All children require consistency and expectations to learn about the world around them. As a caretaker for a child with special needs, it is your responsibility to provide structure and support as they interact with new situations and experiences. Accommodations will help support the child to adapt and support you to guide their growth.
1. Maintain a consistent schedule
Routine is key for students of all abilities, but the more consistent your routine is, the more safe and secure your child with special needs will feel. A checklist or picture board can help the child refer to what will happen. Some families even use binders with laminated checklists that older kids can check-off using dry erase markers. Clear visuals not only help the child, but also keep all team members consistent to the same routine.
Transitions should also be as consistent as possible. If every day at lunchtime, you give the child a water bottle, then put their bib on, buckle the child into the high chair and then bring out food for lunch it will be an easier transition than picking a child up from where they are playing and putting them in the high chair to wait while you grab the bib, water and food.
- Pro tip: When you know there will be an upcoming event that is new to the child, make sure you prepare them by giving them as much information as possible to soothe any anxieties. Allow the child to ask questions, and provide pictures so that the child can preview the experience they are about to have.
2. Time it
A timer can help you stay organized, keep track of tasks and motivate the child to follow directions. A consistent transition should always include a time warning to increase a child’s awareness of time and time management. It is up to the caretaker whether you are comfortable with the intervals of the warnings but I usually find that 10 minute, 5 minute and 1minute warnings help me the most. Once the last time warning is up, I like to use the timer to see how quickly a child can transition, whether we are cleaning up or racing to get back to the stroller.
Using the timer helps make the transition a fun game so that the child is not fixated on feeling sad about leaving the park or cleaning up. Kids can make a connection that doing something they might not want to do for a short focused amount of time is more productive than having a tantrum or argument.
- Pro-tip: The timer can also help you collect data about how long it takes a child to independently complete a task. If you compare that amount of time to how long it takes you to do the task for the child, you can start teaching the child self-sufficiency skills by giving them small quick steps to do on their own until they can improve their independent skills to get dressed themselves, clean up themselves, feed themselves or any other behavior you want to become the focus.
3. Use Visual Clues
Visual reminders can help to limit the amount you need to repeat yourself on a daily basis. Take pictures of common household items, routines, or the child at various stages of the day. A picture of the child ready to go to school can help them while they are getting ready to go by and check that they have everything they need, or a photo of all the toys put away in their rightful spot can help a child clean them back up again and again.
Labeling household items can increase vocabulary and improve literacy. Index cards with instructions, directions, or checklists serve as constant references. These can also include rules or reminders for behaviors you are trying to avoid or encourage. Schedules and maps can also help children get a better sense of when and where things are happening.
- Pro-tip: Use a photo album to store pictures of toys and things that the child likes. Not only can this help increase communication so they can point to what they want, but it can also help soothe them if they are upset.
4. Use a multi-sensory approach to learning and playing
Besides visual clues, it is important that you also include auditory (sound) and tactile (touch) cues for the child to interact with the world around them. Some ideas to increase auditory awareness are incorporating music, singing, snapping, clapping, stomping, whistling and humming in day-to-day routines and transitions.
Students with special needs benefit from sensory stimulation like soft comforting fabrics, straws to chew on, bubbles, silly putty, stress balls to squeeze, or shakers. It is important to remember that too much sensory input will lead to overstimulation, so try and minimize distractions by keeping one or two points of concentration. Be aware of any lights or new smells that can overwhelm a child with special needs, and proactively plan to have something comforting on hand in case they become upset.
- Pro tip: Keep in mind that crowds are often a source of overstimulation and while it is, at times, unavoidable have a back-up plan.
5. Incorporate interests
If you are just getting to know a child, make sure to ask parents and family members about the child’s known likes and dislikes. Whether it’s Dora the Explorer, the color yellow or anything involving trucks. Knowing what makes the child happiest is key to working with them. Showing interest in what they like will develop a strong bond between you and the child; and knowing what they dislike can help you communicate with the child that you understand their frustration or disappointment.
The more creative you can be to incorporate a child’s hobbies and interests into activity plans and daily tasks, the more fun you will have together. Less exciting tasks like brushing teeth can become a rocketship launch and singing the theme song from the child’s favorite show may help engage them while getting buckled into the stroller or car seat.
- Pro-tip: While you develop a bond with the child in your care you can expose the child to your own interests and preferences. Rather than only showing enthusiasm for the things you know the child already likes, make sure to take opportunities to point out that sometimes people have different tastes. You might even convince a picky eater, or devoted Dora the Explorer fan to try something new!
The toughest thing about working with kids with special needs is how varied their interests, strengths and areas for growth can be. Though there is no precise formula for finding the perfect schedule, or most appealing transition, use trial and error, and determination to find the best fit. Check out Mariel’s, part one of Special Needs Accommodations from last week to learn more!
Mariel Perlow started teaching special education after graduating from Boston College with a degree in Elementary Education and Political Science. She taught fourth and fifth graders with special needs as a Teach for America Corps Member in Richmond and Oakland, California. After three years teaching in a special day classroom setting, Mariel relocated to Boston Public Schools where she transitioned to a small group pull-out setting as a fourth and fifth grade student support teacher. This fall she will continue working in Boston for her fifth year teaching. Besides teaching, Mariel has over a dozen years of childcare experience in a variety of roles from mother’s helper to summer nanny to camp counselor to working children’s birthday parties. Mariel is thrilled to have the chance to share advice from her experiences working with so many wonderful families and children!