[The following is adapted by Patti Teel from her book The Floppy Sleep Game Book: A Proven 4-Week Plan to Get Your Child to Sleep (copyright © 2005 by Patti Teel; 0-399-53200-5).]
Children with special needs don’t have it easy and they are often stressed as they struggle to "fit in" and control their emotions. While relaxation skills are important for all children, they can dramatically improve the life of special needs children, helping them to calm and relax themselves.
It's very important to practice relaxation in a fun, imaginative way. The last thing you want your child to think is that relaxation is "just one more thing to do." After all, relaxation is not so much doing as it is an undoing, or a letting go. If you imagine that you are relaxed, your tension is likely to abate and your muscles will relax. In contrast, if you try to will yourself to become relaxed, you are likely to become tense. Still, the ability to let go and relax will improve with practice. A daily routine of self-calming exercises is important in order that children learn to relax and quiet themselves whenever they have a need to do so. At first, have children practice relaxation exercises when they are not upset or overly anxious. It's best to practice them at least once and preferably twice a day. In order for children to relax when they encounter stressful situations, the relaxation response needs to become second nature.
Children are wonderfully receptive to guided relaxation. It often helps if children are first taught to tense and then relax each of the muscle groups, a technique known as progressive relaxation. By first tensing their muscles, children are able to feel and understand the contrasting feeling of relaxation. Practice in a number of fun ways: tensing and relaxing muscles by making fists, holding the eyebrows up before relaxing them, or curling up in a ball before releasing and relaxing the entire body. Once your child is able to relax without first tensing the muscle groups, you may wish to try the following guided relaxation routine, "Heavy and Relaxed." Remember, children like repetition and it will help them to become more comfortable and secure with the movements if you repeat a routine that is effective and that they find enjoyable.
Tip: Review or reword the body parts that your child may be unfamiliar with, such as palm, sole, nostril, buttock, groin, or collarbone. (Lightly touching the part of the body that your child is directed to relax is a great way for your child to learn the names for all the various body parts.)