Brushing Away the Fears of the World

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” -Maya Angelou

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” -Maya Angelou

When the occupational therapist handed each of us a three-inch plastic brush, my co-teacher and I looked skeptically at one another.

I was pretty sure we were both thinking of certain male students in our classroom who possessed a force with no limits. In a fit of rage, they could destroy the classroom with one hand while putting a classmate in a headlock with the other.

And these boys, who made pro wrestlers look like amateurs, were going to be calmed by a measly brush?

I just couldn’t see it.

But when you’re desperate, you begin to look for hope in unusual forms. Not only had the first three weeks of school been challenging; they had been soul-crushing. We quickly understood why the twelve particular students in our class had exhausted all other special education resources in the district. And unfortunately, if they could not make progress in our specialized program, they’d be forced to attend an alternative school.

That’s where the little plastic brush came in.

My co-teacher and I were trained by the occupational therapist on how to use the Wilbarger Brushing Technique. This particular therapy is proven to be highly beneficial for children with immature nervous systems.

The next day my colleague and I explained to the students that a brushing regime would be performed on their arms, legs, and back for ten minutes each day (and sometimes more than once a day, if they were especially hyperactive or volatile).

Although I fully expected our most defiant boys to balk at the notion of being brushed like a house cat, they didn’t. While half the class was taken to speech therapy and other special classes, the boys argued over who would be first to receive the new treatment.

At first, the sensation of the brush upon their skin caused the children to erupt in fits of laughter. But with every down motion of the brush, the room grew quieter and more peaceful. My co-teacher and I exchanged raise eyebrows and then a look of disbelief. With tears of hope in my eyes, I wondered, could this really work?

The answer was yes.

Within a few days of initiating the brushing protocol, we began to see improvements in all our students–but the most profound results were observed on our students with explosive temperaments. Within minutes of initiating the brushing protocol, these students transformed from ferocious pit bulls to cuddly teddy bears. And upon completion of the 10-minute session, these students could do what we thought was impossible: focus on short academic lessons and complete small amounts of work. In our classroom, these little brushes were more valuable than gold; we began ordering them in bulk.

I will never forget the time one of our most challenging students, Kyle*, came bursting into the classroom one morning. It was obvious he had not been given his medication. He said something about getting in trouble on the bus and how he wanted to punch the bus driver in the face, but he didn’t. And then without taking a breath, he defiantly declared, “I need brushin’!”

Now keep in mind, Kyle was the unofficial class leader and the other students emulated his behavior. Most of the time Kyle’s role modeling was not a positive—but in this case, it was a godsend. Kyle made it “cool” to request brushing when tensions were running high and bad choices were about to be made.

Pretty soon brushing became the class’ new response to anger. As the co-teacher and I saw frustrations beginning to mount, we would offer a brushing session. Miraculously, the students were able to weigh the options. Rather than ripping apart the classroom or grabbing another student by the throat, they chose to go to the “relaxation rug” to be brushed. Some students even took the liberty of going to the drawer to retrieve the therapeutic instrument themselves, expediting a positive outcome.

But the real miracle in this story happened at the rug.

While gathered in a small circle awaiting their turn to be brushed, the children began sharing their stories. This scar was from an extension cord. This one was from a lit cigarette. Mama’s got a new boyfriend again. Granny’s about to die and she’s the only one who loves me. The police came to our house and took my daddy away.

As the contents of their broken hearts poured out in our palms, it was difficult to remain stoic. But the children didn’t cry while they spoke, so I vowed neither would I. Instead, I said the only thing I could say: “But you are safe here. You are safe here.”

But I knew they already knew this.

After all, the details they divulged were not just for anyone. These painful confessions were only for their trusted, beloved teachers—adults who endured profanity-laced tirades while angry beads of saliva pelted their faces. Nothing these children did – no matter how disturbing – could make us go away. My co-teacher and I kept showing up, and in doing so, we had gained trust that was seldom given.

Through this trusted bond with a loving adult, these children experienced what it meant to feel safe.

Even though they were awaken by gunshots as they slept,
Even though they didn’t know if anyone would be home when they got off the bus,
Even though their own emotions often betrayed them and lead them into danger,
Feeling safe was no longer a foreign entity to these troubled souls.

In our little brushing circle, these children knew safety, and they carried this comforting feeling on the hairs of their arms as they left the classroom each day.

Little did I know this uncommon perception of safety would become a gift to me years later as a parent. You see, lately I find myself drawing on this experience for hope … because the world is feeling pretty unsafe these days. As our children are being subjected to unspeakable harm while sitting in their classrooms and while cheering at the finish line, I am left wondering if there are any safe places in existence anymore.

But thanks to twelve very special students, I know there are—because the most powerful kind of safety is not about walls of protection, bulletproof vests, or staying out of harm’s way. The kind of safety that brings me great hope is invisible to the eye, yet felt in the heart.

Safety is …

knowing there is someone who will keep showing up, no matter what you said or what you did the day before.

Safety is …

being listened to without judgment, ridicule, condemnation, or rejection.

Safety is …

knowing you can count on two loving arms to hold you close every single day.

Safety is  …

seeing that same familiar face before you go to sleep and when you wake up.

Children can feel safe merely by the daily presence of one caring adult, no matter how dark and hopeless and scary their world is.

And just the other night, this theory was confirmed.

I had just tucked my 6-year-old daughter into bed. As I was turning to leave, she called out–perhaps speaking more to herself than to me. She said, “When I start to think about something bad happening, I just remember how much you love me.”

My child felt safe from the real fears of the world not because there are locks on the doors and not because I’ve vowed to protect her. (Even she knows those measures are fallible.) My child felt safe because of one constant: She can count on me to love her, listen to her, and respect her every single day I am blessed to be her mother–no matter what.

And each time my child walks out into the unpredictable world, I am at peace knowing this comforting feeling of safety goes with her. And like the tingly sensation from a brushstroke along the arm, not even the fiercest wind can blow it away.



Hope for the Pressured Parent




Despite the dark places life can take our children, either physically or emotionally, I believe our daily, loving presence can offer refuge. This is yet another reason why it is so important make meaningful connection with the people we love despite the barriers created by modern day distractions.

What measures do you take to feel safe or help your loved ones feel safe? I’d love to hear your insights and thoughts, dear friends of The Hands Free Revolution.  Thank you for reading and sharing. I appreciate you all so much.




  1. 1


    This makes the anticipation of waiting for your book even greater! What a wonderful post. I’m familiar with the brushing technique from when we had a tiny toddler involved in Early On but can’t imagine attempting it with older children. What beautiful results. This gives such insight as to how our beloved Hands Free Mama came to be long before you had your own girls.

    • 2


      Thank you, Sarah! Oh yes, although I didn’t know it at the time, my precious students prepared me to be a parent! It has been quite remarkable to think of all the lessons they taught me about loving and nurturing children. I am so thankful to have this wonderful community to share these stories with!

  2. 3

    Melissa says

    This is the best blog ever! You are such an enlightened, caring person. I am so happy you chose to share your experiences with the world. That’s a brave thing. I learn something about myself or someone I know every time I visit here. Thanks. 🙂

  3. 5

    michelle caird says

    I love your posts!!! I teach Kindergarten and every time I read one of your blogs or posts, I become so inspired. Thank you.

    • 6


      Thank you, Michelle. I am so grateful to know this! I can’t think of a kindergarten teacher that I haven’t adored and admired. Although I don’t know you personally, I know I can thank you for loving our sweet babies. I have a kindergartener and boy does she love her teacher (and rightly so!) Thank you!

  4. 7

    Jessica Moulton says

    Thank you for sharing this. This therapy worked with my son who is now thirteen when he was very aggressive and non-verbal at 3. Now you can’t even tell that he was. With patience, love, and LOTS of early intervention he is “normal”. I put that in quotations because as well know, one man’s normal is another man’s strange. I love your posts and this one especially brought tears to my eyes.

  5. 11

    Adrienne says

    What a beautiful definition of safety. I had tears reading your article. Thank you for such a poignant reminder of what is most important while trying to keep our children out of harms way.

  6. 13

    Katie Bateman says

    Thank you for that, each time I read your posts I am motivated to step up my parenting! I read your previous posts about Kyle and in this one I was reminded of him again. I wonder what would happen if you sent him a package (maybe with a comb in it?) where he is– in prison. Perhaps the reminder that someone did love him and someone still does would help him.

  7. 15


    What a wonderful post and such words of wisdom. It is amazing how a simple implement (brush) can make such a difference in people’s lives – even changing them for the better!

  8. 17


    Thank you for this wonderful post! Thank you for being such a dedicated teacher at that phase of your life. Every day I say a little prayer that my son will be a good boy for his teacher and aides. I’m also inspired to get back to his brushing protocol even though he has been very very uncooperative about it for so many months. I’d better persevere…

  9. 19

    Tami Tubell says

    Thanks for this story. I am a Therapist and see the results of brushing on a case by case basis. It is joyful to hear it works on such a scale. Children just want to know they matter and have a place to go. I am glad it worked so well for your whole class.

    • 20


      Thank you, Tami. It is so nice to hear your perspective as a therapist. The therapists who worked with my students were true angels. I could not have survived without their expertise and knowledge!

  10. 21


    I love your idea – that for kids, the feeling of safety is just as important, or more so, than physical details. I snuggle with my girls some each day. It feels good to be close to them.

  11. 23

    Suzi Pettit says

    I am wiping at the tears as I read this. Mostly joyous tears, as I just love the results of your story. I am a firm believer in snuggling with our loved ones, and my grown children now do the same in their lives. A touch is a precious gift that can be tucked away and remembered at any needed moment in our lives. It works wonders! Thank you!

  12. 24

    Brenda says

    my daughters are adopted and we used the brush technique with the oldest when she was 2 1/2-3. It is intensive- thankfully her babysitter was up to helping me with the challenge as she had a special need daughter and knew how beneficial routines like this can be for calming behaviors. We saw a remarkable change in my daughters handling of frustrations. I am a Kindergarten/preschool teacher and an early childhood teacher coach- thank you for your inspiring and encouraging words.

  13. 25

    Kobie says

    Thank you Rachel….
    This post brings me back to a time when I had a very hard time at elementary school. I am 48 years old now and I remember vididly two experiences.
    One was not being allowed to brush my teachers hair as only ‘ good’ children got to do this (actually it was that I was a little smelly and unclean – which I am tender with myself about 🙂 and another more beautiful experience was having another teacher ever so slightly come by and stroke my hair.
    I knew I was loved and cared for by this very small action in a world that was confusing and terrifying sometimes.
    Warmest and thank you


    • 26


      Kobie, thank you for sharing this. It really makes me stop and think. And I will be more prone to think about the little, subtle ways I can make a child feel special because as you said so well, it’s the love that sticks with them forever.

  14. 27

    Mel says

    Your writing moves me to joyous tears filled with love, hope, kindness, and gratitude. I am printing this off as a reminder of our goals. You help me listen to my soul and to affirm that what my husband and I are doing is perfectly enough! Being Present, truly present is our goal. At times we stumble, no one is perfect. Yet it is wonderful to know we are not alone on this journey. There are many of us wanting this, but there are so many distractions tempting us. Thanks for helping me along the way.
    Much peace and gratitude!

  15. 29


    I have commented one time before… and I feel inclined to comment again. Every one of your posts fills my heart with joy and hope for our children and the future of humanity. We have seen the Willbarger brushing method work first hand with our own son who was diagnosed with autism at 27 months old and now at age 6, 4 yrs. after early and very intensive interventions he has been re-assessed by the same doctor who first diagnosed him and found to NOT meet any criteria for autism anymore. We are living our dream- two healthy and happy children. Sometimes even the seemingly small therapy approaches can have profound effects on children. Thank you again. I am really looking forward to your book as well.

  16. 31

    Connie says

    Thanks…nailed it again. Darn tears! I have learned not to read your posts at work for fear that someone will walk into my office! 🙂 I love being a mama and “sharing” this experience with you.

  17. 33

    Brenda says

    I believe in the brushing technique too – it helped a lot with my older son’s sensory issues. In fact, I think we should still keep it up – thanks for the reminder!

    Also, I want to thank you so much for such beautiful writing. Your blog has pushed me back into writing again for my enjoyment. I read your posts over and over and am fascinated by the way you draw us in each time. I can’t wait to get to the end of your post, but at the same time, I don’t want to miss one detail.

    • 34


      Hi Brenda, I am thrilled to know that my blog inspired you to get back to writing. This is so uplifting to me. I know writing has been a critical piece to staying the course on my Hands Free journey. Writing about my experiences helps me stay accountable. I try to encourage others to write, especially if they have a passion for it. I was so excited to be contacted by to write a piece that would encourage other mothers who write. It will be published on May 13th. I think you will enjoy it, as well as the whole site in general! Thank you for sharing. I will remember this line forever: “I can’t wait to get to the end of your post, but at the same time, I don’t want to miss one detail.” That is a writer’s dream!

  18. 35


    Rachel! I love this! Incredibly well written when you look at the subtle complexity.

    The moral of the story really hits home for me. I hope that people’s fear laden reactions to these horrible events of late won’t damage the values that we hold dear in our society.

    The subtle hints to these events and the fallibility of what we do to protect ourselves, foreshadows the truth of your message. Which is to love with such intensity that all these are things no longer seem to trouble us.

    By the way, Rachel is #1 on my list when it comes to inspiration!

    • 36


      Thank you, Seamus. I love your comments. Not only are they incredibly affirming, but there is always a nugget of wisdom or insight that I can take with me. I was honored to be listed on your recommendations for parenting inspiration! Thank you! It is a gift to share this journey with you.

  19. 37

    Roxanne Scoville says

    Silly question, I know, but where did you get these brushes? Were they like like baby brushes? I raised 11 kids (14 grand and 2 “on the way”) and they loved having their hair brushed or back/head/feet rubs, which in some way is akin to brushing. Would massage work as a substitute, or was the brushing more of a figurative action? I post your wonderful writings to my children as I see that they have become very electonically disconnected. They are still wonderful parents, but I worry that their electronic world will encroach upon the “real” world of parenting. Thanks for what you are going. You inspire even an old grandma like me. xo

  20. 40

    ppreacherswife says

    I have 5 sons, 2 of which had SID, and we brushed for many, many years. Like you, I was skeptical at first when the OT handed me the brush, my first question was “won’t this hurt?” And she brought my son who was I think then over, he had been running from one corner of the room the other at full speed. She brushed him and by the time she was finished, he was sitting on the floor beside me, just all chilled and relaxed! I was amazed…. Over time the two boys we used this technique with would bring the brush to me when they felt they needed it. It always amazed me to see the difference in before and after, I mean, who would think brushing would help that much? lol. I’m so thankful for the OT that gave me the brush!

  21. 41


    A fellow blogger sent me over here to read about your experiences with the Wilbarger Technique.

    Your experiences have certainly convinced me to give it a try. My son’s a complicated mix of severe ADHD and autism and OCD. Once I’ve been permitted by him, I know that stroking his arm or sometimes his head with my hand helps to calm him down. I can imagine this technique could definitely be something for him.

    After all you’ve been through with your students, it must be an extra blessing to hear your own daughter tell you that you make her feel safe.

    • 42


      Hi Sarsm, I was so honored to see that one of my readers shared my post on Scary Mommy. I am a big fan of Jill Smokler. Your post was very moving. I can only imagine the parents who found strength and comfort in your words. Sometimes it helps just to know we’re not alone. I really hope the brushing brings positive results to your son like it did for many of my students. Wishing you well.

  22. 43

    Amy B says

    Rachel – I’ve just found a demonstration of the Wilbarger Brushing Technique on YouTube and I plan on starting it with my 7 year old son. He has Asperger’s and sensitivity is a huge issue – as are high-voltage meltdowns. THANK YOU for sharing your experiences! You always have such wonderful inspirations for those of us struggling to do a better job of connecting with our kids. I am hopeful that we will see some of the same amazing results you did!

    • 44


      Oh Amy! I feel so hopeful just reading your message! Like I said in the post, it was very effective in changing behavior in certain students and other children just seemed to enjoy the sensation. I hope there are positive results with your son and that it can become a source of connection between the two of you. Will you update me in a few weeks? I will be thinking about you.

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