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An hour to empower

What a difference an hour can make in a child’s life.

A few years ago I visited a mother and her son at home in rural India while making a mini-documentary on mothers living with children with disabilities. For 20 minutes I observed and played with her son. I watched how he responded to light, rocked and jumped if there was too much noise but then calmed down when he was held on my or his mother’s knee. As a child developmental specialist I immediately saw what he needed.

I had known the mother for several years and knew she was deeply invested in supporting her child, but she didn’t have the expertise to understand his different developmental needs. So I suggested we spent an hour together where I would show her what I was seeing, and make recommendations on what her son might need to develop.

We arranged the hour in the special school he attended. With permission we filmed the session and worked through translators as we didn’t have a shared language. I talked them through everything I was seeing about the boy’s sensory needs and behaviour and made some recommendations about things that would help him. Throughout the session, I showed how to micro-observe his behavior and responses so that we could tailor our activities and interactions to his needs.

Children show us what they need all the time if we know how to read the signs. This little boy was no exception, even if his behaviour seemed odd to outsiders. We often try and stop children stimming or rocking but we forget that their actions are telling us something about how their bodies work and what they need to help them perceive and understand the world better. When I read this little boy’s needs correctly and gave him the right activities to do, his eyes lit up. This is what I told the mother to look for – when a light comes on in a child’s eyes you know you’re making the right connections in the brain.

Six months later I returned and the mother ran up and hugged me. She said she had followed my recommendations to the letter and had integrated them into his school day too. Her son, now 11, was transformed. Before our sessions he had frequent meltdowns, he was unpredictable and difficult to manage at home, but most importantly for the mother at the time he had still been in nappies so she felt she could not take him out in public. Over those six months, however, he had grown calmer and had become toilet trained. This was something she had never imagined was possible, but as a clinician I know and believe all things are possible if we work together.

One hour of specialist support for a parent who is open and committed can make such a difference. Working with parents is a fabulous partnership as they are with the child all the time. Skilling them up with the expertise it has taken me 35 years to build is one of the most fulfilling parts of my work. No child comes with a handbook and they are all different, but the better we learn to understand them the more we can help give them the best start in life for the best chance in life.

The Developmental Play model was born out of this experience in India – in an attempt to encapsulate a lifetime of experience into a simple model that parents can access. It’s sad how in many professions we make language so complicated or create models that are about our own identity as professionals. One thing working in low-resourced areas and through translators has taught me is to keep it simple and make it relevant to what the parent and child need. I am always indebted to this mother and child as they showed me so much about what is important.

To find out more about this story do check out our mini documentary here- Mother of Light

To find out more about the Developmental Play Model check out

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1 Comment

l surprised the way you showed changes by 1 hour. What we have to do for me is that:

1. the expertise and teachers must have knowledge on developmental play, they must be skilled.

2. great attention should be given to families/caregivers in order to change attitudes on special need children.

3. We should have to give great attention on developmental play that you trained us.

Gebre Araya



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