The Highly Sensitive Dog

One of my new years resolutions was to walk more.  Since I live in a warm climate I could not use the excuse of cold weather to stay huddled inside. So there I was, one recent brisk winter morning, wearing my wide brimmed hat and sunscreen, all set to carry out my resolution.

As I rounded a corner I heard the soulful wailing of a dog. It wasn’t a usual bark; it sounded like it was coming from deep inside the animal’s soul. The depth of the crying sounded an alarm in my own heart and I found myself thinking that anyone who hurt an animal to that extent should be reported to authorities.

I felt like a detective, paying close attention as I passed each house, but I couldn’t identify the direction from which I heard the almost continuously wailing.

As I turned down a walking path I noticed a couple way in front of me with three German Shepherds. Within a few moments I heard the soulful crying again and saw that the man and woman had brought the animals over to a grassy knoll. The man kneeled next to the dog that was in despair.

As I walked closer I realized I was in a quandary, much the way I feel when I see a parent in public struggling with a tantruming child. I know I can help but I’m concerned they’ll take it as judgmental meddling. In this moment I couldn’t help myself and I stopped.

“Looks like you have a sweet dog who is struggling.” I gently said. ‘Yes.” sighed the woman. She reminded me of moms who try to explain the misbehavior of their children. “He is harder to train than the other ones.”

I smiled and shared that I help parents with children who struggle and that this sweet canine reminded me of toddlers who have breakdowns. I told them about Highly Sensitive beings and noted that this temperament trait exists in about 20% of most animal populations. ”Yes, indeed!” the woman exclaimed. “We believe he IS sensitive.” She seemed relieved that I understood.

“How do you help the parents?” Her question indicated that she wasn’t feeling judged by me and was looking for help.

I took a deep breath. “The first thing I help them with is to soothe themselves. These highly sensitive beings can feel our energy. So, not only are they overwhelmed by what they are experiencing, they can also read our stress, judgment and concerns.”

“Oh, yes,” she responded, ”I have learned that the ENERGY OF THE LEASH FLOWS RIGHT INTO THE ANIMAL’S BODY.”

A light bulb went off for me as she said those words. I had never heard energy explained that way before. It made so much sense. The leash is a metaphor for the energetic connection between all living things, especially between parents and children.

I took this as an invitation to continue. “If we are to be helpful to another being that is dis-regulated, the most helpful thing we can do is first soothe ourselves. Once we understand that it is a legitimate struggle it is vital that we calm ourselves and stop worrying that other people may be judging them or us.”

OH WAIT…I thought…wasn’t I judging just a short while ago?


“I worry,” she said,  “that he is disturbing the neighborhood and that people think we are hurting him.”

I got it….Boy, did I get it!

“Be aware of your breathing,” I suggested. “This will calm your own energy…see what happens.”

I started to breathe deeply, as did both the man and woman and within seconds the dog stopped whimpering!

“What do we do next?” This was the first time the man spoke. Apparently he was sold on the breathing

“Try to remember that he needs what the other dogs need…just more and bigger and longer….he needs you to be more patient, more understanding, seeing him and loving him exactly as he is. Do not compare him with the others….and in that way you can help him trust that he can handle what is being asked of him. It is a challenge but you will be thrilled when you see how well it works!”

And with that last bit of loving advice I wished them well and I was on my way.

As I continued down the path I was aware of a peaceful quiet rippling through the trees. The wailing had stopped. Perhaps the energy in the leash softened.

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The Pause to Check System

The idea for this blog article came to me at a recent holiday party when I over-heard a conversation between two moms discussing how they were going to handle going to Christmas at their in-law’s houses. One mom lamented that the house is traditionally filled with bowls of sweets and decorated with breakables and treasured holiday-themed trinkets that her young son can’t help but touch. “He loves his grandparents,” she sighed, “but he doesn’t want to go to their house because he is scolded so frequently.”

This interchange brought up a memory of when my nephew was about a year old and he came to my house for the first time. Since I work with young children I knew that it was up to me to create an environment where he would feel happy, safe to explore and want to come back.

First I removed all the dangerous and breakable objects I could think of. Scissors, ceramics and crystals were all placed out of reach (and sight). Then I got a basket and filled it with age appropriate toys and books. When my nephew came to my house for the first time he was allowed to touch whatever he wanted, because the environment was curated especially for him.

If I had not taken the time to create an atmosphere where he was free to investigate he would have had a very different experience. “No, don’t touch that,” “Leave that alone,” “Stop picking those up!” Phrases like that can leave a child feeling agitated and unsafe. They are not sure what is allowed.

Throughout life we each have many new experiences. Every time we have a ‘first experience’ a system in our brain very closely monitors the way the experience felt. The Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS) is also referred to as the “Pause to Check System.” When a new experience feels safe our Pause to Check System files away that experience in the “safe” folder. If we felt unsafe, the Pause to Check System files it in the “unsafe” folder. The next time we encounter the same experience our brain will literally pause and check to see if that experience was previously safe.

When an infant goes to the doctor for the first time and, without warning, they feel the cold stethoscope on their bare chest or a needle in their arm, the chances are high that the next time they go to that doctor’s office they will experience a heightened anxiety as the brain “remembers” the feeling of the previous experience.

When a toddler goes to visit a home for the first time and is scolded to sit still and not touch, that child will probably protest the next time they arrive at that home. Their brain will remember how the previous experience felt and that child will not want to relive the discomfort.

When a child goes to school for the first time and their teacher is conscious to lovingly welcome them into the class, soothe their emotions and validate any concerns they have, that child’s brain will remember the good feelings and will be more likely to embrace returning to that classroom. It is imperative that a child’s first experience in a new classroom feels safe and fun so they’ll want to return again and again.

These first experiences are extremely important because they “set up” the brain for future experiences. If a child has, what they perceive to be, a traumatic experience on the first day of school they will not want to go back the next day!!! This legitimate struggle happens because the brain assigns so much value to the initial experience.

The more sensitive the child, the more heightened their Pause to Check System. Highly Sensitive Children (HSC) have very active Pause to Check Systems! This is also because Highly Sensitive People (HSP) perceive trauma deeper than others. Incidents that feel minor to most people can feel much more intense to HSPs. Being called on in class (and… answering incorrectly) can feel absolutely mortifying to a HSC!

I worked with a family whose Highly Sensitive four-year-old daughter was left alone in the cafeteria at school because “she ate too slowly.” The experience left her terrified and she didn’t want to go back. Even though mom tried to intellectually soothe her by saying, “They won’t leave you in the lunchroom ever again. I’ve spoken with the teacher.” the little girl still refused. She cried and protested. What I helped mom understand is that her daughter’s reluctance to go back was rooted in her neurology. In order to help her we had to validate, honor and process the feeling that she experienced.

It is incumbent upon adults, whether family members or professionals, to realize that while rules and boundaries are an important part of teaching children how to 
behave appropriately, it is also imperative to be conscious of the child’s emotions and brain development. Understanding how the Pause to Check System works will help you utilize it to your benefit in the classroom. By deliberately creating initial experiences that feel safe, free and fun, children will be more inclined to detach from their caregivers, settle into classroom routines and develop healthy confidence.

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The Gift of Trust

The holiday season is in full swing and this is the time of the year I find myself cringing as I observe parents in ‘high gear’ as they unintentionally put stress on themselves and the rest of their family. While the authentic desire to create some kind of magical holiday celebration is usually the impetus to the endless chaos of shopping, baking, cooking and decorating, many families wind up enduring stressed out days leading up to the big event.

Just yesterday, as I walked out of the supermarket to my car I watched a parent screaming at her two children to stop whining and asking for things. The three of them looked miserable as they passed the bell ringer who was cheerfully wishing them a “Merry Christmas!”

We are a society that has trained our children to expect lots of expensive presents in order to believe that they experienced a wonderful holiday. Parents spend money they do not have or could be used in a more sustainable way, in an attempt to satisfy an often insatiable taste for ‘wonder.’ The endless to-do lists and the momentum for overspending have thrown many moms and dads into a type of holiday madness.

The people who suffer the most are the very children they are trying to make happy.

The recent addition of the “Elf on the Shelf” has added a creepy element to the ‘better watch out’ side of Christmas. The elf spies on the kids and is used to control their behavior through the month of December with the threat of not receiving gifts for even minor infractions. We already lie to the children about the reality of Santa and the use of this elf further turns off their critical thinking skills by trying to convince them that a little stuffed creature is actually watching them and reporting back to the people in power.

I was a pre-school teacher for many years and I used a hand puppet to teach many lessons about compassion and empathy. I am not opposed to the use of imagination or giving inanimate objects human qualities. Fairy tales, Disneyland and superheroes are part of childhood fantasy. What concerns me is outright lying in order to manipulate and control. My message is to slow down the pace of the season, consciously step away from the stress of preparations and take responsibility for maintaining good parenting skills before exhaustion turns you into a scary storybook monster.

This time of year reminds me of a story shared by a dad who was coming to my parenting classes:

Mom was about to bake Christmas cookies with the children, ages five and three, and left him in charge while she ran to the store to get some needed ingredients. He left the children playing in the family room for just a few minutes and when he returned there were red and green sprinkles all over the couch, the rug, the dog and the children’s hair! In the short time that he was gone a ‘mystery person’ seemed to have opened all the sprinkles and created a giant mess!

His initial reaction was to gasp, feel his pulse quicken, and sense his muscles tighten. He began screaming at the children, demanding to know who was responsible for the disaster. The older one blamed the younger one and the younger one insisted it was his sister’s idea to open the jars. Dad felt himself totally out of control as he tried to get up every last sprinkle before mom got home. He sent the children to their rooms, threatening that there would be no gifts until they told him the truth.

This is my memory of what he reported happened next: “It was as if a light went off in my heart. Right in the middle of my tirade, I was suddenly filled with the awareness that I didn’t want to be this angry, screaming, punitive daddy. Something welled up deep inside of me and I softened. I no longer felt a need to yell.” After a moment of regaining his emotional balance he walked into the older child’s room and with a conscious softening in his voice and facial expression he invited her to come and sit on the couch with him. He had something important to tell her. He tenderly looked into his daughter’s eyes and apologized for scaring her with his big, angry reaction. He acknowledged how important it was for them to be a team, to trust each other and even when they were angry to find a way to talk about it. He continued by saying he would try hard not to act so scary when he was angry. They hugged and his daughter softly admitted that she opened the sprinkle jars as a way of ‘helping mommy.’ They agreed that going forward all baking, including the opening of ingredients, had to be done with the supervision of a grown up. Then she happily skipped off to play with her brother. A few minutes later she returned and said to her dad, “Remember how you said we would always tell each other the truth? Well, I have something to tell you.” Dad held his breath, wondering what secrets she was about to reveal. “Do you remember when we left cookies for Santa last Christmas Eve?” she asked. “Well, in the middle of the night, I snuck into the living room and ate two of Santa’s cookies.” She waited for his reaction, perhaps checking to see if he would again become the screaming, out of control daddy. Instead of becoming angry he hugged her and said, “I feel good that you felt safe to tell me that story. I think that Santa has forgiven you, too.”

Talk about your holiday miracles! The marvel of this story is the way the ‘disaster’ led to the development of trust between father and child. Dad’s commitment to be mindful and take responsibility for his own actions are the very building blocks that create open communication as children grow into their teen age years. The ‘gift of trust’ costs nothing monetarily yet is precious beyond description. He was even able to use the myth of Santa to teach forgiveness… so much better than manipulation and control.

You cannot find the gift of trust at the mall or on the Internet. This is a gift that is nurtured from deep inside your being.

This holiday season I wish you and the children in your lives, gifts from the heart.

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“I’m On The Spectrum”

I just latched my seatbelt to settle in for the five-hour plane ride from San Diego when the younger man sitting next to me started an innocent conversation with the question, “Are you going to New York for fun or business?”

I replied by saying that I was on my way to the east coast for a speaking tour to help parents and teachers understand children, especially children who are highly sensitive, have been diagnosed with ADHD, oppositional defiance disorder or just are challenging to figure out. He asked if I talk about kids with autism or Asperger’s. “Do you have an interest in that?” I responded. He had my rapt attention. “I have Asperger’s.” he declared. “I’m on the spectrum.”

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Tantrums vs. Meltdowns

It is important as educators to use appropriate terminology whenever possible. One point of confusion for some early childhood specialists revolves around tantrums and meltdowns. While these words are often used interchangeably they actually have very different meanings.

Tantrums are either a manifestation of learned behavior or a result of built up stress. Sensory meltdowns happen when sensory input triggers an uncontrollable neurological response. Tantrums can be “stopped” even at the peak of breakdown because they are not being driven by neurology, whereas sensory meltdowns must run their course and can last several hours.



Manipulative tantrums usually start off innocently and without much deliberate thought. Adults sometimes —unconsciously— contribute to this type of tantrum by being inconsistent with rules, routines or boundaries.

Children learn to push back when our “No” is inconsistent. If whining, persisting or demanding is eventually given in to it reinforces ‘manipulative’ behavior. Manipulative tantrums tend to happen with children who learn to have their wants and needs met through unhealthy behavior.

Having established rules and age appropriate consistent routines in place can prevent manipulative tantrums. It is imperative that the expectations placed on children are within their developmental ability, otherwise frustration will ensue.

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5 ‘School to Home’ Insights From Super Teachers


As a new school year begins we want to share some of the most valuable methods employed by ‘super teachers.’ These insights, when adopted by conscious parents, can transform life at home. If you are just beginning your teaching career this can serve as a basis for implementing desired results and early achievement. Share these ideas with your families and be the model of all you aspire them to be. 

The following 5 practices used by master teachers have a direct and positive impact on the flow of a day while also encouraging responsibility, self-regulation, and cooperation in young children.


1. Control the environment, not the child. 

Experienced teachers have learned that trying to control children often creates power struggles, outbursts and frustration. They know it is worth their time and energy to set up the environment in a way that children will not get their hands on grown up materials. Labeling bins and shelves with photos and words not only creates physical orderliness (which helps with behavioral orderliness) but it also serves the dual purpose of reading readiness. It is the adult, rather than the child, who takes responsibility for the amount of clutter, availability and safety of the environment.

Home Hint: Has your child ever gotten his hands on your cell phone, television remote, car keys, laptop, doughnuts, chips, or dog food? Are so many toys available that the mess becomes overwhelming very quickly?  If so, it’s probably time to be more conscious of how your home environment is organized and if it is working for or against you.

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Writing Disabilities and Ways to Help

A writing disability is having trouble with written expression and can range anywhere from problems with spelling to holding a pen. Writing is crucial to a child’s academic success, and knowing how to identify a writing disorder and ways to intervene can make a huge difference! Writing disabilities are often associated with other learning disorders.

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The Promise Of A Least Restrictive Environment

The IDEA strongly prefers that children with special needs be educated to the “maximum extent appropriate” with typically developing peers and removal should only occur “when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” This preference is commonly referred to as the least restrictive environment (LRE) and is one of the underlying mandates of the IDEA.

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The Rowley Standard – Part Two

Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson School District v. Rowley

The passage of time has not yet vindicated the dissent authored by Justice White and joined by Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson School District v. Rowley. For a quick primer on the facts surrounding the decision in Rowley, please refer to my previous article. In this post I will look at the reasoning behind Justice White’s dissent in Rowley and Congress’ re-authorization of the IDEA in 1997 which was the catalyst for a number of cases that were brought forward re-examining the Rowley standard.

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The Rowley Standard – Part One

The IDEA Guarantee of a Free Appropriate Public Education
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children that qualify for special education are guaranteed a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The Free, Public, and Education aspects of this acronym are generally not an issue. However, defining “appropriate” is at the core of most disputes between parents of a child with special needs and that child’s school district. If a special education director has ever reminded you that your child need only receive “some educational benefit” or that the school need only provide a “floor of opportunity” or that your child was not entitled to a “Cadillac Education” than you and your child have encountered the Rowley Standard.

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