Caring for all children requires patience, understanding and love, but sometimes children require special attention and adaptations. These considerations are called accommodations and are often necessary to support a variety of special needs. Whether you are a nanny, sitter, family member, teacher, therapist, or healthcare provider, accommodations can help you provide the most responsive and inclusive care possible. As a bonus, great care strategies work for children of all needs, because what child wouldn’t benefit from special attention to their developing abilities and continuous growth?
1. Give directions in small steps
Simplify the language to short sentences, instructing one step at a time. The more precise your language the better, for example, saying “clean up” is not as clear as saying “Toys in the bin” because the child could clean up one thing and then decide they are done. Some great sentence frames for any caretaker’s toolkit are “First (this) then (that)” or “If (this) then (that).” I usually prefer a 1,2,3 method to count off three things that need to be done at a time before moving on to more directions. I might count off three steps to cleaning up before we start getting ready to transition out of the house. I also use my fingers to count the steps and gesture whenever possible to point to the people, places and things involved. I narrate what I see the child doing after giving directions by saying “You finished the first step, now we have to put your books back on the shelf.”
For older children with more developed expressive language, you can have them mimic counting on their fingers, and even go up to five directions at a time. I like to have older kids act as my “mirror” or “echo” and repeat my directions or gesture as I gesture while counting them off. This way I can hear them repeat back to me what directions they need to follow, which helps prevent any misunderstanding about what directions I gave.
- Pro-tip: Including why the directions are important and relevant to the child helps motivate them to listen to what the directions are. Saying, “Time to clean up!” is less effective than explaining, “We need to get the toys off the floor so we can go to the library for music class.”
2. Provide Choices
Instead of asking, “What should we do next?” direct the child to two choices “Do you want to read a book or draw a picture?” This helps you set boundaries while giving the child a sense of empowerment! For younger children, it could be as simple as providing two different options in your hands like a ball or a block for them to take.
Providing choices with directions can also help motivate children to do tasks that are not so appealing. If you ask a child if they would rather put on sunscreen first or pack the beach bag, they will understand that though their input matters for the order they will be expected to accomplish both before they can get to the beach or pool.
- Pro-tip: Choice time is also a great way to reward kids after doing something necessary. For example, after the child accompanies you while running an errand would be a great time to give them the choice of what to do next like picking a game or drawing a picture. Presenting this choice during the errand time might help the child be cooperative to get to their choice time afterward.
3. Slow your rate of speech.
It seems like common sense, but adults have a much faster rate of speech than children. Adults have been using language to express themselves and receive information for much longer, and have an advanced skill set for comprehending more information in less time. What this means for kids, especially kids with special needs, is that sometimes they will receive an information overload and may not be able to process it all at once!
To make sure your words are purposeful speak slowly and clearly and use a gauge to tell whether or not your words have been understood. Depending on the child’s age they can give hand signals, thumbs up or down, shake their heads yes or no, repeat the directions back, point or use movement to show that they understand.
- Pro-tip: Use silly voices, gestures, rhymes and songs to help add interest and excitement to what you are saying.
4. Write or tell a social story
A social story can give a child an idea about a way to handle a problem, or provide a character to serve as a role model for an ideal way to respond to certain situations or feelings. Social stories can also set kids up for success when they are about to encounter a new situation, like going to a friend’s birthday party or sleepover. These social stories can be told and created at bedtime, they can be told with toys or puppets, or illustrated in a picture.
- Pro tip: Use favorite characters from books or television shows to engage the child and get them invested in the social story! Make your own social story with pictures of the kids in your care. Include the problem they’re trying to resolve, how they feel, what they would normally do, and what they should do instead. For instance if the story is about a child getting mad: “When I feel like hitting, I could hold my hands together and use my words instead.”
5. Observe to understand
The child you are working with might not be able to communicate their needs as clearly as other children you have worked with. Use your time together to watch, listen and learn the child’s habits, preferences and reactions. Keeping open communication with all team members working with the child offers consistency and helps everyone to better understand how to assist with the child’s needs. Keeping notes, a journal, or binder about behaviors, abilities and areas for growth can help you monitor progress as you spend more time caring for the child. Celebrate milestones, even if they seem minor like first eye contact or trying a new food.
- Pro tip: When analyzing a child’s behavior and how to support growth, use the ABC’s to guide your observations. Antecedent, Behavior and Consequence represent the behavior cycle that can shed light on what triggers certain behaviors, and how you can support the child’s development of new habits as they grow.
Most importantly, be positive and loving with the child and yourself. You will not always understand everything right away, and will certainly doubt yourself or question the right choices at times. The most important thing is that you are keeping the child’s best interest at heart and learning how to provide the best care and support possible.
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. This is Mariel’s first blog with Sittercycle, and she is thrilled to have the chance to share advice from her experiences working with so many wonderful families and children!