7 Tips for Successfully Working With Special Needs Children
24 November, 2019
As the population of students with special needs continues to grow, more and more people working in the education industry such as sports coaches, religious leaders, scout leaders, and even some teachers are finding themselves working with these children for the first time. Many of these adults are volunteers who generously offer their time and experience, while others are highly trained in their field but have little to no knowledge of or experience working with children with disabilities. Whether you’re the parent of a special needs child or a professional working or volunteering with kids, here are eight important tips to consider when working with these kids.
One of the biggest mistakes that adults make when they find themselves working with a special needs child is failing to interact with them in a way that they are comfortable with. Often, adults try asking questions – but for many special needs children, particularly those with autism, processing and answering questions can be difficult.
The rules of conversation are the same for both adults and children. You should begin the interaction by first introducing yourself and explaining how you are connected to or how you are going to be working with the child. It’s worth getting to know a little more about the child’s specific needs, as it may be necessary to take their hand or place a hand on their shoulder in order to make a proper introduction, while some kids can’t tolerate any kind of touch. Then you should explain the activity you’ll be doing with the child – talk them through the various steps including the beginning and the end. Be sure to make eye contact and smile to put the child at ease.
Bear in mind that some children with special needs will perceive sensory input in different ways, and many are unable to effectively verbalise their discomfort. Remember that all behaviour is communication, and this is extremely important when working with special needs children. It’s crucial that you are able to closely observe, keep an eye out for any behavioural changes and differences and consider what the child’s behaviour is communicating to you. If you are not sure how to interpret a certain behaviour, ask the child’s parents, or another adult who is familiar with them, for advice. If you are currently working as a teacher or are considering undertaking teacher training, then you might want to become a SEN teacher for additional training and qualifications specifically centred around working with special needs children.
#3. Be Flexible:
Some adults struggle to change the way that they do things just to accommodate one person in a group, but the whole point of teaching is to utilize a variety of methods that help each individual student understand and master new skills. For example, you’re probably familiar with a number of techniques that teachers use to help young kids let go of their parents when dropped off at school, like bringing the parent into the activity for a while to reduce anxiety.
Children with special needs may not have the appropriate motor skills for a certain activity, in which case it is crucial you are able to be flexible and adapt methods in order to include them. Help them go through the motions and consider assigning a buddy to them to help them practice for a while. And, presenting certain concepts in the form of a game, or a hands-on arts or crafts project can often make more sense to some special needs kids.
#4. Be Consistent:
Just like with any kids, consistency is key to effectively working with special needs children. If a set of rules is presented to the group, then they should be applied consistently to everybody. Children without special needs may need some extra support at times – and children with special needs should be allocated additional support when they need it, too. Keeping track of students and assigning somebody to them is a great way to ensure that things are kept consistent when you’re working with a group.
#5. Use the Right Cues:
Including the right cues in an environment can often be the difference between participating or not participating when it comes to children with special needs. Visual, auditory or tactile cues tend to work best – for example, some special needs kids enjoy taking photographs or videos of the activities that they take part in to look back at later, while others might find index cards with simple written or drawn instructions, for example, to help them remember the rules for appropriate social behaviour, useful. And, tactile cues like offering a cushion or blanket, gently touching a shoulder, or even providing something to play with like playdough or slime can be easy yet effective ways to get attention and mark a transition.
#6. Have a Back-Up Plan:
In the world of special needs, those working with these kids soon begin to realise that there’s always a Plan B, and usually a Plan C as well. Always be prepared for things going wrong – and make sure that there is adequate space for kids to go and calm themselves down if things end up going badly. Instead, of focusing on what each participant can’t contribute, focus on what they can do.
#7. Be Positive:
Finally, a positive attitude is often the single, most important quality when it comes to working with children who have special needs. Negative attitudes and assumptions will not get you far in this line of work, and as a result, you may find interactions more difficult than they have to be. Instead, focus on treating each child as an individual and creating positive, memorable interactions to put them at ease and help them discover their strengths.
Whether you’re a professional who works with special needs children or the parent of a special needs child, what tips would you like to share with other professionals or volunteers working with special needs children? What have you found has worked well for you so far? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.