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.
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.