to explain these dynamics to the child as well as explain to the parents the potential risks and dangers in a way so that they could understand and be receptive to the necessary changes.

What we did (and what you can do)

  • The first thing I wanted to do was work with the child (and Mother) alone… without other family members present. (This made the child feel less self-conscious and more important – he was getting to work alone with the trainer)
  • Next, I wanted to show the child that they too can have a ‘cuddling session’ with the dog. I sat on the floor with the child and we just talked a bit about the puppy, and I asked him if he would like to be able to cuddle with the puppy too, and he looked so sad when he said, “Yes, but the puppy doesn’t like me that way.” This was my opportunity to explain to him that if all they did was run and go crazy with the dog that would ALWAYS be their relationship, so he had to show the pup that they can do this.
  • Next I sat side by side with the child, with my legs stretched out in front of me. I opened my legs a bit and I put the puppy on his back in between them, then gently held him in place. Once the dog had settled on me, I told the boy to gently pet all the way up, and all the way down the dog’s body, instead of quick rough movements in one spot, and to avoid the paws and ears for now, as they are sensitive areas on a dog that tend to get them easily riled up when messed with.
  • The little boy did as I asked, and then when the pup was nice and calm, I switched the pup over to in between Mom’s legs and we continued the gentle petting. It was important that Mom was comfortable with this and understand what she had to do if she was going to be able to continue this when I was not around.
  • After pup was relaxed with Mom, we instructed the child to sit the same way his Mom and I did, and then we calmly put the pup between his legs, and I let his Mom help him to keep the pup still and calm. We continued this, and much to the little boy’s delight, the puppy let out a huge sigh, and then closed his eyes!

When the pup was nice and relaxed, we got him up slowly and then put his leash on and all of us (Mom included) went for a walk. We worked on walking SLOWLY, and getting the pup to keep pace with the boy, instead of the other way around. The boy seemed to have a bit of trouble walking slowly for any length of time, so we practiced taking ten steps, and then telling pup to SIT. I praised the boy, and had the boy praise his dog (calmly and gently). We did this again and again…. Every ten steps we stopped and sat. The Mom told me she had never seen her son so calm and focused, and I pointed out to the Mom and the boy how receptive the pup was to his training.

A dog can be such a wonderful tool to help a child with special needs. All it really takes is a little know-how, some time, patience, and understanding. This is why they are so often used for therapy.

As an adult who has dealt with ADHD all of my life, I hope some of this helps you to help your child move out of the “I can’t’ Mantra, and into the “Wow… I really can!” all the while helping your child and pet build a safe and beautiful relationship!

Make Easter Happy and Healthy for Special Needs Kids

Easter is almost here, and like Halloween and Valentine’s Day the holiday celebrations Easter egg sachetinvolve lots and lots of candy. Many special needs children, along with many typical children, are severely affected by the synthetic dyes, preservatives, sweeteners and other artificial ingredients in treats. Simply reading labels and choosing all-natural products before filling eggs and baskets may just let your family have a more enjoyable holiday, and the habit of reading labels can improve the quality of life for you and your special needs child.

The non-profit Feingold Association has tons of information on medical studies that prove the link between these additives and increased hyperactivity, inability to focus and other symptoms. The site also offers a program and diet to eliminate these ingredients. Conditions that have improved on the Feingold diet include ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD, MBD, TS and many more. Adopting the Faingold diet, or your own modified version of avoiding these ingredients, may not even mean a major overhaul of your family’s eating. According to the Feingold Association website, “Cheetos Natural White Cheddar Flavored Puffs are acceptable, but the orange colored Cheetos (with artificial coloring) are not. Duncan Hines makes a chocolate cake mix with artificial flavor – and another version without.”

So many caregivers of special needs children are searching for that magic pill, which may just be in the form of a shopping cart.

There are many stores that offer a wide selection of all-natural candy and treats, as well as items that are gluten-free, sugar-free and organic:

  • Whole Foods – Find your local Whole Foods here. (Whole Foods has partnered with Streit’s to offer all-natural Hannukah foods, fyi)
  • Trader Joe’s – Find your local location of Trader Joe’s here.
  • Many all-natural items are also available online, such as these All-Natural Jelly Belly jelly beans, which are also gluten-free, dairy free and kosher.

Know of a great store or product? Email me or share it with us all as a comment!

Even with ADHD, “Menditation” Helps Calm a Little Boy’s Mind

Last updated on February 26th, 2022 at 08:22 pm

This is the story of a sweet little six year old, I see at a school to enhance executive function skills. He is rather energetic and would like to throw his body on the crash mat (an occupational therapy mat that is about 6×10 ft wide and 4 ft thick filled with beans or foam) two hours at a time. So we always begin with a heavy dose of running, jumping, side hopping and skipping, even though he’d rather we pretend we’re offensive lineman and just smash into one another.

After we’re all sweaty and I’m worn out, ‘cause just in case you’re not reading between the lines, nothing wears him out, he says “Let’s do menditation.” Yes, menditation, that’s not a typo. When he initially used the word, I jumped all over it, “That’s right Johnny we mend our mind and our body with menditation.” Oh my, he plops down, even though we’re on the cement right outside the backdoor at his school. Bam! “I menditate!” he exclaims.

What Johnny loves is rhythm in action. We do the same thing every time and if I skip a step I hear, “No, Dr. Lynne that’s not how we do it.”

We start by placing a small bouncing ball, the kind you find in the 50-cent machines at the grocery store, on our belly buttons. We breathe into our lower bellies until the ball rises or falls off. This teaches Johnny how to take deep diaphragmatic breaths.

There we remain laying down, close our eyes and breathe in our favorite color, we focus on the color as our thoughts fade away. I tell Johnny his body is falling gently into a pool of water or warm beach sand so that his shoulders fall, his hands open and relaxation wafts over him. He knows now not to speak, but in the beginning we would turn over a three-minute egg timer and choose not to speak until the sand has fallen through the timer. In the beginning he used to sit and watch the sand, that was a fine beginning. Your child may meditate by watching the sand time and time again, eventually he put the timer down, and close his eyes just like Johnny did. Three minutes of meditation might be as a still as a child with ADHD has ever been outside of sleep, so go with it, choose not to talk and just lay there breathing deeply.

When Johnny stirs or shows signs of being bored with the activity we sit up cross-legged and breathe out in a series of long “Ommm”s. This extends the period of relaxation while still providing the child with enough novelty to feel stimulated. After a few “Ommm”s, we stand and drop into a downward dog pose. We slowly rise, salute the sun with our hands over head, our hands fall gently to our sides and we are done. The whole process takes about 15 minutes now, in the beginning four minutes was all Johnny could tolerate.

When Johnny’s brain and body have calmed we them work on our “brain skills” for the day. Sometimes we bounce a large beach ball back and forth each stating one step toward being a good listener, kind friend or attentive student. Whatever the skill, engaging the cerebellum while we state the skill seems to help.

As an example:

Lynne: I choose not to talk.

Johnny: I choose to open my ears.

Lynne: I choose to look into the eyes of my teacher.

Johnny: I choose to watch her as she speaks.

Lynne: I think about the words she is saying.

Johnny: I ignore other noises.

Lynne: I keep my body still on my chair.

Johnny: I keep my hands folded on my desk.

Lynne: Now I am ready to do what my teacher asks.

Johnny: When I listen I learn.

There you have it. Boys can meditate, even boys with severe ADHD like Johnny. First we get out our energy. Then we meditate. Then we learn and even practice a skill.

The brain is a fabulous and miraculous organ. It is primed to learn and grow. All it needs from us as parents and teachers, is to maximize the opportunity. ADHD or not, meditation helps calm the brain and open opportunities for learning. Give it a try. If you also wish for music. Lori Lite’s mp3s can be found on itunes or at her site http://stressfreekids.com.

I am calmer now for writing this story. Hope you and your children will give meditation a try.

Mend, heal, learn.

Executive Function: Helping Your Child’s Brain Take Charge

Last updated on December 11th, 2021 at 09:34 pm

Joey is a seven year old referred by his pediatrician because he has difficulty paying attention in school. His mind wanders, he responds to his teacher’s questions in class with “What, I don’t know,” and he is a bit self-conscious about his declining grades. Joey is a super sweet little boy, he does not squirm in his seat, bother other kids or anger the teacher. She simply wonders, “Why is he always day-dreaming?”

The answer, as pediatric neuropsychologist Dr. Paul Beljan says is, “Joey’s boss is out.” Here’s “ADHD and Executive Function: When the boss is out” a blog-talk-radio episode on the boss in Joey’s brain.

Joey’s boss resides in the frontal lobes of the brain. His boss is in charge of the executive functions that help him to preview, plan, think, inhibit, organize and execute tasks of daily living. I call this area of the brain “The Thinker.” You can read all about The Caveman and The Thinker here in The Family Coach Method.

Let’s learn a little about what are executive functions, how do we assess them and how do we improve them?

What is Executive Function and why does it matter?

The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. Executive functions are the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.

Executive functions take place in the frontal lobes, specifically the neocortex of the brain. If you’ve never heard of an executive function that’s no surprise yet, you use them every day. When you get up, choose your outfit, make your bed, make your coffee and plan your day, you are using your executive functions. Planning, organizing, holding information in your immediate memory, inhibiting your behavior, making good choices and managing your emotions are all activities mediated by executive function.

Let’s look at a description of a few executive functions. Think about yourself, your spouse and children. How do you see these functions evident in the behavior of those you care about? What might you, your child or spouse need more of?

Executive Functions

  • Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time, including stopping actions and thoughts. The flip side of inhibition is impulsivity; if you have weak ability to stop yourself from acting on your impulses, then you are “impulsive.”
  • Cognitive Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly in order to respond appropriately to the situation.
  • Emotional Control (self-regulation) – The ability to modulate emotional responses by managing one’s feelings. I call this using one’s thinker to manage one’s caveman.
  • Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity. This includes the ability to independently generate ideas, appropriate responses and useful problem-solving strategies.
  • Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task. Working memory is what you are using right now as you read this article. You are holding the information in memory and thinking about it.
  • Planning/Organization – The ability to identify, plan and manage current and future task demands.
  • Organization of Materials – The ability to create order in work, play and storage spaces.
  • Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own internal feelings and performance in order to manage one’s thought, behavior and feelings.

We can improve executive function through a variety of activities. Play is a modality I often use.

As I sit and play with a child I teach them how to approach the play environment, how to choose, arrange and interact with toys, art or play materials. I teach the children that every activity has a beginning, middle and end. We begin a task, participate in the task or activity and then end the experience by putting materials away and making a conscious choice regarding what we will play next. Managing our feelings, body space, speed of movement and impulsivity are also well-addressed through play.

Brain Training is also another modality of executive function enhancement. Cognitive training or brain training consists of a variety of exercises designed to help improve functioning in areas such as sustaining attention, thinking before acting, visual and auditory processing, listening, reading – areas in which ADHD individuals often experience difficulties.

Modalities include computer work, person to person motor-cognition work and neurofeedback.

If an individual is having attentional or learning problems, tutoring or drill and practice in academic areas are often not effective. The principle underlying cognitive brain training is to help improve the “core” abilities and self-control necessary before an individual can function successfully academically. The exercises “drill for skill” directly in the areas where basic specific cognitive difficulties occur.

Brain Training is like exercise for the brain with specific exercises for specific neuropsychological functions or deficits. The key is to build neuronal connections. Activities that include a motor and cognitive component may work best but the research is not to a degree that one can assert Brain Training is yet an Evidence Based Treatment. In a few years, we’ll surely know more.

Research is ongoing as to what forms of brain training are effective. The key is to personalize your choice of program. The methodology of the program needs to meet the needs of your child. Does your child have attention challenges? Is their issue inhibition? Reading social cues? Staying on topic? Dyslexia?

Some programs include Luminosity, Captain’s Log, COGMED, MC2, Brain Gym and Brain Builder. If your child has not had a neuropsychological or executive function evaluation that may be a first step.

If you need to know more about the specific skills you wish to enhance in your child, a neuropsychologist can do an assessment of executive function.

Here are some excellent books on the topic http://www.researchild.org/resources.

Valuable Links

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This post reflects Dr Kenney’s “The Family Coach Method”. Used in practice for a number of years, The Family Coach Method is ‘rug-level,’ friendly and centered on the concept of families as a winning team – with dozens of age-appropriate sample conversations and problem solving scenarios to guide a family to the desired place of mutual respect, shared values and strengths. The goal is to help children to develop the life skills, judgment and independence that can help them navigate the challenges of an increasingly complex world.

My Roller Coaster Kid: Calm Things Down and Enjoy the Ride

Last updated on May 4th, 2020 at 12:01 pm

Up and down, over and under, so the roller coaster goes. Are you worn out just thinking about it?

roller coaster kidLife with an intense child is like a ride on a roller coaster, some moments are thrilling, others calm, still others fear-inducing. Intense kids feel so powerfully, they see more, hear more acutely and feel more deeply. Of course, they have to share all of it with you, ’cause life can be just so overwhelming. It’s almost like in their meltdowns and fits they say, “Here Mom, hold this.” Meaning, hold my pain, suffering and overload for a moment while I try to gather myself together.

What seems like a behavioral issue to many, the school, your parents, (you know what I’m sayin’) is more likely a problem of brain mediation than willful non-compliance.

You see, children want to be calm and happy. Evolution encourages children to strive – to live well, be loved and thrive. When children are willful, obstinate, unhappy or anxious, this is not their healthiest state. Their behavior and mood signal an imbalance in their body and brain.

So what can you do about it?

  1. Know that the limbic brain is older and in the case of intense kids, momentarily more powerful than the frontal lobes. So plan for those amygdala melt-downs and prepare calming strategies with your child ahead of time. Talk about the times they feel like they are going to lose it and ask them if you can help by offering some pre-planned calming solutions like taking a walk, a bath or a bike ride. Consider calming music from advancedbrain.com (sound health) or calmmeforhealing.wmv.
  2. Know that food and nutrition matter. Remember, it is not what you eat but what your body assimilates that is important. Consider whole food pharmaceutical grade vitamins, a transition to whole food and protein at each meal to help your child’s brain have better access to healthy nutrients.
  3. If you need more help see a developmental pediatrician, pediatric psychologist or neuropsychologist who specializes in cognitive and limbic calming strategies. Meditation, yoga and brain exercises can help increase neuronal connections thus harnessing the power of the Thinker to manage the Caveman.

Intense kids are creative, intelligent and lovable, you just have to plan for the squall…after all living on the coast is beautiful, it just storms sometimes

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familycoach-book-smallerThis post reflects Dr Kenney’s “The Family Coach Method” used in practice for a number of years, and released for publication just this past September. The Family Coach Method is ‘rug-level,’ friendly and centered on the concept of families as a winning team – with dozens of age-appropriate sample conversations and problem solving scenarios to guide a family to the desired place of mutual respect, shared values and strengths. The goal is to help children to develop the life skills, judgment and independence that can help them navigate the challenges of an increasingly complex world. The Family Coach Method is also being taught as an Educational Series where parents can join with other moms and dads in live calls with Dr Kenney.

Why Research Says it’s Actually Good for Kids to Daydream

Last updated on December 10th, 2018 at 06:30 pm

School has been in session for a couple of months now, but winter break is still weeks away. This is prime time for kids to start to be a little less focused, distracted, and perhaps even daydream during school time. In our culture of hyper-stimulation and constant information flow, the idea of daydreaming often get met with judgmental glances and even reprimand from teachers. While we all want our kids to focus on their school work, research suggests that there may be a valuable place for daydreaming as well.

In recent years, researchers have begun to look into what the brain does during these times of “day dreaming” or what they call “inward attention.” They are beginning to see how time spent focused inward may actually help students focus better on outward tasks. Some research has shown that when times of inward reflection were incorporated into the school day, students often became less anxious, performed better on tests, and were able to plan more effectively.

Time for inward reflection is also linked to social-emotional development. In order to understand the feelings of others, our own feelings, and gain insight into moral decision-making, allowing time of inward reflection is necessary. Kids’ brains are still quite immature in many ways. If time is not allowed for them to decompress from constant input and have time to actually make meaning of all the information they absorb, it will ultimately have no place in their lives in the long-term.

This idea of inward attention, of course, goes against much of our cultural atmosphere at this time. We are constantly bombarded by information, technology, screens, etc. Even for adults, this constant stimulation can be overwhelming, but for kids it can be paralyzing. I’ve seen examples of this in my own experience with youngsters. While volunteering in my son’s kindergarten class, I sometimes notice kids just staring off into space and not “paying attention.” While they may seem “unfocused” to the observer, I wonder if they are not just having a moment of this “inward attention” to help their brain re-group from all the stimulation.

Children are learning and absorbing information almost constantly, especially at school. It’s great to be able to allow them some time to just day dream or let their mind wander without having to worry about the end product. I have noticed this even with my 3-year-old. After playing for a while, he will often just lay down and drink something or hold a toy, seemingly “doing nothing.” After a few minutes, however, he will perk up and say something clever or begin playing in a new way. It seems that, given the opportunity, kids will carve out this “day dreaming” time for themselves.

If this time of inward attention is so important for children’s development, how can we allow space for this in our homes?

  • Allow time after school for kids to “decompress” from the day without other forms of stimulation (e.g., TV, tablets, etc.)
  • Allow for quiet time on a regular basis. Kids may resist this at first, but once it becomes routine they usually learn to enjoy it. They can read books or play quietly with toys but the overall goal is time without a set goal or schedule.
  • Time in nature can often promote inward attention. Allow kids plenty of time to be outside, go for hikes or just play in the leaves.
  • Promote a mindset of reflection in your home. Recognize that not everything you or your child does has to be productive. This goes against what our culture tells us, but it’s possible. Your child spending an hour playing in the leaves or sitting in their room daydreaming is not “wasted time.”

We all know the importance of children learning to focus their attention on tasks or assignments. In fact, the ability to focus on a task and persist when it gets difficult has been linked to many positive outcomes for kids. An inward focus, however, may be equally important for children to help develop these focusing skills, as well as develop social-emotional skills.

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