All parents dread the day when they have to gather their courage and hand off care of their precious children to someone else. After all, it’s a terrifying prospect to leave this vulnerable love-of-your-life with someone else, even if that someone else is a family member. It’s particularly hard when your knowledge of the caregiver‐to‐be is limited to an interview, a background check, and some references. Many thoughts go through your head: How actively will she watch my kid? How will she react when my kid acts up? Will she yell and scream, spank, give perpetual timeouts, or take a more relaxed approach? Will she listen to what my child is really saying? What will she feed them? Now, take these fears, magnify them ten‐fold, and add a bunch more to the list if your child has special needs.
Finding a special needs nanny can be hard, especially since special needs can be many different things, from autism to special medical needs, and different needs require different skills. There is so much to know, and so much to learn. By necessity, these parents are continually learning and training themselves to handle the issues involved. As hard as it is for parents to handle special needs, there is no guarantee that a caregiver can be found with a similar level of understanding and commitment.
That being said, the market for trained caregivers for special needs kids is large, untapped, and potentially lucrative. Parents of special needs children are desperate for a chance, even a small and sporadic one, for a break. As a caregiver targeting the special needs nanny market, you’ll need to be prepared to answer some specific questions. While what these questions are will vary depending on the special needs involved, there are some commonalities:
- Training. Parents will want to know if you have any formal training in special needs, such as in nursing or special education. Specialized training and certification carry a lot of weight, because it reassures parents that a caregiver possesses understanding, not just of what to do, but of what can be expected. Special needs play a large role in a child’s development. It affects a child’s temperament and outlook on the world. The empathy that comes with understanding what a child is dealing with can give you the clarity to see that the child is more than any particular disorder.
- Medical training. Depending on the issues involved, parents will want to know that you are certified in first-aid and CPR. With any family, special needs or not, this is an important question, but some special needs make this knowledge absolutely essential. They may also want to know that you can handle a syringe and are comfortable doing so. These are just a few examples of the particular medical skills you might need to have.
- Experience. Training is great, but parents will also want to know about practical experience. Potential caregivers will always be asked about experience, but in a special needs situation, the questions will be much more pointed. Many special needs such as autism, ADHD, and bipolar disorder have triggers. These triggers can send a child into fits of anger, enthusiasm, or panic. The behavior can be scary to the uninitiated. Without training and experience, a caregiver might find herself in a terrifying situation with an uncommunicative, out-of-control child, with no idea of how to handle it. The safety of the child, the caregiver, and others could be at risk.
- Discipline. You will certainly be asked about your views on child discipline. Parents will look for two things: compatibility and flexibility. They will want to know if your views are in-line with their views and that you are willing and able to make adjustments based on the needs of the child. Many emotional disorders require special handling for disciplinary methods. Just using the wrong pitch of voice can send a child with certain emotional disorders into a wild, downward spiral. Sometimes the only way to defuse an uncommunicative, uncontrollable child is by tightly hugging them; it helps calm and ground them. There must be complete agreement with the family and caregiver on discipline, because consistency is the key to successful behavioral management.
- Food. Regardless of whether a child has special needs, most families will want to know your attitude toward feeding the kids. In special needs families, dietary concerns are often more than preferences as many special needs require special diets. Some are obvious, such as diabetes and allergies, but some aren’t. Many behavioral/emotional disorders see improvement by eliminating certain items from the diet. This varies from person to person. Things like food dyes, gluten, dairy, caffeine, preservatives can all affect behavior in some people. Parents will want to know that if they say no to food dye and caffeine because it might make their child uncontrollable, you take it seriously. They want reassurance that you will follow their rules and not give in when the kid begs and pleads for a snack bag of M&Ms offered by another kid in the playground.
These are only some of the areas that parents of children with special needs care about. You, as a caregiver, likely also have questions for parents. Take some time to consider and anticipate what a special needs family might require of a special needs nanny before your interview. The second part of this blog series will continue this discussion.
Julie Tittler is the CEO of Semafores, Inc. She has over 16 years of software engineering experience. She is a graduate of Cornell University, College of Engineering. Her most recent experience is with ITT Technologies, Defense Services, where she was a Sr. Software Engineer for ten years. She founded Semafores to solve a pressing need to manage the persistent, complicated, and diverse medical needs of her family. She is a longstanding member of IEEE, IEEE Computer Society, WIE (Women in Engineering), and the Society of Women Engineers.