Working with Children with Special Needs, Learning Delays and Neurological Challenges



reaching-to-learn-josie-davenport-collageOne of the many things that I love about being a massage therapist is the vast array of specialty areas that are possible with my license to touch. I have deeply explored connective tissue therapy, therapeutic communication, cranio-sacral therapy, injury evaluation and treatment and Feldenkrais® movement with awareness. 15 years into my profession I began to discover the joy of working with children with special needs. The Anat Baniel Method for Children℠ gave me more confidence and skill for helping children learn to build movement options. It was the first child that caught my eye with a look of total connection and excitement for learning that got me hooked. I knew that I had found my love, my path. I was actually able to help children learn to move in new ways and that child’s look touched my heart.

I work with families who have been told by the medical community, “your child will never . . .” sit on their own, crawl, walk, go to college – fill in the blank. And yet, I see children move joyfully beyond such limits every day. There is quite a lot that I teach parents right away in the context of the child’s lesson with me. Of course afull training program would be best and I do recommend Anat Baniel’s training. In addition, when I work with parents and their children there are many things that I can teach them so that they can continue to facilitate learning for their child.

Safety and Connection

The first thing to establish in a lesson for a child is safety. Greeting them directly, talking to them with respect and looking for opportunities to be light and playful are key ways to establish rapport. Of course, it’s important to match them too. If a child is frightened, averting eye contact, I will back off my gaze and calm myself, slowing down as a way to help calm them. I ask the parent to bring a comfort item, I may also see if they are interested in a quiet toy. I often work with small children while they are in their parent’s lap. Showing interested in them and being authentic, being completely present and engaged, I look for easy ways to make contact. If the parent puts the child on the table, I ask them to stay close so that the child remains safe. Once the child starts to interact with me, I can make more contact.


Staying With What Is

One of the first things that I can teach a child or adult is that the table is supporting them fully and they can let go of unnecessary holding. I teach this by helping them do the holding. This brings awareness and can lead to learning.

  • Taking over – Take over their holding and wait, then stop, wait, and taking over again. For example, if they hold their shoulders up, help them do that.
  • Exaggeration – Do the holding for them a tiny bit stronger than they are, let go gradually, try to feel them letting go as you do.
  • Grounding – As they lie on their back, place a small amount of equal pressure on their shoulders until you feel the ground a little bit through their bones. Then press slowly down their arms, place a small equal amount of pressure on the two sides of the pelvis and down the legs. As they lie on their side, press gently the shoulder girdle and pelvis at the same time.
  • Undoing Muscles Spasms – Stretching can be painful for anyone, especially children with special needs. When a muscle is hard and contracted, one alternative is to first slacken the muscle by taking the two ends closer together and helping it to soften using massage. When you feel the muscle soften, then very slowly bring the two ends apart so that the muscle remains soft. Getting the bigger picture can do the most for alleviating contractions in general. When key areas in the trunk are allowed to move, the limbs and smaller areas don’t have to work so hard.

Finding Landmarks – Painting the Brain/Body Image

To help someone feel the bumps of their bones and those relationships to each other can be very soothing and interesting. For the brain, though, this information helps to create the self image. The more information the better when presented in an organized way. There is that static topography that changes according to position. There are connections and relationships between positions. And there is the exciting potential of the movement of several points in space. Function brings those points into an organized understanding, helping the brain map those points in relation to reaching, looking, rolling, feeding, crawling, sitting and so on.

Slow, Small, Gentle

When a movement is difficult to do, slowing down increases sensitivity and attention and decreases fear and anxiety. Also, in order to find a way to do the desired thing, playful experimentation is exactly what the brain needs. Play, laughter, and a ‘no big deal’ attitude are perfect components for discovery. Children and adults learn new things best by feeling from the inside, not by performing for others and ‘doing it right’ from the beginning. Making mistakes gives the brain information and when this is done playfully and gently, then the learning is not associated with
difficulty and pushing.

Image 1The Brain Thrives on Random Movement

The final guideline for now is to give a child plenty of free unstructured play time on the floor in a safe area of the home. This can be in earshot and visual sight of the kitchen or any area where the parent spends a lot of time. Give the child room to flail and kick and move in any way that they can. All healthy babies do this and children who have difficulty moving need this. Don’t place a baby in any position that impedes movement or in a position that they cannot get out of easily on their own. Try finding toys that respond to the smallest touch. A good example is the “Happy Apple” which can be found on line. Also, some parents make a square area, called a ‘little room’ so that the baby who does not yet roll can kick something or come into contact with small toys with their hands.

Of course there is much more, but this is the foundation to help foster intelligent options for movement and awareness. Please know that the above ideas come from my own experience and understanding. Much of the above is influenced by my training with the Anat Baniel Method℠.


I hope that this article has given parents some ideas for handling their child at home between Anat Baniel Method for Children℠ lessons. I also hope to give future massage therapists information about one of the possible pathways that they can follow when they have a massage therapy license. Parents who wish to train with Anat Baniel need a license to touch. For parents of children who have special needs and learning delays and who choose to attend the Florida School of Massage as a first step in becoming an ABM practitioner, I will give your child under 3 years complimentary ABM lessons as long as you are enrolled at FSM. For children over 3 years, I will decide how much I can help, based on my assessment prior to enrollment in the school. The Florida School of Massage is known internationally for excellence. Our emphasis on awareness and personal transformation is a perfect prelude to further training with Anat Baniel.

Josie Davenport on Stroke Recovery


After a Stroke – Small Volitional Movements May Help Speed Recovery

I remember being in the room with Anat Baniel some years ago. I heard her tell the group an important detail about working with stroke victims immediately in the hospital. One of our staff members had called Anat to ask how to best work with a friend, who having just had a stroke, was in the hospital. Anat told the class about the instructions she had given. This is how I heard it (not a quote):
The most important thing to do right away is to support the affected hand (and foot) so that they can easily make the smallest response. It doesn’t matter how small the response, but it has to be movement initiated by them, not done by you. Helping a stroke patient do this small movement on their own may help speed their motor recovery to the affected side.
This sounds incredibly simple, right? Within the year, I had the unhappy opportunity to try this out myself as our dear friend and cousin suffered a stroke that affected his entire right side. We went to visit him right away and, sure enough, by supporting his hand and making it very easy for him to respond, he moved his finger! So we went through all the fingers and then all the toes and he responded! I showed this technique to his wife and daughter so that they could repeat it and build on what he could already do. With that start and the combination of therapies that he received, our cousin was driving in a year! One of the therapies that helped him continue his amazing progress during his rehabilitation was hippotherapy with his wife, a nurse practitioner, and his daughter, an OT.
After our cousin’s remarkable stroke recovery, I continued reading the book, The Brain That Changes Itself by Dr. Norman Doidge. In the book, Doidge describes research showing that when there is damage to the spinal cord there is a critical period of time that is called “spinal shock”. If the brain or spinal cord damage is to one side of the body only, as is common with stroke, when the patient tries to do what they used to be able to do with the affected limbs, they won’t be able to use those limbs. Because of this inability to move, the brain will begin to function as if the limbs no longer work. However, if the affected limbs are put in a cast (for one to three months) until that critical period is over, the limbs will be able return to functioning. This is why asking for only a tiny amount of movement can help to keep the affected limbs functional. Even though we are calling for movement during the critical period, we are asking for only that tiny amount of volitional movement that is possible. Further on in Doidge’s book, research showed that right after the damage, or even years later, by casting the “good arm”, the non-functional arm could come back into use as well.
Please do check me on the details. Also, please be aware that I am in no way suggesting to do anything other than get a stroke victim to a hospital and medical attention immediately. This small Anat Baniel MethodSM movement lesson is only useful after a patient’s life has been saved and only with the awareness and agreement of everyone involved. At the same time, the earlier the patient can move with volition, the better. The possibilities for early treatment and stroke recovery seem to go far beyond our usual way of thinking. In a similar way, children who have brain damage or have missing brain structures are also able to learn and improve.

Wishing the very best for all of you,


MNRI® and the Anat Baniel Method(sm)


Studying the Masgutova Neurosensorymotor Reflex Integration system has opened a window for me of understanding. My years of training and practice in the tensional and subtle movement systems in the body, especially deep tissue therapy and Cranial-Sacral therapy, help me to utilize and feel when and how the reflexes come into subtle activity without muscular involvement. Within the framework of the Anat Baniel Method, which helps children connect with their joy of learning, this awareness of reflexes and the direct intention to help each child connect through their core completes a holistic picture to support learning.
The Anat Baniel Method helps a child acquire a gentle three dimensional internal experience of their movement capabilities. In this way the ABM gives a child a full palette of of movement possibilities with which they can connect in a meaningful way to intentional movement in a relaxed learning atmosphere. Children are free to discover what interests them, to move through their own frustration and to have the satisfaction of accomplishment. As I work with children, I find that I can easily combine information about reflexes to help children further their learning process.
The following is an excerpt from Andrea Bowers blog article, Anat Baniel Method and Masgutova Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration:
” As I gained familiarity with MNRI I could see that though Masgutova and Feldenkrais have many of the same sources of information their focus diverged with Feldenkrais’ core of learning in gravity and the importance of bones, and Masgutova’s core of pre-gravitational (in utero) reflexes and reflexive protective mechanisms.  I find the two perspectives give me more tools to be helpful, especially with children with special needs who are often still so influenced by reflexes that their learning is hugely inhibited.
I am very glad that I experienced Feldenkrais/ABM first and was able to add the reflex knowledge to my understanding of how the human system works.  I would like all children to have the experience of the joyfulness of learning and discovering that ABM brings.
I heard a story about an early Masgutova camp in California.  50% of the children were learning quite a bit faster than the other half.  When they looked for the common factor it was discovered those were the children who had been receiving ABM lessons before beginning the reflex work. If ABM is the first experience for a child with difficulty learning every other kind of experience will be enhanced. “

I am also glad that I studied MNRI and that I am able to bring that understanding to the children and families that I serve. I plan to continue this learning process, I also have the joy of learning! For more information follow this link:

All the best ~ Josie

Aroma Blend for Kids


Child in flowers from webCalm~Happy~Safe Aromatherapy Blend for Children (1 yr and older)

This is safe to use as a spray for the room or for the parent’s clothing – NOT to spray on the child.

*See cautions below

ENJOY!! I found that it worked very well in a child’s ABM lesson this morning!


2 oz. glass spray bottle with water

Small amount aloe or vitamin E as a carrier oil

Lemon 5 drops
Sweet Orange 10 drops
Chamomile 2 drops
Rose 2 drops
Lavender 6 drops
Sandal 4 drops

Some Simple Cautions:

* Some oils are not recommended to be used in the vicinity of children – these are all safe oils.
* To be especially careful – spray a small amount on a piece of cloth that can be removed from the room. I have never found this necessary with these oils, but this   would make it easy to remove in case of an allergic response.
* Don’t try this with children who have a history of severe allergies.
* Keep this bottle out of sight and out of reach of children
* Store away from heat and light and air (Heat changes the chemistry and oxidized oils can become harsh)
* Do not apply undiluted essential oils to the skin of children.
* Never apply pure essential oils to your own skin without dilution into a carrier oil.

Try it and let me know how you like it!
Also, look for further posts on safe oil blends for kids.

Reaching to Learn


I am an Anat Baniel Method for Children(sm) practitioner,  teaching new movement possibilities to Special Needs Kids and adults since 1998.

My office Reaching to Learn, is located at the Florida School of Massage campus on the edge of a 25,000 acre nature preserve, Payne’s Prairie, in Gainesville, FL.
A bodyworker since 1980, I use all the tools at my command to create a safe and loving environment for children and their families.
I love my job!!

Also, visit my facebook page for information that I have gathered about neurology and special needs kids – a lot of information in one place!

Josie Davenport at Reaching to Learn – Facebook page

All the best, Josie Davenport

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