Parenting Vivian | 06 Jun 2011 12:13 am

Special Needs Child Development and Self Esteem – Learning From a Special Puppy

Some ancient (a pet owner no doubt) once said, “We can learn from the animals.” How wise that old saying is. At least it turned out to be that way for me and my family as we cared for a special needs Dachshund puppy named Itty Bitty. There were lessons to be learned that applied themselves to a special needs child’s development and self esteem.

Through Itty Bitty’s life, we have seen how a small, weak individual can lose heart and be excluded from others that are stronger and healthier, yet their desire to survive and be included can be a blessing to themselves and those around them. -And the picture book that came from Itty Bitty’s story reveals to children and adults alike, that “Even though you are little, you can do big things!”

Itty Bitty was born just after midnight on a cold, February morning. He was the first puppy ever born to our female Dachshund, Gwenny, and she had a very difficult time giving birth to Itty Bitty. Being the first one through the birth canal, it was a difficult time that had its physical consequences on the tiny pup. It was not long before the other puppies were born and Gwenny focused her attention on the stronger, healthier puppies.

“So what has this got to do with a child’s development and self esteem?” you might be asking yourself. Well, read on.

We nursed the little guy from a small puppy bottle. -Around the clock at first. Then we would force him to nurse from Gwenny to get the antibodies that he needed to survive any infection.

After Itty Bitty defied the vet’s prognosis and lived beyond the two days, and then two weeks that he was given to live, it was obvious that he was not growing like the others. He was tiny, yet he had enormous feet that tripped him when he tried to walk. His siblings (three brothers and one sister) somehow new that he was different and slowly began to exclude and ignore him.

It was then, as my heart went out to this helpless puppy that I realized how human this situation was. As a child, I was small for my age, so I had to work a lot harder to keep up. Also, my older brother was epileptic. I watched him struggle through all phases of his life during his early development years. “Normal” kids would never choose him for baseball games or invite him to join them.

As Itty Bitty began to try to cope with the rejection, he became distant. We would find him sleeping at the opposite end of the birthing box, away from Gwenny and the others. When he tried to roughhouse and play with the others, he would fall down. When they grew old enough to go outside, he would sit off somewhere and be content to be alone.

That is a natural reaction that I have seen in children. The smaller, weaker and special ones learn to cope by being alone. It is easier that way, but it also has a tendency to deny them of the precious socialization time that they truly want and need. –Socialization time that will prepare them for the years that lie ahead.

What to do then? Well, it is all about self-esteem, about building that up in a child so that they have a sense of self worth. That confidence will shine through and the other children will see that.

–But, how to begin?

Look for opportunities to reward the child for things that are done well. Make them feel like the hero that they are in their heart. Now I absolutely don’t mean to trivialize the issue by overly rewarding them for minor things. Be very careful with that. A child (and the children around the child) will see right through that. What I mean is that you should celebrate the positive, incremental steps of development. As the child grows, the positive reinforcement should be for greater accomplishments.

I will never forget that day, many years ago, when my epileptic brother stepped up to the plate. He had never been able to hit a ball in a real game. He surprised his entire little league team and the coach, too, by smacking a triple. He hit the ball a long way! I was proud of him as he tried to get his sense of direction and run the bases, but more importantly, he was proud of himself.

As I watched Itty Bitty trying to keep up, I thought, what would happen if this little guy could save the day for his family? I arranged and staged some pictures to have him do just that. I wanted children and parents to see the reward that comes from doing something special. –To vicariously feel the acceptance and inclusion that Itty Bitty feels in the book when he becomes a hero.

It is through the reward of positive reinforcement that we see these little ones, whether small, or handicapped, or special, realize, as Itty Bitty does in the book:

“Even though you are little, you can do BIG THINGS!”

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