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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!

Products That Help Special Needs Kids Handle Tech Items Safely

Big Grips FramesThe good news is that there has been an increase in non-verbal kids finally finding their voices through IPads and other technology as communication devises. All kids, special needs and typical, seem to love using tablets, phones and other media devices. But let’s face it, kids are tough on stuff. Special needs kids – whose challenges may include fine motor skills, balance issues, meltdowns and many other issues – can easily break delicate (and expensive!) items. That’s where items like Big Grips Lifts and Big Grips Frames come in to save the day – or at least the screen.

Made of thick, squishy foam, Big Grips Lifts come in sizes for IPad, IPad Air and IPad Pro. Big Grips also makes stands so the devices can be propped up, as well as hipster cases for IPad mini’s already encased in the protective frames. The foam is lightweight, non-toxic, BPA free, lead free, latex free, Phthalate free, PVC free, resists oils and germs and has many more health and safety features. Colors include black, green and blue. The company offers educator discounts on their corporate website.

KaysCase KidBox is another line of fun, foam frames that help protect IPads and other devices. These products have a handle to make carrying easier. The handle folds back to act as a stand. The cases and handles are made of non-toxic EVA foam in fun colors like Pinky

Another benefit of these items is that colorful cases can help make going back to school at the end of the holidays seem more cheerful and fun. Also, kids who crave sensory input or need fidget items will enjoy squeezing the frames even when they are not using the devices.

Back-to-School Tips for Special Needs Kids and Caregivers

back to school pencils 2It’s back to school time! For some kids this is an exciting time – seeing former school friends, getting new clothes and prepping for an exciting school year. But for special needs kids and their caregivers, transitions can be challenging. Kids with social issues may dread going back to a room full of people. Other special needs kids, as well as typical ones, may not be looking forward to ending the summer days of play and going back to long days of work – and homework.

To help the child transition:

  • Get kids involved in school supply shopping. Let them choose notebook colors, lunchbox characters, eraser shapes and juice box flavors. This may help them get excited about returning to school. Even if you are annoyed by Annoying Orange, that silly face may make your kid smile. Also, check in with your child about food preferences – last year’s favorites may be considered yucky today.
  • Brainstorm lunch and dinner ideas. Some kids like looking forward to a special treat in their lunches. It also may help some kids get through the week by counting off until Taco Night, Spaghetti night or whatever food fits into your child’s special diet.
  • If safe, set up playdates with school friends your child hasn’t seen in a while so they can reconnect outside of campus. If that’s not possible, review pictures or yearbooks to see last previous year’s classmates.
  • If school hasn’t started yet, visit the school to refresh your child’s memory. If you can’t get on campus, just drive by. If your child is visual, make a map of the route to school or of the campus. Try letting your child “drive” to school on Google Earth.
  • Meet the child’s new teacher ahead of time. Or look up your school’s website and find a picture of the them. Some sites even have little bios of teachers. Help your child send an email or write a letter to the teacher.
  • Start school bedtimes and mealtimes a week before the first day if possible. Start earlier if your child takes longer to adjust.
  • Print out some worksheets or let your child play online educational games to get those brain gears engaged. If you can get a copy of this year’s reading list, visit the library and browse the books to get your child interested in the stories.
  • Play school. Let the child have a turn as the teacher.
  • Start a rewards system for homework, daily behavior, reading time or any other issues specific to your child. Get suggestions for rewards from the child for extra motivation. There are a number of sites that offer printable rewards charts for everything from doing homework to not picking their nose. You can also make your own as a craft project or print personalized ones with your computer. Or do the marble method (add marbles to a glass or jar, when a certain mark is reached the reward has been earned), paperclip chain or anything else that appeals to your child.

For caregivers:

  • Watch your language. Be sure you are talking up school in a positive way.
  • Be sure all medications, permissions and arrangements have been set up with the school.
  • Do as much as you can the night before. Here are some suggestions:
    • Prep ingredients for lunch and/or dinner. Dust off the crockpot if needed.
    • Set up the coffee pot. This is a big one for me!!
    • back to school bus 2Pre-pack lunchboxes with non-perishables.
    • Lay out clothes. Cut off tags or prewash with fabric softener if your child has sensory issues.
    • Check for signed forms, paperwork and homework.
  • No matter how much your child fusses, stay calm. Save your tears and frustration for when you get back into the car alone, or meet up with other moms for coffee after drop off so you can vent.

Rituals and Special Needs Kids: Stability in a Chaotic World

mom reads book to daughter in bedOne night as I flopped down next my daughter in her bed, I kissed her and said goodnight. She wished me a goodnight back. There was a moment of silence during which I mentally listed all the household chores I still had waiting for me in the other room. Her sleepy voice interrupted my list. “You didn’t say it,” she objected.

“Say what?” I was totally confused. I had just said goodnight, what more did she want from me?

“You know…” she was waiting for a response. It took me a moment, but then I realized what she meant.

“Sweet dreams,” I said softly. She mumbled her wish for sweet dreams for me against her pillow. “I love you,” I concluded. She murmured that she loved me too, and I felt her body relax. We had completed the ritual, one that I had completely failed to realize we had adopted. But to her, this little exchange of phrases each night signaled to her brain that the day was over and that she could let go of all the tensions from the day.

We hear a lot about how important rituals are for very young children and also for special needs kids, and it makes sense. In a world that may feel like it is swirling out of their control, there are a few things they can count on. When those things happen predictably it makes them feel safe and they can relax. For those of us who lack this need for rituals it might help to put yourself in this scenario:

You are driving home one day, running late and expecting the cable guy. You anticipate seeing the usual landmarks – the gas station, the bank where you almost unconsciously make your turn – but suddenly you realize that somehow you are on the wrong road! Sure, there’s a gas station but it’s not your gas station. Nothing is familiar. You are lost!

Scary, right? Now imagine that you are driving home, but this time you are on the correct road. You see that gas station and it makes you smile a bit internally. Then you see that familiar bank, and you ease into your turn. Ahhhhhh….

Certainly this is an exaggeration, but I hope it helps you to empathize with little ones and bigger ones with special needs who treasure these guideposts. I am trying to put aside my lists and my chores and see how else I can help my child feel comfortable in her world. Well, maybe after folding this last load of laundry…

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**Editor’s Note: COVID-19 is taking a toll on ALL our kids…and rituals can help. According to Bright Horizons article Talking to Children about COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) “Children need our calm, empathetic presence more than ever. Maintain your typical routines as much as possible. Rituals like bedtime stories or after dinner games or walks anchor children in normalcy”.

Summer Camps are “Serious Fun” for Special Needs Kids

Paul NewmanSummer is in the distant future in my mind, but the buzz at my school’s pick-up and drop-off area has already turned to camp. Working parents (as well as stay-at-home parents) are scrambling to find programs that will keep their kids engaged and challenged and also give them great social skills and memories. Children with special needs may have serious medical conditions or need support with daily living skills, but that doesn’t mean that they have to miss out on the camp experience …thanks to Paul Newman.

Yes, the handsome man on the spaghetti sauce jar (and amazing human being and actor) started a camp in Connecticut for seriously ill kids back in 1988. He thought all kids deserved some time to have some “serious fun” and just be kids. We all know that laughter is the best medicine, and the campers have the opportunity to find new strengths and make new friends – all the while being cared for in a safe environment.

Active disabled five year old boy playing on the monkey bars with his fatherThe program has seriously grown, with participating camps and programs nationwide. Now the actor’s legacy is even being shared globally – and don’t let me forget to mention that for kids who are accepted there is no charge. Yup, thanks to grants, donations and other amazing connections this is all free for the campers and their families! As you can imagine, they always need volunteers, too.

Find your closest program, camp or volunteer opportunity here.

Would You “Sabotage” Your Special Needs Child For More Services?

We all know the bad news about the economy. We also know that raising a child can be expensive, and raising a special needs child can be incredibly expensive. Public schools and agencies can’t keep up with demand, so only the most extreme cases qualify for services. Usually this involves an assessment or examination. Many times I struggle with myself – I want my child to do well on these tests, but I also want her to get as much assistance and support as possible.

Other special needs moms say things like, “Well, I know he can do that task but he was tired so he wouldn’t cooperate,” and I wonder if they put their child to bed late on purpose. Or a caregiver will “forget” a medication, or let a dietary rule lapse before an appointment. And I wonder if they really forgot something they have done every day faithfully up until that point. Did they actually not know the ingredients of that food when they read all labels diligently? Or are they deliberately sabotaging their child in order to gain more assistance? And would I do the same?

It seems to be more and more cut-throat out there. Caregivers must constantly advocate for the special needs children in their lives. My fear is that anything my child is given means that another child with greater support needs might not get helped. I feel guilty about that. But on the other hand, anything my child is denied means she may never reach her true potential. She may have to learn to live with a challenge that she could have overcome if it had been addressed in therapy. Isn’t it my job to give her the best future possible?

So where do you stand? Where do you draw the line? Have you ever sabotaged your child accidentally, or on purpose? It’s okay, your secret is safe with me because I really, truly understand.

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