Starting a new school is a BIG event, and not just for the child! Especially for very young children, starting a new child care program is both exciting and worrisome for children and parents, and even child care providers! And this is especially true for children who have been identified as having a disability or special learning need.
If you are a family child care provider, an early childhood teacher, or a child care program administrator, here are some suggestions for specific, practical things that you can do to prepare the family and yourself for enrollment of a child who has special needs. With preparation, you can help the transition into your program go more smoothly for everyone.
Preparing Yourself as the Teacher
- Learn as much as you can about the child’s specific special need and about his ability to manage everyday tasks or situations that are common in your child care program. Parents will be your most important source of information, but you’ll also want to take the time to learn more about the special need from trustworthy information sources, such as the “Learn the signs. Act early.” site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- If you are part of a child care center, have honest dialogue among staff about concerns and needs. Seek out resources, professional development opportunities, and support services in the community to increase teachers’ knowledge, skills, and confidence in working with this child and family.
- Make every effort to visit the family’s home at least once before the child starts. Meeting him in his own comfortable, familiar space will give you a much better picture of him at his best. You’ll be more likely to hear open, honest communication from parents when they are in their own home as well.
- Be sure to obtain a copy of the child’s IFSP or IEP, if the family has one. If you are not familiar with the IFSP/IEP requirements or processes or with your role and responsibility as the child’s teacher/caregiver, be sure that you learn from the family, a previous program, or an early intervention or special education service provider in your area. For more information, see What Do Child Care Providers Need to Know about IEPs and IFSPs?
Preparing the Child with Special Needs
The following suggestions would be most appropriate for children who are developmentally within the preschool age range, but they can be adapted.
- Encourage parents to talk positively about starting a new child care program but also to allow the child to talk openly about fears or worries. Children’s books about starting a new school can be a big help for parents in getting a conversation started.
- Suggest to parents that they count down with the child by creating a paper chain with just enough “links” to equal the days until start day. Make it part of the daily routine to have the child tear off the link for that day, then count how many days/links are left. This concrete representation of time will help many children feel less anxious and more excited.
- Create a photo album or video featuring the child care environment and give it to the family a few weeks in advance of starting. Include: 1) important places, such as the bathroom and the place where lunch is served; 2) important people that the child will see every day; and 3) the most common toys, equipment, and activities, especially those that parents indicate are favorites.
- Give the child “practice” in the new environment. Encourage the family to visit the school at least twice, first when there are fewer children present and play is unstructured and again when the day is in “full swing.”
Preparing the Child’s Parents
- Be sure to let parents know that you have an open-door policy and that they are welcome to visit any time. Make sure they have copies of the daily schedule, the parent policy handbook, and any other documents that will help them know what to expect. If at all possible, give these to the parents far enough in advance that they will have time to discuss any concerns, questions, or issues with you before the child starts.
- Negotiate with parents ahead of time a strategy for easing the child into the new environment. Depending on the needs of the child and the availability of a parent, encourage a “graduated” entry. One option is to start the child with a shorter day and gradually increase to the full time. Another option is to start with the parent staying for the entire day and then gradually decreasing the amount of time the parent spends there.
Preparing the Other Children
- If the child has a disability that children will readily notice, consider asking one of the parents to come to the school without the child to “introduce” her to the other children with photos or videos. When children see this new child in photos or videos, they will see not only the ways that her disability or delay makes her different but also the many ways that she is similar to them. Give the children the opportunity to ask any questions about the new child without her there.
- If the parents are not able to come talk to the children, ask if they would provide a photo album or share a list of some of the child’s favorites (favorite food, song, color, toy, etc.) that you can use in talking to the children. Ask parents to share with you anything that they would like the children and staff to know about their child.
- You can also share a children’s book or two about starting a new school and encourage them to think about how the new child might feel and what they could do to help the child feel welcome. Children love to be given the opportunity to help and will usually step up to the challenge when we communicate the message that we believe they are capable of it.
In addition to preparing the people involved, you’ll also need to think about ways that you may need to adapt the environment and activities for this child. All this preparation will go a long way toward lowering the fear and anxiety for everyone. Including children with special needs can be challenging at times but can also provide the most amazing, joyful experiences for everyone!
For More Information
To learn more about supporting children with special needs enter a new child care program, check out the following articles.
- Child Care for Children with Special Needs
- What Is Inclusive Child Care?
- Adapting the Child Care Environment for Children with Special Needs
- Building Portfolios with Children with Special Needs
- Caring for Children with Special Needs from Military Families
- Creative Art Activities for Children with Special Needs
- Peer Support for Children with Special Needs
- Talking with and about Children with Special Needs
- Ways Child Care Providers Can Support Siblings of Children with Special Needs
- Entering a New Preschool: How Service Providers and Families Can Ease the Transitions of Children Turning Three Who Have Special Needs