Tips for working with a special-needs child

As the population of special need children’s continues to grow, increasing number of people find themselves working with these children for the first time. Many of them are family members or volunteers who generously give their time; others may be highly trained in their particular field, but with little or no knowledge special-need care.
Here are some tips you may utilize or pass on to those who provide such care:

1. Interact

The biggest mistake that adults make when they meet someone with special needs is ‘failing to interact with him/her’.  Usually they try asking a question (s/he hates questions, therefore s/he won’t answer), then they give up and start talking to parents. Actually, the same rules as of polite conversation apply to these children.  First, introduce yourself and explain how you are connected to the child.  Depending on the child’s special needs, it may be necessary to take the child’s hand, place a hand on the child’s shoulder or even touch each other’s face to make a proper introduction. Then explain the activity that you will be doing with the child.  Explain the different steps of the activity, including the beginning, middle and the end – while making as much eye contact as possible.

2. Observe

Some children with special needs identify sensory input in different ways and may be unable to express discomfort.  Remember that all behavior is communication.  Always keep a lookout for these differences and think about what the child’s behavior is communicating to you.  If you’re not sure what you’re seeing, ask the child’s parents or other adults for advice and more information.

3. Use Common Sense

Take an example – Suppose there were children in the swimming class, ranged in age from 3 to 18, and two instructors had the children sit on the edge of the pool, with latter’s feet in the water; while instructors took turns working individually with each child. There are several problems with this plan. First, the water was deep and the children sitting at the edge were in constant danger of falling in.  Second, the children were shivering while they waited for their turn, which heightened their anxiety and overall discomfort.  Third, the younger children all cried when one of the instructors swam up and suddenly scooped them into the water away from their parents. All of these problems could have been avoided easily with common sense: put safety first and arrange the environment for physical and emotional comfort.

4. Be Flexible

Some volunteers/trained individuals say that they won’t change the way they do things to accommodate one person in a group.  But the whole point of teaching is to use a variety of methods to help the other person understand and master new skills.  For example, if a child refuses to let go of a parent, bring the parent into the activity for a few minutes to reduce anxiety, then, fade out the parent. If a child does not have the proper motor skills for an activity, help the child go through the motions and assign a buddy to help the child practice on the sidelines for a few minutes.  In a religious education class, a child may have difficulty understanding some concepts; but when those same concepts are presented in a game or hands-on art project, they make more sense.

5. Be Consistent

If a set of rules is presented to the group, apply those rules consistently to everyone. Mostly on the first day of martial arts class., the instructor explains to students and parents that if a child is having any type of behavior issue, he would ask the parent to sit with the child. Throughout the lesson, if student had difficulty understanding the rapid directions, wait for the instructor to wave you in.  Instead the instructor had to say to the student that s/he would have to leave the class if s/he can’t sit still.  After class you can have a private conversation with the instructor about his inconsistency.

6. Use visual, auditory or tactile cues

Having the right clues in an environment can mean the difference between participation and non-participation for many children with special needs.  Use index cards with simple written instructions to help the child to remember the rules for appropriate behavior – if the child does not read, substitute a hand-drawn cartoon or other picture for words. I once heard a first grade teacher softly singing instructions to her students.  As soon as she started singing, every single student became quiet and attentive.  Other auditory cues are clapping, snapping or whistling. Tactile cues such as gently touching a person’s shoulder, offering a blanket or other soft fabric, or providing silly putty are easy ways to mark a transition and get a person’s attention.

7. Have a plan A.  And a plan B ready

You know what they say about the best-laid plans.  In the world of special needs, there is always a Plan B, and usually a Plan C.  Make sure that there is space to calm down and move freely if things go badly.  Think about what each participant can do instead of focusing on what they can’t contribute.

8. Be Positive

A positive attitude is the single most important quality for anyone who works with children with special needs.  I’ve seen highly trained specialists unable to interact with child because of their negative attitude and assumptions.  But some people with no experience or knowledge of this disability have jumped right in and changed lives for the better.  That’s why we keep signing up for more activities.  We might even end up in an activity for special need kids with you someday.

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