A revolutionary approach for transforming the lives of children with special needs
By Anat Baniel
Edited by Gail Rinn
A child is born. It is a miracle. For the first few weeks, the little one sleeps a lot, nurses, occasionally cries, and needs to be held. Her arms and legs move, and her body twitches—all involuntary movements. Soon her family notices she is doing things she was unable to do before. When she is picked up, she holds her head up, reaches out to touch her mother’s face and clings to a parent’s finger. By the time two years have passed, this little person can walk, talk, even argue, and continues to grow, learn, and change at an incredible rate.
Sometimes this magnificent, spontaneous process of development does not take its normal course. Cerebral palsy (CP), brain and nerve injury, autism, sensory integration disorders, and a host of other causes interfere with the child’s ability to grow, learn, and perform like other children. The parents of these children are left with the question and challenge of how to best help their child.
Many traditional modalities—physical therapy, occupational therapy, and medical intervention tackle the child’s limitations head-on and try to get them to do what they should be doing according to their age and developmental stage. When an eighteen-month-old child with CP can’t sit up, she will most likely be repeatedly placed in a sitting position with the hope that she’ll somehow get strong enough and develop the muscular coordination to do it herself. A ten-year-old boy who can’t read gets hours of extra tutoring. The arm of a girl with a brachial plexus injury is moved around in an effort to relax it and increase its range of motion. With the Anat Baniel Method (ABM), a very different approach is taken.
Rather than focus on the limitations and try to directly fix the presenting problem on the level of muscle, bone, joints, and soft tissue, the focus is shifted to where the most powerful solutions lie—with the brain. Built on the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, DSc, the ABM works by communicating with the brain and facilitating the formation of new neural connections and patterns, irrespective of the cause of the child’s limitations. As part of the work, nine requirements for the brain to form new and effective patterns of movement, thought, feeling, and action are implemented. Noting that movement and awareness of self are primary tools for communicating with the brain and bringing about the potential for learning and change, I expanded the application of the same scientific principles of Feldenkrais’s work to include not only body and movement, but also emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development.
Process of Differentiation
The child with CP who can’t reach out with his hand to grab a bottle has the same muscles, joints, and bones as the child who can do it. The difference lies in what we call the “process of differentiation in the brain.” In a developing organism, differentiation implies the process by which cells and tissues develop increasingly specialized functioning and increased structural and functional complexity.
In the beginning, the baby’s perceptions and movements are mostly undifferentiated. The brain sends messages to the muscles to contract in an indiscriminate manner. It is all or nothing. There is very little control. As the child’s brain begins to perceive differences in the sensations coming from his own body, his movements, and from the world around him, his brain begins the process of differentiation. It grows new connections between nerve cells, it develops the ability to excite smaller and finer muscle groups, rather than many muscles all at the same time, and it creates configurations of increasing complexity. To reach forward with the arm and get hold of a bottle is an incredibly refined and complex process that entails complex relationships between the muscles of the arm, shoulder, neck, and the timing of activating these different parts. Because most people can do this movement easily, there is a lack of appreciation of the required process to get there.
I’ve identified nine requirements for successfully turning stimulation into information that the brain can use to differentiate and grow. I call these requirements The Nine Essentials. The three essentials we’ll be dealing with here are variation, subtlety, and slow.
Variation creates opportunities for a child to perceive differences, providing new information the brain needs to differentiate and create more successful patterns than it presently knows. Variation turns the brain on. The more new variations the child experiences, the better and faster his brain can differentiate and form new solutions. The child learns how to learn. Without variation, we starve the brain of the new information it craves. If the child is unable to do what the practitioner is trying to have him do, then something new needs to be introduced. If the child can already do what is offered, it is time to move the child forward into his next level of functioning.
When working with a child, it is of utter importance to avoid using excessive force as a means to try and get the child to perform a desired action. Using subtlety instead means you replace forcing, pushing, and trying hard with greater skill, refined distinctions, and gently executed change. Subtlety is important because it provides the child’s brain with opportunities to detect fine distinctions at emotional, intellectual, and movement levels. The ability to perceive subtle differences is the foundation of intelligence.
We humans are physiologically and neurologically structured so that the less intense the stimulus, the more we are able to perceive subtle differences. By the same token, the more intense the stimulus, the less we are able to perceive any differences at all. The louder the background noise, the less we are able to hear a soft sound such as a person whispering to us. When our bodies exert great efforts, we are unable to feel subtle changes and differences and thus the stimulation has no informational value for the brain. Healthy newborns and young children touch delicately. They move with tiny expenditures of energy. They sense and feel strongly and vividly, which allows them to learn more than at any other time of their lives.
Slow gets the brain’s attention; fast only gets the brain to do what it already knows. Slowing down gives the brain the time it needs to feel and perceive differences and thus have new information with which to immediately begin the process of differentiation. Slowing down sounds easier than it is. It takes clear intention, skill, and control to slow down our actions. Stress, anxiety, ambition, the feeling of difficulty, and great challenge often result in hastened action that is thus lacking in awareness and subtlety. By slowing down, the child stops acting in a habitual or automatic way and instead becomes aware of what she is doing. That is how limitations are powerfully transformed into possibilities—and that is how we can access the remarkable resources available within the child and ourselves.
We know that the potential of the brain is much greater than any of us has manifested. We call on this potential to help children with special needs surpass their current limitations. Many practitioners and parents have discovered the incredible outcomes a child experiences when the essentials are applied. When we tap into the potential of the human brain and its ability to right itself, the results are always greater than we expect. Every aspect of the child transforms. When Anat Baniel Method practitioners join the child in this way, the possibilities are infinite.
Originally appeared in Massage and Body Work Magazine, December 2007. Edited by Gail Rinn, ABM for Children Practitioner, located in Santa Cruz; www.gailrinn.com. You can find more information on the Anat Baniel Method(SM) for Children at