Why HANDLE®?

Different interventions “work” for different people. The McNatt Learning Center provides HANDLE because we continue to be extremely impressed with how often HANDLE helps with sensory-motor, attention, and stress-response issues—even when other interventions haven’t. Here are nine aspects to the HANDLE approach, which together make it uniquely effective:

  • We see behavior as communication.
  • We maximize pupils' current abilities.
  • We keep input usable.
  • We prioritize safety and security.
  • We support enduring relationships.
  • We grow attention and emotional regulation.
  • Our programs are scientifically grounded.
  • Our programs are doable.
  • Our programs are progressive.


HANDLE sees behavior as communication.

HANDLE takes a nonjudgmental view of behaviors as a method of communicating. Often, behaviors communicate what is difficult, or less efficient, to express in words. HANDLE does not attempt to mask or control behaviors, but rather seeks to understand their message.

Naturally, you and I, along with everyone else:

  • Protect ourselves in the area of our greatest vulnerability.
  • If possible, set up situations or control situations to accomplish this.

When our areas of greatest vulnerability are areas others can easily relate to, this rarely creates a problem. However, when our areas of greatest vulnerability aren’t common, our perfectly natural self-protectiveness is often misinterpreted as maladaptive behaviors. Moreover, an authority’s insistence on compliance can lead to a fright, flight, freeze or fight response.


HANDLE maximizes pupils' current abilities.

Fundamental to HANDLE is the knowledge that stressed systems do not get stronger in predictable ways. When someone encounters something stressful, which the mind-body interprets as a threat, his or her body drops into “fight or flight” mode. While in fight or flight, a person’s body prioritizes short-term survival, not learning. Long-term well-being is less of a concern than making it through the threat at hand. If the threat continues, a person’s body drops further—into “fright” mode, also called “playing possum” or “shut down.” In fright, learning stops altogether.

Fortunately, the human body gives off signals of the transitions into fight or flight, or into fright. By learning these signals, called “State Changes” in HANDLE, parents and pupils can recognize signs of stress before stress overloads a pupil’s ability to sense, acknowledge need, move appropriately, modulate emotional response, and think strategically. When a person is overwhelmed, improvements in these areas tend to be sporadic. By cutting off stress at the pass, HANDLE empowers a pupil both to improve in these areas, and also to use the abilities (s)he already has.


HANDLE keeps input usable.

To make learning possible, we keep input useable. We employ a principle we call “Gentle Enhancement®”: we match what we provide to each learner’s unique needs, without threatening, boring, or overwhelming:

  • Instead of trying, straightaway, to control maladaptive behavior through punishments or rewards, we look to see what a learner might be communicating through his or her behavior.
  • Instead of looking straightaway to increase sensitivity in a person labeled “hypo-sensitive,” we consider reasons a learner might be blocking sensation: are certain sensations too painful? too threatening?
  • Instead of looking straightaway to desensitize a person labeled “hypersensitive,” we seek to empower a learner to make sense of what (s)he senses—so hyper-vigilance isn’t necessary.
  • Without undermining the importance of treatments designed to achieve outcomes via specific, definable procedures, we choose a different route: we create a context conducive to associative learning. We acknowledge each learner’s unique aspirations, utilize each learner’s gifts, meet each learner’s needs, and respect every learner, as a person.

HANDLE prioritizes safety and security.

There are many reasons why a person may not feel safe. A traumatic injury or separation can leave a person in “shut down.” Neglect can breed hyper-vigilance. Abuse can breed defensiveness and unwillingness to trust. Other reasons why a person may not feel safe aren’t as obvious. Here are a few:

Some people feel insecure in gravity. They might get dizzy, or the words they’re trying to read might seem to shift on the page. Just as important, they might get disoriented, over-react, or have a tough time relaxing. Poor vestibular function—a joint effort between the brain and a sensory system in the inner ear—can alter a person’s attentional priorities away from learning, toward keeping things stable.

Some people have a tough time figuring out what to focus on. One minute, this (whatever it is) seems important. The next minute, that (something entirely different) seems important. When a person’s perception of relevance shifts rapidly, decision-making grinds to a halt. If it goes on often enough, self-confidence tanks, too. Poor integration between hemispheres of the brain—dependent on many factors—can alter a person’s attentional priorities away from learning, toward getting a clear sense of “self”—a sense of "I can do this" (even if the this I can do isn’t appreciated by others).

By honoring each person’s natural self-protectiveness, HANDLE unlocks learning potential that goes unused in the face of stress.


HANDLE supports enduring relationships.

Some people also don’t feel safe trying again. They’ve tried before—and failed. Others, all around them, seem to “get it.” Their teachers… their parents… their friends—so many people say, “It’s easy”—but what’s easy for some people is clearly not easy for others. When trying harder doesn’t solve the problem, there’s usually something else going on. A HANDLE Practitioner finds some of what’s going on, provides activities to help, and helps parents or partners-in-care foster an environment in which it’s safe to try again.

It’s important for the McNatt Learning Center to be a safe place to learn, grow, and explore. It’s important, too, for the home to be a safe place to learn, grow, and explore. It’s thus important, to us, that we help parents or partners-in-care nurture safe places to learn, grow, and explore at home.

The relationships that HANDLE Practitioners forge with pupils typically last between 4 months to 3 years. The relationships that moms and dads nurture with their children, or that spouses nurture with one another, hopefully last a lifetime. It’s thus important, to most HANDLE Practitioners, to build up such relationships whenever we can. We're no exception.

Learning issues can strain familial relationships. Creating space to learn, grow, and explore can help heal those relationships. Coming alongside a family member who has been struggling can renew—or establish—deep connection. We help make it possible.


HANDLE nurtures attention and emotional regulation.

Every HANDLE program employs a principle we call “Gentle Enhancement®,” in which carefully selected HANDLE Activities:

  • Challenge. They merit focus. Sometimes, they evoke the stress response. This provides a pupil opportunity to practice recognizing the stress response and backing off—not to give up trying, but to save “trying again” for a more opportune time, be that a few seconds later or a whole day later.
  • Can be stopped in a moment’s notice. They don’t overwhelm. Because a pupil is free to stop an activity when (s)he begins to feel stressed or unsafe, (s)he’s free to practice the activities without the threat of becoming overwhelmed.
  • Are often done with a partner. The ability to notice, “I’m getting stressed,” is crucial to healthy emotional regulation: it’s what empowers a person, at a most basic level, to keep him- or herself safe. Nevertheless, striving—whether for for achievement, recognition, to please others, to master his/her body, or to control the unpredictable—readily displaces the recognition that “I’m getting stressed.”
    Doing HANDLE activities with a partner provides a pupil with the opportunity to improve sensory-motor and emotional regulation. It also helps nurture trust between the pupil and the coach, who—simply by “being there” for the pupil, pointing out State Changes, and acknowledging that stopping is okay—validates the pupil’s experience of the world and say in his or her own learning.

HANDLE programs are scientifically grounded.

The HANDLE approach is rooted in the following, well-established facts of contemporary neuroscience:

  • The Mind-Body Connection: Neurological functions are the foundation of our daily functioning. The brain is prepared to respond to sensory input from the body, thus setting up a partnership. This interplay allows us to meet the daily demands put on us.
  • Neuroplasticity: The brain adjusts to the changing experiences of every day life as a lifelong process. This fact is recognized and proven by modern neurological research. HANDLE acknowledges this by gently and specifically stimulating the weak areas in order to strengthen them.
  • The Nervous System and Stress: When daily tasks become too challenging because our systems are not adaptable enough, stress sets in, and disconcerting behaviors sometimes occur. People with learning and behavioral difficulties often have to work harder than others and, thus, experience increased stress… which further limits their learning. Fortunately, gently strengthening underlying weak areas can make a profound difference!
  • Unity of the Senses: Irregularities in one area can resonate symptomatically in other areas. Thus, movement activities reinforce not only one, but several functions at the same time.

HANDLE programs are doable.

HANDLE programs typically require less than 35 minutes a day to implement—and they’re rarely done all at once. Rather, different activities can be worked in throughout the day: three minutes here, a minute there, five minutes here. Moreover, gains in efficiency realized through HANDLE programs often offset the time spent doing them.

Since HANDLE programs are tailored to the needs and abilities of each person, the programs can help people of any age or ability, even those with degenerative diseases or chromosomal disorders, and even if those diseases have progressed. Clients who struggle to move at all, for instance, can often be helped by mentally rehearsing what they see someone else doing. A client who is mentally rehearsing—“trying on” what they’re seeing—is doing something. In fact, the mental rehearsal they’re doing is so powerful, it becomes important that someone else watch for signs of stress: just the thought of the activities can cause stress… in which case, we simply back off, so we can build skill and adaptability gradually, without overwhelming.


HANDLE programs are progressive.

HANDLE programs begin by supporting efficient sensory-motor processing. Then, since the mind-body can only do so much consciously at any given time, HANDLE Practitioners sometimes often add “thinking tasks” to pupils’ programs. This process is called “task loading,” and it’s an important part of making the abilities developed through Gentle Enhancement more efficient and sustainable.

The more resources the nervous system devotes to the new “thinking tasks,” the fewer resources it has to devote to foundational processing—so, it puts what’s more familiar on auto-pilot. In effect, the mind-body lets go of some conscious attempts to regulate perception and movement and, in doing so, makes sensory-motor processing even more efficient.

Every HANDLE program, however much it incorporates mental rehearsal or task loading, is individualized to address the needs of the person for whom it is specially created.

  • HANDLE understands that stressed systems do not get stronger.
  • HANDLE encourages conservation of our natural resources to improve well-being.
  • HANDLE employs Gentle Enhancement in evaluation sessions and treatment alike.
  • HANDLE employs nonjudgmental observational assessment and in-depth interviews to develop a neurodevelopmental profile, instead of determining a score and providing a label. From the profile, understanding emerges of some root causes of the presenting concerns—and from this basis, an individualized program is designed to enhance function. Groups may also use HANDLE programs designed according to their settings and needs.

If you would like your own HANDLE program, or if you believe your child could benefit from HANDLE, why not get in touch with us today?