Healing the Special Needs Child

Many foster and adoptive parents have children with special needs who require specialized care and skills. According to Wikipedia, the term special needs “is a term used in clinical diagnostic and functional development to describe individuals who require assistance for disabilities that may be medical, mental, or psychological.”

In the United States, more than 150,000 children with special needs are waiting for permanent homes. Traditionally, children with special needs have been considered harder to place for adoption than other children, but experience has shown that many children with special needs can be placed successfully with families who want them.

This can put more of a strain on families than they realize. Just loving a child really hard is not enough to manage the requirements of a special needs child. It takes special knowledge and a support system from other parents of special needs children and professionals who “get it!”

Being unprepared is one of the reasons foster and adoptive families disrupt. Disruption is a term that refers to the ending of a foster placement prior to the finalization of an adoption. The rate of disruption has traditionally been10-20% nationally. Post-Adoption services and education can decrease this rate dramatically!

Perhaps the most challenging special needs issue, for parents and professionals, is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). This is defined as a “continuum of permanent birth defects caused by maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. It refers to a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy. Problems may include an abnormal appearance, short height, low body weight, small head size, poor coordination, low intelligence, behavior problems, and problems with hearing or seeing.” (Wikipedia)

Fetal alcohol syndrome

In addition to the physical symptoms of FASD, there are several corresponding mental health problems, such as attentional deficits, clinical depression, anxiety, or other mental illness. As you can imagine, many of the problems show up in the child’s school experience. Suspensions or expulsion from school occurs in 90% of children in the united states. For teenagers, this can result in dropping of out of school, experienced by 60% of the subjects (age 12 and older).

Other problems, such as legal issues, can occur for FASD children. Being charged or convicted of a crime is experienced by 60% of the children ages 12 and older. (Wikipedia)

One of the ways to help children with special needs heal is to work on executive functioning skills. Executive Functioning: “are a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem-solving and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”

Elevating executive functioning skills will help children with special needs make better choices, control their behavior and manage their thoughts and emotions. The simplest way to elevate them is through play.


It’s been said that play is the “beginning of knowledge.” The play is a child’s natural language and how they interact with the world and learn new skills and the shortest route to helping special needs children.

Babies and young children can benefit from games of peekaboo, pat-a-cake, hiding games, simple songs, and music, copying games, and fingerplays. Example of young child games include Eensy Weensy Spider, Where is Thumbkin, Open, Shut Them. Repetition and allowance for failure is key to helping children’s brain develop normally.

School-age children benefit from reading books, music, and movement, simple imitation games like follow the leader, conversations, manipulation of objects like blocks and Legos. Allow children to set the course of play allowing them to start and stop the rhythm of play.

It would seem that play with special needs children is the same as with any other child and it is…except that the intention and purpose of the play are to build brain skills that need reinforcement. The ability to stay focus and tolerate interactions need to be increased over time. If a child can only sit and play for 5 minutes, we want to increase that time to 6 minutes, then 7, etc. Start where the child is and allow them to increase tolerance and focus.

Take into consideration that each time the nervous system starts and then stops, it learns how to persist past impulses and distractions. Each time it achieves a difficult goal, it discovers the pleasure of success and wants to repeat this experience. This provides an internal locus of control that doesn’t require an adult to always supervise the play.

Play also develops social skills, an area that can be drastically missing in children with special needs. As children get older, teamwork becomes more important and necessary both at home and school. Children become more active and like to engage in dance, sports, playing catch, and various competition games. Competition can become a way to alienate others as special needs children have tantrums/meltdowns when they don’t win. This is due to a need to compensate for low self-esteem feeling like a failure at tasks and games.

Let the play be about the process and not the end result. Be happy for others who when and concentrating on celebrating team efforts will enhance executive functioning and overall relational success.

Is this still exhausting work? Yes! But the effort will be worth it in the long run. Use storytelling and imaginary play to make the connections that are missing in social/emotional development. Role-playing and creative art can also be a powerful tool for parents and professionals. Red Light/Green Light, Simon Says, clapping rhythms, guessing games, I Spy, and Brain Teasers are also useful brain tools.

Teenagers with special needs can benefit from practicing real-time daytimers, calendars, whiteboards, mind mapping and more to develop organizational, goal setting, planning, and monitoring and studying skills.

None of these activities should be done in isolation from caring, patient adults. Attachment and brain researchers operate under the maxim that “brains that fire together, wire together.” Just giving a toy to a child or tell them to do a task will not enhance the prefrontal cortex of the brain, where executive functioning is centered. Optimal development occurs when do people interact. Adults can guide the conversation and play to specifically target the individualized needs of the child. The child’s ability to push passed frustrations and manage moods will need the adult to help them through it.


Finally, children of all ages can benefit from the mental organization power of mindfulness. Executive functioning is more than academic ability. This might be the focus on many of the adults in the child’s life but life smarts are important aspects of book smarts.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Learning to be mindful of one’s thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations calm the nervous system so thinking skills can increase. Teaching children the importance of experiencing their breath, mindful eating, yoga, and how to ground themselves are crucial skills at all ages.

Get more powerful tools for managing special needs and trauma for your organization with Trauma-Informed Training by contacting Ron Huxley now…click here!

Parents like to play but sometimes feel guilty about it…

Source: http://www.fastcodesign.com/3052589/behind-the-brand/how-ikea-is-defining-the-state-of-play-with-a-little-help-from-dreamworks?utm_source

Play isn’t just about fun and games—it’s a valuable way for children to refine their motor skills, learn about the world around them, and develop social relationships. 50 years ago, that might have meant hide and seek; 30 years ago maybe it was Jenga; today it’s probably any number of games on a PlayStation or iPad. Anecdotally speaking, play changes with the decades, but what Ikea wanted to do with its 2015 Play Report is quantify the social forces that are driving the shifts and understand how design in the domestic realm—the company’s domain—can help adults and children play more.

To better understand the state of play, Ikea surveyed nearly 30,000 parents and children from 12 countries. The goal was to establish if the perception and nature of play had changed much since the last survey in 2009; whether children are playing less or more and the nature of play; if parents are playing more or less with their children; how digital media impacts family life; and the concerns, behaviors, and benefits of family time.

Here are a few of the findings:

1. Parents want to spend quality time with their children, but find it difficult to carve out playtime. And they feel guilty about it.

“Parents agree on the importance of play,” says Cindy Anderson, the business area manager for Ikea who’s responsible for developing Ikea’s range of children’s products. “At the same time, they sometimes struggle with finding inspiration on how to play and they’re bored when playing traditional children’s games.”

With that challenge in mind—making kids’ games more engaging for all ages and removing barriers to play—Ikea developed the Lattjo collection of products, which launches in November. It includes costumes; Ikea-fied games like chess, dominoes, tug of war, and percussion instruments; and a “recipe book” of activity ideas.

2. Parents are anxious about safety, but are also concerned about being overprotective.

“At the global level, about 22% of kids are not allowed to play outdoors and that’s an increase [from the 2009 report],” Andersen says. “That shows how important it is to play indoors—it’s, how can we create an environment to define playfulness inside the home?”

This information paired with the findings that home life is important inspired Ikea to create items that could be used indoors.

3. Over half of the parents surveyed said that play can include the use of smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and computers.

This sparked a mobile app and 25 animated digital shorts produced in conjunction with DreamWorks. The films include stories that teach children how to navigate the world, like how an eagle faces his fear of heights.

“You can develop a product, but the whole idea is to make us to play more, and to create a more playful mindset,” Andersen says. “To accomplish that, storytelling is an important complement to engage people and inspire behavioral change.”

The Lattjo collection as a whole seeks to spark creativity no matter where it comes from. “We’re all born with a certain play preference that’s stronger than others,” Andersen says. “Some are storytellers, some are into physical play, some are builders, some just like to move. What I hope that there is something that everyone can enjoy.”

Social skills will help your child have a great school year!

by Ron Huxley, LMFT

It is always surprising to me how many children actually like school. I don’t know if things are different now from when I was growing up but as a child I thought summer went so quickly and dreaded having to return to the demanding routines of homework. As I watch my grandson and friends children get ready for school, they seem so excited to get back to school. Perhaps it is just the parents excitement?

One of the common denominators it seems for these eager children is the power of social connections. Getting to see friends again or making new ones is a strong drive in all of us. Unfortunately, not all children are good at making friends. They might have the want to but not the know-how for successful social skills.

One way parents can help children improve these skills is by using social scripts. Applicable to all children but commonly employed with autistic spectrum or attention deficit children, social scripts teach basic skills on interacting with peers, help manage anxiety, and addressing interfering behaviors like aggression, fear and obsessions. The underlying principle of social scripts is the cognitive technique of rehearsal or role play. It’s kind of like practicing for a play but the play is life. Like learning any new rote activity, you feel awkward at first and the words seem, well “scripted”, but with practice you become more spontaneous and comfortable.

There are some excellent websites that have detailed instructions for parents of children with developmental challenges:




Originally created by Carol Gray of The Gray Center, social scripts were designed to be an intervention for developmentally challenged children.  There are several books, DVD’s, and topical scripts that parents can use with their child. The one thing that a published script can’t give is awareness of a child’s social context. I recommend that parents talk to teachers, see their child on the playground, ask a friend for honest feedback and talk with other parents of special needs children to get ideas on how to create a personalized script. Additionally, scripts should focus on reinforcing a child’s strengths and applaud any effort at positive social interactions.

The elements of a good social script include “who” is involved, “what” happens, “when” the event takes place, “why” it happens and “how” it happens. The subject for these elements could be asking to play a game, telling a joke, giving others personal space, waiting ones turn, sharing with others, being more assertive, etc. Older children may need more detail about feelings and motivations than younger children.

Parents of all children can use expressive and dramatic play to rehearse a social script. Set up a target topic, like telling a joke, and then draw it out on paper, use puppets to show interactions, dress up in home-made costumes and act it out or just have a spontaneous conversation in the car on the way to school. I used made up stories about forest animals struggling to get along with other animals when my children were young. I have used toys figures with my clients in family therapy to role play tough social situations. The more creative, the more fun. Give high fives and words of praise to increase motivation. Talk about how it worked afterwards and re-rehearse if necessary.

Helping our children feel and be more competent socially will help them be more successful academically. It will improve self-esteem and help to create leaders in the world.

Six Essential Social Skills for Children

Social skills are a learned skill! Children do not use manners, act assertively, or negotiate a problem naturally. They must be taught how. I have listed below the six essential areas of social skill development. If your child does not exhibit all of the areas listed, don’t freak! That simply means he or she is normal. Use this list as a *guide* to teaching/modeling/mentoring your child in how to be a prosocial human being. Maybe you and I will learn something along the way.

Beginning social skills: Listening, start a conversation, ask a question, say thank you, introduce yourself and others, give a compliment.

Advanced social skills: Asks for help, join in, give instructions, follow instructions, apologize, persuade others.

Skills for dealing with feelings: Know and express your feelings, understand others, deal with others feelings, express affection, and rewards self socially.

Alternatives to aggression: Ask permission, share something, help others, negotiate, use self-control, stand up for rights, respond (not react) to teasing, avoid trouble, keep out of fights.

Skills for dealing with stress: Make a complaint, answer a complaint, game sportsmanship, deal with embarrassment, deal with being left out, stand up for a friend, respond (not react) to persuasion, respond (not react) to failure, deal with confusing messages, deal with an accusation, get ready for a difficult conversation, deal with group pressure.

Planning skills: Decide on something to do, decide on what caused a problem, set a goal, decide on your abilities, gather information, arrange problems by importance, make a decision, concentrate on a task.

Why Our Preschoolers Are Couch Potatoes


Our preschoolers are couch potatoes.

I’m serious. They really are – at least the ones in childcare or some sort of school program, which is three-quarters of the US kids ages 3-5. They spend 70-83% of their time being sedentary – and that’s not including meals or naps. In fact, they spend only about 2-3% of their time in active play.
To find out why our little kids are mostly sitting, researchers at Cincinnati Children’s put together focus groups of different childcare and preschool programs in the area and asked them why the kids weren’t more active. The study, released this week, is in the February issue of Pediatrics.

For some providers the issue was financial: they couldn’t afford much outdoor (or indoor) play space or equipment. But even when they could afford it, the researchers found that the equipment they had, chosen for safety reasons, wasn’t all that interesting to kids (face it, those little slides are boring). To make matters worse, the staff often discouraged kids from being active for fear of injury (sometimes at the request of the parents). And the centers felt pressure to get as much academics into the day as possible.
Why do we care, if they are safe and learning? Isn’t that what we want for them when they go to preschool?

Hmm … not necessarily.
Kids need active play. They need it for the exercise; a third of US kids are either overweight or obese. And what’s particularly worrisome about that statistic (besides the fact that it’s likely to rise given our TV and Super-Size culture) is that more and more studies are showing that fat kids grow into fat adults. If we don’t act now, we could literally be dooming our children to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and everything else obesity brings.

Kids need play for more than that, though. They need it to learn what we call “executive function” – the organizing principles of behavior. Through play they learn to share, negotiate and solve problems. They learn to be creative and use their imagination. They learn to focus and finish tasks – and they learn empathy. Play isn’t just goofing around. It truly is the work of childhood.
It’s easy when your kids are small to get sucked into the paradigm of keeping them totally safe and trying to turn them into Einsteins. It’s our culture, after all – the culture of keeping kids in bubbles (God forbid they get stitches!), and of achievement. We don’t want them to just enjoy books, we want them to start reading them really early so that they will go to an Ivy League college. As for play, we think of it as a waste of time. If they are going to be active, we want them to join teams so they can get really good at a sport and get an athletic scholarship. Starting early on this stuff is key, we are told.

(It was really different when I was young, which is why I spent my childhood in trees).
Okay: reality check here, folks. About 1% of high school athletes get athletic scholarships to college. And less than 1% of kids who go to college graduate from an Ivy League school. Starting early doesn’t guarantee anything – in fact, often it hurts more than it helps. And despite what the Occupy people might say, I really don’t think that 99% of us are miserable.

Stop for a moment. What do you really want for your child when he or she grows up? I am hoping that the answer is that you want them to be healthy, happy, kind and self-sufficient adults.
To make this happen, we need to get over ourselves and let our kids be kids.

So when you are looking for a program for your preschooler, look for places where the kids really play – inside and out. Look for places with the fun stuff to play on and open spaces where kids can run. Look for dress-up clothes and blocks and finger paint. Sure, you want somewhere that encourages learning – but they should encourage singing and dancing and making pretend dinner just as much.
And don’t be afraid to let your kid climb trees. I had a wonderful time up there – and still made it to med school.

Ron Huxley’s Comments: This post takes a balanced look at a common (if not all too common) problem of the lack of adequate play/exercise in children. It is easy to judge parents for this problem but many homes have to deal with unsafe environment or have no outside for children to play. The helpful insight of this article is that it illustrates the psychological value of play. The idea of “executive functioning” is lacking in many children and the author correctly pins this crucial development on child’s play.

How have you encouraged your children to play? Get more power parenting tools by joining our Parenting Membership Club at http://parentingtoolbox.com/pages/parenting-membership

Parenting Guilt is a Waste of Time

It was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons and the sky was beautiful blue. White, billowy clouds were floating by as I sat and watched them on my front porch. The only problem with this day was I felt guilty about not being more productive. I felt like I “should” be doing something. Pulling weeds, reading some important journal paper or updating my blog. I remember this feeling as a parent too. There always seem like there is so much to do and I was always so far behind on something. Shouldn’t I be doing laundry instead of playing catch in the backyard with my kids or working on some craft? There were many times my guilt drove me to try and do household chores and play with the kids at the same time. Let’s just say, it wasn’t very effective in either area.

Many of us NEED to listen to that inner voice. That bathroom really does need some more attention but for the majority of parents, guilt is a constant critic. It is driven by the need for perfection. It fears what others will think of us. It causes us to forget that our children are more important than a clean dish put away into the dishwasher.

As a grandparent, you realize that the moments slip away into days into years into decades and then there are gone. When you realize all the magical moments missed with your child because you just had to prune the rose bush or scrub the shower (or for you working parents, work an extra hour or two in your home office), that is when the real guilt settles in. It is for what you could have done with your child if I wasn’t just so tightly wound up over the little things.

Here’s my parenting expert, grandfatherly advice:  Spend an entire weekend just interacting with your children and let guilt go for two entire days! Just two days mind you. That means the beds don’t get made, the dishes may stay in the sink (OK, you can put them away after they go to bed) and the home office door stays shut. Oh yeah, and the electronic devices are off. Yes, off!

Tell me how the experience goes by posting a comment here or sharing on twitter or facebook.