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The Special Needs Child

What do we mean by the “special needs child”? At its base, this term describes the child who has a need that is not met in the structures we are providing for growth. Looking at standard educational programs, we find a huge range of needs and an enormous number of children who do not have these needs well met. Because Enki works so deeply with child development, sensory integration through movement, and rhythmic days, many children who would have an unmet need in other situations will do very well within the standard Enki framework.

We have seen children who have been coded as hyperactive, attention deficit disorder and Asberger’s Syndrome do very well in the basic program. Some children with motor planning, and dyslexic and dysgraphic issues have also done very well. Many with emotional challenges have done well. And so have those labeled as gifted. No doubt there are many other special needs which are being met just because our emphasis for all children is on working in harmony with child development and because of the ongoing inclusion of sensory integration activities. All told, the range of needs that are met through the basic Enki approach is quite a bit wider than in a standard educational program.  However, there are also children whose special needs demand that we make significant adjustments to the method; here we are addressing the needs of these childrens.

Whatever his particulars, the special needs child is not progressing in a typical manner along the trajectory of child development described in the preceding sections. He may be moving faster in one area and slower in another. He may seem to linger in one stage forever. He may move along in many ways but seem to be missing some steps or some aspects. The special need may arise from genetic factors, neurological factors, biochemical factors, emotional factors, environmental factors, and so on.  The range of needs and causes is large. But for all these children – and all others –  Enki is focused on offering the child the fullest possible experience of his humanity and of life.

So what can we do? For the special needs child, more so than for the typical child, it is not possible to give a general description of methods to meet his needs – by definition the child’s needs are special. But it is possible to describe the underlying outlook with which we approach these special needs.

There are Five Key Elements:

All of which are part of Enki for every child, but which have a particular application and focus for the special needs child.

1. Acceptance and Perception of Opportunity

2. Recognizing Shared Experience

3. Building Bridges/Educating Capacities

4. Nurturing the “One Room Schoolhouse” Child

5. Supporting Progress Through Connection

  1. Acceptance and perception of opportunity: accepting the special needs child’s particular constellation of challenges and gifts as his path and his opportunity in life – just as one would with any other child – and using the open doors to cultivate the more tightly shut ones;
  2. Recognizing shared experience: looking for the ways that each teacher – at home or in the classroom – herself experiences the challenges of the special needs child. Where does she shut down when overwhelmed, lash out when startled, struggle to process the new, and so on? Then using this insight to identify with the texture of the child’s experience so one can truly begin where the child IS and not where he “should be”;
  3. Building bridges/educating capacities: exploring where the child shows openings in the development of the capacities for learning (absorption, imitation, imagination, analysis, etc.). Beginning here, the Enki approach develops a program to begin where the child is and build out from there, educating or nurturing the actual capacity to think and do;
  4. Nurturing the “one room schoolhouse” child: more often than not, the special needs child is operating at different developmental and skill levels in different areas. Enki places importance on identifying these and drawing from the Enki program such that the child is met at each level appropriately. This often means mixing and matching materials from several grade levels; and
  5. Supporting progress through connection: As is the case for all children, Enki stresses the importance of helping the child grow from within. In this context, that means staying away from direct praise or reflecting back accomplishments, but rather entering into a shared experience. So, for example, rather than praise the child who just connected what he has heard in a story with what is happening in his life (or vice versa), Enki recommends that the adult simply notice the connection and join the child in retelling the story or reciting a verse, and so on – sharing the experience and letting the experience be the teacher.

All of these are of equal importance to effectively adapting Enki  – or any other program – to meet the special needs child. But unique to our approach is the emphasis on educating capacities so we will detail that further here.

Educating Capacities:

In Enki our focus is not on training behaviors or even on amassing skills and information, but our focus is first and foremost on nourishing and strengthening capacities. It may be that when we have done all we can and exhausted all known avenues, we will still have to teach or train the child’s behaviors and skills, but, just as medication is a last resort for the hyperactive child, so too, training is a last resort for other special needs.

This is not quite as black and white as it may sound and setting boundaries and expectations (teaching behaviors) is part of all parenting and teaching, as is learning skills – whatever the child’s needs and abilities may be. Rather, this is about looking first to meet the child where he is and then helping him build a bridge out.

For example, imagine doing a movement activity that activates some difficulty for the child. He begins running around or doing some perseverative or hyper behavior. One approach is to signal him in one way or another that what he is doing is wrong, until he stops. The other extreme is to stop doing the activity that activates this response. Either way, we have stopped the negative response, but what has the child learned?

Between these is the Enki approach. Here we explore the difficulty and work to build a bridge out from it. In the example above, we would recommend modifying the activity so that it activates the negative response in a less extreme manner. We allow and even invite his coping (negative) response, and pay attention. In so doing we have accepted the child’s experience and given fear a backseat. Then we work with other aspects within the activity to help him build a bridge from where he has left us back to a more grounded place.

“My 12 year old son is on the autism spectrum and we have been working with movement and the Folk Tales. We were working the one about an old woman rolling downhill in a pumpkin. Each time we did the rolling on the floor to help him know what rolling is, within the first turn he would start stimming – going off into his nonsense talking jag. This wasn’t working and it was clear the rolling set him off. Early on I would just wait until he saw me waiting and came back. But he would say “bad boy” and then pull himself together – more from a mental plane than a physical one. That didn’t seem good so we talked it through with Beth and tried something else.”

“I had to really slow down the rolling, only do half a roll if needed, and really, really slow down while transitioning from the roll to becoming an animal so he had time to follow. At no time was I to wait for him to join. If he still did do it, then while still as the animal I went to gently prod him – like using a bear’s paw or roar – until he came out of the stimming and joined in the more grounding work. He started joining in pretty quickly. Within the same activity we go back and forth between rolling and growling or jumping, so he is getting practice at moving between the worlds.”

“A bit more slowly he started being able to roll without stimming, and then ground himself as a bear or tiger. And he now loves the story and understands it. He even relates it to things he sees in the world.”

Parent in Florida

This child is learning how to cross the bridge. The capacity to right himself is being strengthened not because we have taught him it is “bad to be overwhelmed,” or that his choices for coping are stupid. Rather, we have helped him find a more healing way to work with that overwhelm, one which serves him better. As the capacity to right himself becomes stronger, it can be applied to any situation. AND the neurological processes that made rolling around a terrifying chaos are actually being healed.

So we are still working with expectations and boundaries, but we are doing this by educating capacities rather than behaviors or splinter skills. This is true with all children, but with the special needs child the temptation to go for specific splinter skills and behaviors is greater. These can make the child appear to fit in better and move along faster, but they also undermine the development of the capacities that lead to real and independent growth. Depending on the child, there will be different capacities that need strengthening and different ways to do this, but our focus will always be first on cultivating the capacity and second on behaviors and skills.

One specific area in which it is common for children with special needs to have a weakness is “body mapping.” Body mapping is the active way that children naturally build their comprehension. It is the toddler rolling the oatmeal containers and making the sounds of a steam roller. It is the preschooler rolling around like a puppy or jumping off the furniture to fly like a bird. It is the kindergartner making the couch pillows into pirate ships and throwing his brother overboard. In all this, he is mapping the world in his movement. This is then distilled into gesture and image. And this is what allows real comprehension or “living into” the information. Modern brain scan technology is now revealing that there are specific systems of neurons that are designed to spark understanding. When we hear a given word or phrase, these systems internally match – or awaken the map – for that activity, if we have such a map within us. But because the special needs child often has challenges integrating sensory input (sensory integration dysfunction), this mappin gis often hampered. We work to cultivate that capacity to support comprehension, rather than on specific “tricks” to bring understanding of given material or concept.

Our method may take far more time than explaining a story, but it is an investment in a capacity the child can carry for life. Body mapping is one example of our focus on identifying and strengthening the underlying capacity so the child’s education brings him to the highest level of independence possible. It is in the strengthened capacity to learn – and not in the acquisition of emotional, functional, or academic splinter skills – that he is empowered.

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Each of the five principles listed – including educating capacities – is discussed in some depth in our Foundation Guides, but what matters here is that in all situations, these tenets together form the underlying structure on which we adapt the Enki curriculum to meet the child’s special needs. Enki can play a significant part in helping many special needs children cultivate their potential; it can be one part of a support system of therapies of many kinds. Enki works particularly well with those therapies that focus on child development (e.g. RDI) and sensory integration. It will take adapting,  mixing-and-matching, and ongoing tinkering to adjust the program to meet the child. To this end, we offer monthly group discussion calls, and most parents of special needs children find that ongoing individual consultations focused on adapting to their specific child and family situation are an important addition.

There are, and must always be, countless ways to adapt Enki to meet the special needs of any child. These adaptations are best discussed and developed one child at a time, but the five underlying tenets described here will provide the scaffolding on which we make those adaptations.