Inclusion and Special Needs

Special Needs & Inclusion – February 13th, 2017

Question: It seems like every year I have more kids with “special needs” in my room. They can be really hard to deal with, and I’m not a specialist in all their different disorders. The other kids don’t get to do all the interesting things I used to do as a teacher because I’m spending so much time and energy on a few kids, and we can’t even have all the materials I used to have. I want ALL children to have a good preschool experience, and this seems impossible right now. Is there anything I can do about this?

Answer: Many teachers report having more children with diagnoses or learning differences than they used to, and while the jury is still out as to why that is – changing diagnostics, or changes in the environment that are causing more issues – teachers are trusted to provide the best early learning experience they can to all children they have.

If you feel like you’re not equipped to handle the needs of children in your care, the first step is to be proactive and educate yourself. There are literally hundreds of books and other resources that can help you get a better handle on a particular diagnosis. You can even start by googling “best practices early childhood autism,” or “cerebral palsy early childhood” to get some starting points. It’s likely that you can find local or online trainings to take.

If that seems too overwhelming, any child with an IEP or IFSP has specialists (sometimes a team of them) that can be great resources. Schedule a time to talk in person or over the phone outside the chaos of the classroom, and explain that you need some concrete tips that will help you support this child. After all, 10 children with the same diagnosis can all have very different needs and abilities. It’s most important to focus on the one right in front of you.

Having children with a wide range of needs and abilities – inclusion – can be tricky, especially at first. Rather than focusing on what you “can’t” do with your class, however, get creative to figure out how you can make experiences work for everyone. For example, if you have a child who tries to eat paint or playdough every time it’s available, don’t use that as a reason to never do paint or playdough. You may need to carefully design those experiences, so that a teacher can sit with the eater and give one-on-one attention. If the child is receiving services or therapy in the classroom (which is considered best practice), talk to the child’s therapist(s) and see if painting or playdough would be appropriate activities to have open while the therapist is there.  Sometimes children with special needs qualify for a one-on-one at least part of the day to help with supervision and more intensive work.

But the goal here isn’t to isolate the child with a one-on-one or other adult. The goal of inclusion is to recognize all children as valuable members of the classroom community, to inspire a spirit of belonging that extends to everyone, whether a child has a disability, or is just extremely shy and lacks social skills. Start from a place where you, as the teacher, recognize every child’s intrinsic gifts and challenges. Yes, of course some children fit more easily in the classroom environment, but all children do grow, progress, and learn, each in their own ways. What a good day looks like for one child – learning to write her name, for example – can look very different for another child, who finally said her first words, but both are experiencing meaningful growth.

Provide opportunities for children with disabilities to engage in structured, special activities with another child or two who may be a good fit because of energy level, temperament, or interests. Find ways for children with disabilities to be in leadership roles, too, whether it’s helping the teacher by carrying things, pointing to images while singing or reading, or asking them to show the rest of the class how they do something special. It’s never too early to start a conversation in response to the questions children will naturally have about why one child cannot yet walk, or talks strangely, or acts unpredictably. Emphasizing to your class that we all learn differently, and we care about and help all our friends equally is something even young children understand. It may take a little more work, especially at the beginning, but the benefits of inclusion for children with special needs are tremendous, as are the benefits for typically developing children who will learn how to interact with and have empathy for people different from themselves.

Keep in mind too that building this awareness in young children can go a long way in changing how society treats people with all types of difference. Not so long ago, children who were deaf, for example, were considered unteachable and institutionalized. Having children with any type of disability or difference was viewed as shameful, and the children were often taken from their families. It is a long, ongoing battle for parents of children with special needs to make sure their educational rights are honored under the law. Typically developing or otherwise, no one really knows the capacity and potential of a child until she is in an environment that can help her grow.