In many preschools and child care programs today you can find a growing number of special-needs children. These children have disabilities ranging from hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, speech and language difficulties, blindness, deafness, mental retardation, and physical impairments. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), our society is becoming better equipped to meet the needs and challenges of these special children. Unfortunately, many daycare providers have little to no special training to deal with these children. There are a few workshops available to help and more teachers are taking them. Unfortunately, many of the strategies for teaching these kids depends on the use of technology that many providers do not have access to. I have put together a few ideas to help most teaching staffs to provide for these children on a shoestring budget and a little creativity.
The most important thing to remember is to communicate with the parents on a daily basis. They will be the ones to tell you how their child works best, what the highest needs are, and what other agencies are involved in the child's care and education. Outside agencies that work with the children on speech therapy or other things will often be happy to provide materials for you to copy and use with all of the children, not just the one child. Anything that the special needs child works on is also good for the typical children to work on. These goals can be incorporated into your daily routine.
The easiest way to include a special needs child is to have them sit either in a lap or beside an adult. The child will probably need more direction and direct help with fingerplays, songs, and listening skills. The teacher or aide can help by whispering to the child about how well they are listening, affirming a point in a story, asking frequent questions and planning a shorter time. Children who use special equipment like a chair can be included by having all the children sit in chairs, or sitting the child in a supported position on the floor. Ask the parents what the best place would be. As well padded as a wheelchair is, children still need to get out and stretch once in a while.
Using sign language also helps not only hearing impaired children, but also gives other children a visual clue as to what you are saying. Some learning disabled children as well as those with communication disorders understand a visual sign or picture easier than just the spoken word. Having small cards with songs pictured on them can also help a child to choose his or her favorites like everybody else. I like using sign language because then I am able to remind children silently to listen or raise their hand or be more quiet without drawing attention to the child.
For many special needs children, mealtime is one of the best learning opportunities. The areas of small motor skills, self-help, manners, language, eye-hand coordination, and social interaction are all stressed at every meal. Have the child seated next to an adult and have towels at the ready. If the child has difficulty feeding himself, the adult needs to sit behind them gently guiding the child's hand through the process. As the child gains more skill you can begin backing away. Go to sitting behind and using only words to direct, work up to sitting beside the child, then finally moving away all together. Again, talk to the parents to find out how much help the child needs before beginning any intervention.
The special needs child will need some adjustments to be able to fully participate in your classroom. Fortunately, most of the adjustments are minor and can be accomplished with a minimum of effort. The easiest things to do are change a few of your standard items. Put in knobbed puzzles, add a tape recorder for language, use squeeze only scissors, put in board books, big size legos, increase spacing between tables and walls, make sure shelves are firmly anchored, and arrange rooms so that all of the areas can be easily seen by an adult from any position. Giant crayons and pencils are also good as well as fat sized washable markers. Special needs children often have an easier time during clean-up if the shelves are marked showing where toys belong. Old toy catalogs are great for making signs for storing materials. Using Velcro for calendars, posters, and file folder games also makes putting things back on walls very easy.
Very little actually needs to be done to help accommodate most children. Unless a child has a mobility problem, the playground should be fine. A child with mobility problems may need more help. A bucket type swing with a seatbelt is easily found. (Little Tykes makes them.) Likewise adding velcro foot straps to a tricycle or buying a low basketball goal. Bigger projects like a cement path for wheelchairs, and trikes, can be a fundraising goal for your parents group.
Many special needs children are slow to potty train and may still be in diapers or in Pull-ups. Potty training is very important for these children and is done just like for any toddler. The important thing to remember is to use as much positive reinforcement as you can. I have found that posting a photo schedule of the steps involved helps quite a bit. A simple 3 step poster keeps a child on track. Here again is where communication with parents is crucial. If the parents and the teacher are using the same technique and reward system, the child will learn much quicker and be less confused. As with any child, you will need to monitor the bathroom to prevent it from becoming a favorite water play place.
Common Problem Areas
Probably the biggest concern with any special needs child is behavior. Attention deficit, hyperactivity, learning disabilities and more all influence a child's behavior. These children become frustrated more easily and frustration can lead to behavior problems. Yelling, throwing, running away, breaking toys, hurting children, these are all things that I have had to deal with. The best tool for handling negative behavior is to anticipate it. You can recognize what leads to an episode of unacceptable behavior and change things early to head it off.
For many children, transitions are the main focus. Try announcing any transition at least five minutes ahead of time and every minute thereafter. Go over to the child and tell them face to face that the activity is coming to an end. Give the child a specific job to do such as put away crayons, slide in chairs, set out carpet squares. Have a picture schedule up on the wall for children to reference. Again, old catalogs are wonderful for this. Repeat what is coming up next and have the children tell you what is going to happen. One teacher I worked with used a kitchen timer to keep track of schedule changes. The children knew that the bell meant clean-up time.
Another easy idea is to break down tasks into smaller steps. For example, when painting, have the child first get a smock, then show the paint, then have her do her art. When she is finished, walk her through the steps to put things away and put away her picture. Avoid giving more than two steps at a time. Teach the child to break up big tasks as well. For instance, when doing a puzzle have him dump the pieces, then turn them over, then find all of the edge parts first. By having a system to follow, the child will be able to concentrate more and have less cause for frustration.
Another problem area is communicating with peers. Children who have language difficulties also face problems in problem solving, social interaction, and play. Try having an adult in the child's play group to model asking to play, interacting with others, sharing, exchanging ideas, and solving problems. Don't do all of the talking but give examples of what to say. "Ask Bill if he will trade his truck for your blocks." "You need to remind Jane that she can't knock down your blocks without asking." Children want to fit in and modeling gives any child a way to learn to fit in and make friends.
In spite of your best efforts, any child with (or without) special needs may become aggressive. There is no best way to handle the angry and aggressive child. I have used positive behavior charts to encourage acceptable behavior. These seem to work well and can be used for the entire classroom, not just the individual child. Each teacher will have to determine what works best for her or his class. I tend to use a combination of rewarding with words or stickers, a positive behavior chart, a corner for a student to be all alone by choice, time-outs, and complete removal from the classroom. What works for one child may or may not work with another.
Having a special needs child in your classroom can be a rewarding experience. With patience, a little creativity, and a lot of love and understanding, you can be a very important part of a special child's life.
Deanna Jordon graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a BS degree in Human Development. She has had experience with disabled family members and for the past 10 years she has taught in integrated classrooms as an aide and a head teacher. Presently she is teaching in a private preschool center with a disabled child enrolled. Deanna also does volunteer work for the National PTA forum Children First and the Boy Scouts Exploring Program. She is also the parent of a speech-delayed child.