Friday 5 July 2019

Strategies to Support Children with Additional Needs

I'm often asked by colleagues, parents and other educators about advice on strategies that can be used to support children who have been diagnosed with Autism in an early learning environment. And there are many, many ways in which these children can be supported. So I decided that I would dedicate a blog post purely on strategies that can be used to support children who have additional needs. 

If we give children who have additional needs the support that they require now, we as parents and educators are setting them up to succeed in the future.

All the strategies that are in this post, I have used on numerous occasions in several early learning environments and across a broad range of ages - from birth through to five years and beyond. Keep in mind that these strategies can also be used to assist other children in an early learning environment.

First and foremost, see the whole child and not just the disability. The Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder or other additional need is one part of the child but it is not all of them. Children want to be valued and understood for who they are rather than being defined by the additional needs and challenges that they may face. Focus on the child’s strengths and capabilities and what they can do rather than focusing on what they can’t do. If a child senses that you don’t think that they can do it, their natural response will be “why should I try?” Follow the child’s lead – understand their interests by watching them. Observe how they communicate – do they use particular sounds or gestures to communicate to others. Get to know the child by spending time playing with them.

Please don't underestimate a child’s ability, you may be surprised at what they are capable of achieving. And remember that a non-verbal child can still hear you! Have conversations, albeit they may be very one sided, with the child. Include them in conversations, talk to them about what you are doing even if it is a mundane task like cleaning. We as parents often do this with young babies and children, you may even pause so that they have the opportunity to babble back at you. By including a child who is non-verbal in a conversation, you are saying to them "I value you. I value your input."

Work with the child at their current skill level and at their pace. Early intervention services will often create a Wall of Development for each child who attends their service. The idea behind a Wall of Development is that for a child to reach the top of the wall and reach beyond, they need to build the foundation skills first. L used to struggle with his hand strength but to build hand strength he first needed to be able to cross his mid line as this is a building block to developing hand strength. If we build upon the skills the child currently has, this will build them up for success in other areas.

Be patient when speaking with children who have an additional need be it Autism, ADHD or any other disability. Give them time to respond to you when you ask them a question or request them to do something. They need the extra time to process what you have asked. They may respond with “what?” or “huh?” or some other phrase. They’re not doing this to be rude or disrespectful, they’re trying to process what you have said. By saying “what” or “huh,” their brain is still processing your request. You may need to repeat yourself so please stay calm.

If a child is constantly on the go, provide them with the opportunity to have a sensory break. It could be running races in the play area, pushing a friend on the swings, pushing or riding a bike, turning the heavy toys or resources over and over (old tyres are great for this,) climbing on the play equipment outside or it could be as simple as a big squishy hug. Create a sensory tool kit that the child can access – things to squeeze, sensory bottles, something to bite if needed, objects that will distract the child so that they can ground themselves. Look at the sensory stimuli that is in the center or classroom environment – think bright lights, noise, general busyness of a room. Is it possible to limit this stimulus? If it isn’t, can a quiet corner by created that the child can escape into? Do you need to invest in block out ear protectors for the child to use?

Be understanding that a child exhibiting challenging behaviour is not doing so on purpose. The behaviour is serving a purpose – to communicate with you their needs and wants. Take some time to try and figure out what these needs and wants are. Are they in sensory overload? Are they tired, hungry, frustrated, injured?

Provide experiences for children through things that personally motivate them – use their special interest to engage them in play. L has always been interested in superheroes – they are a big motivator for him, and his teachers, therapists and carers over the last three years have used superheroes to their advantage! Create learning environments using a child's intense interests that encourage children to play and explore.

When you call out to a child with Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder across the room, what they hear is “mumble mumble L mumble mumble.” Go and speak with the child, getting down to their level. Let the child know what you want them to do or what is going to happen next. Break down the instructions into smaller steps. Start off with two step related instructions and work your way up to complex instructions.

There are many visuals that you can utilise within a service. Visuals are a form of communication for children with Autism and other additional needs, they are also very helpful for other children within the service whose communication skills are still developing. Communication boards, visual routines, social stories and visual timetables to name a few. 

Children whose language is still developing often benefit from the use of key word signing. Key word signing or Makaton is a simplified version of Sign Language and as the name suggests, the actual signs just represent words. When signing the word, you also need to speak the word so that the child begins to make the connection between the two. Key word signing isn't intended to replace the need for speech, it is used to assist the development of speech. L picked up key word signing from a very young age and it was truly wonderful to see his frustration at being unable to communicate ease a little. At first L picked up the signs for please, more, finished, eat and drink. He would never say the word but the signing action was very clear. I have used key word signing for children with special needs, children for whom English is their second language and for babies and have had great success with all groups. Key word signing is a very effective communication form and it really does alleviate a child's frustration at being unable to communicate.

Eye contact is uncomfortable, please don’t force it. The best analogy that I can think of is listening to the radio - you don’t need to look at the radio in the car to hear it. It is the same with when talking to someone. You don't necessarily have to look someone in the eyes to hear them – yes it is polite to look at the person who is talking to you but if they struggle with eye contact, please don’t force it. Forcing an individual with Autism to make eye contact will cause them to shut down.

Encourage and create opportunities and experiences that enhance and build upon the child’s skill level and their social and emotional skills. Model to them how to engage with other children. Use the language that they will need to use, “can I please play with you?”

Talk about emotions with children and label the emotions that you see in children. This provides them with the language they may need to describe how they are feeling. Use the Zone’s of Regulation – “I can see that you are very angry, what can we do to make you happy again?” The aim of the zones of Regulation is for a child to be in the green zone. You can use the Zone’s of Regulation for a child to point to how they are feeling.

Talk with the other children in your care about differences in a positive way. Children are very accepting but they may struggle to understand why an Autistic child does or says particular things. There are many children’s books available that explain Autism in an easy to understand manner.

If you are unsure on how to support a child who has additional needs, ask questions. Speak to your colleagues. Reach out to health professionals and support organisations so that you are informed and can plan for the child while they are in your care. The majority of therapy providers are more than willing to attend a service that the child goes to so that they can assist to put plans in place for the child. The more professionals helping the child, the better they will succeed in the future.

An even better way to find out more, is to speak with the child's family. They know their child the best!

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I would love to hear your thoughts on my blog. I do read all the comments that are posted. Thanks so much for stopping by. Jen xx