Working with Children & Developmental Challenges: A Feldenkrais® Perspective

The birth of a child is a miraculous event.  And even more miraculous is witnessing the stages of their development. A child is born completely dependent on it’s parents or caretaker for everything.  Human beings are not born walking like most other animals and there is a long apprenticeship before we reach maturity.

Jean Piaget demonstrated that young children move to learn. It is through movement that the child learns all necessary functions. Do you remember the first time you watched a baby roll from their back to their belly, or reach for a toy while lying on their stomach?  As parents we do not have to get down on the floor and teach the child how to roll over.  The child wants the toy and begins to move, sometimes backwards and sometimes forward, seemingly random movements that are felt and perceived by the learning brain (a feedback system).   Many trials and errors, adjustments this way and that way until there is a lengthening forward or a crawling and… success.

This process of crawling, reaching, rolling-over, sitting up, standing, walking, running, skipping, jumping, is both miraculous, and something we often take for granted.  But for children with developmental challenges, these biological functions are often disrupted, or not readily available. Cerebral palsy, brain and nerve injuries, birth defects, genetic disorders, sensory integration disorder, autism, various kinds of learning delays all present challenges to normal development—and to the child’s parents, care givers and teachers. There are many traditional approaches for these challenges, like physical therapy, occupational therapy, medical interventions, certain types of massage and bodywork. One alternative is the Feldenkrais Method®.

In a Feldenkrais approach the practitioner focuses on what the child can already do well (because every child, with any condition, will have some things that he or she can do well), supports the child in learning to do that even better, and then helps the child build upon that success.  This process may take the form of guiding the child through simple, gentle movement sequences or movement challenges that strengthen neural patterns while also building movement confidence.  Moshe Feldenkrais discovered that improvement of one function usually improves other functions.  By focusing on the child’s strengths in one area, a foundation is built for learning and strengthening other areas.

So let’s take rolling over: All Feldenkrais Practitioners, as a part of their training process, re-experience the developmental process that an infant progresses through – from sucking, to rolling to a side then to the belly, rolling up to sit, to standing. Check out this video of an infant and you’ll see the process this baby uses to discover rolling.  The video also clearly shows the process, and the sense of discovery, that a Feldenkrais Practitioner might use when working with a very young person.

Awareness Through Movement® – A Truly Slow Movement

S-L-O-W…. slow food, slow money, slow parenting, slow travel, slow art and slow body movements are just a few examples of a new trend which Wikipedia defines as a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. Our current life style is hurried, busy, with lots to do.  Our advances in technology continue to speed us down the fast lane.  This isn’t necessarily all bad but we do need balance and the slow movement may have much to offer.

Moving our bodies slowly with awareness through such modalities as tai chi, qi gong, yoga and the Feldenkrais Method® have been shown to be beneficial for dealing with stress.  There are also a growing number of pain clinics and Integrative Health centers that offer slow movement, awareness-based modalities for pain including pain caused by cancer and cancer treatments, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and other conditions. “Some experts suggest that these slow methods…increase the parasympathetic relaxation response which in turn reduces the stress response, promotes immune function that inhibits inflammation and stimulates healing…Slow movement is like Slow Food in which all acts related to eating – shopping, preparing, ingesting, and digesting – are done with awareness and presence.” (Slow Movement with Awareness: Better than Exercise? by Alan Fogel)

The Feldenkrais Method® group classes called Awareness Through Movement® is slow movement. In these classes you are encouraged to move slowly, to take time to feel how you are moving and assimilate it. The movement sequences that are taught are unusual or novel.  This encourages you to break free from the habitual ways that you move.  It also encourages you to feel how you are moving in order to become aware of yourself.

Moving slowly also allows you to notice if you are using unnecessary effort, what I refer to as parasitic action.  A simple example of this might be holding your breath while you are learning a new movement or activity, or even tightening your jaw, or clenching your fist.

Research and evidence suggest that it is not only moving slowly that is beneficial—but it is moving slowly with awareness. Awareness of how we act is essential if we are to change.  The Awareness Through Movement® aspect of the Feldenkrais Method® helps us to actually use movement to become aware of our thinking, sensations, feelings and how we move (It’s not Awareness OF Movement, but Awareness THROUGH Movement).  The way we act/move can change once we are aware of what we are doing.  That was one of the brilliant realizations of Moshe Feldenkrais over 50 years ago that led to the development of the Feldenkrais Method®. With ample research now supporting this understanding, perhaps the Slow Movement Movement is ready to gather momentum.