Ways Child Care Providers Can Support Siblings of Children with Special Needs

Girls hugging each other

Child care providers who work with children with special needs may also provide support and care to their siblings. Being the sibling of a child with an identified special need can be challenging to a child. Sibling relationships are unique…and complicated! When one of those siblings has special needs, it adds yet another layer of complexity, even with young children. The loving support of a child care provider can help siblings navigate the complicated emotions of having a brother or sister with a special need.

How Siblings React to a Child’s Special Needs

What a child thinks and feels about having a sibling with special needs, and how she responds, are always affected by her age. In early childhood, children are just beginning to develop their ability to understand their sibling’s need, to communicate their own thoughts and feelings, and to manage their own powerful emotions. That’s a lot to deal with as a young child!

Many siblings react positively to a sibling with special needs. They may be protective toward their sibling and help take care of him or her. But some siblings react negatively, especially when their sibling’s special need is first identified. Withdrawing or showing resentment or jealousy toward the child with special needs are common responses. It’s not unusual for the typically developing child to feel the pull of all those emotions, and more, all at the same time.

Steps Child Care Providers Can Take

Child care providers are in a unique position to offer support and guidance in the process. Consider these starting points for being more intentional in supporting children in your child care program who have a sibling with special needs.

  • Listen.  Don’t assume that you know how the child thinks or feels about his family. He may offer you many, many “windows” into his thoughts and feelings about having a sibling with special needs, but you’ll need to be listening carefully to hear them. Young children often express their feelings through play. Pay attention to the themes and characters in pretend play, and notice the roles he takes on. Notice his drawings and stories, and ask open-ended questions to find out what’s on his mind.
  • Accept feelings. Recognize that having a sibling with special needs can raise negative emotions. Be careful to stay in listening mode, especially when you hear him express more negative thoughts or feelings. If your response sounds disapproving or correcting (“That’s not a nice thing to say!”), feelings of shame and guilt may only make him more resentful. Learning to deal with the sometimes conflicting feelings toward a sibling with special needs will require gentle, compassionate guidance and lots of time.
  • Be a fan. One of the most helpful things that you can provide is an environment where the child can be many other things besides the sibling of a child with a disability! Encourage her to explore many different interests, characters, and relationships. Help her try out being a friend, an artist, a storyteller, a helper, an athlete, and a scientist. Provide a safe space for her to pretend that she’s caring or demanding, brave or afraid, in charge or in need of help, and let her try on each trait to see how it “fits.” Let her know that  she can be a loving and helpful sibling but also many, many other things. Celebrate her interests, preferences, strengths, and abilities with her, and keep her family updated on her blossoming identity. Having an ally who helps the child find her unique self is a tremendous support to the entire family.
  • Support social development. The tools that a child needs to navigate the challenges of having a sibling with special needs are the same tools any child needs: the ability to express himself well, to understand and manage his own emotions, to understand and respond to the emotions of others, and to negotiate conflicting needs and solve problems between people. In the child care setting, you can provide a safe, supportive environment where the sibling can practice these skills over and over in safe situations. As he becomes more skilled in communicating, negotiating, and self-regulating with peers, he will be better able to use those skills in more challenging situations with his sibling.  
  • Stay connected with the family.  Maintain frequent, open communication with the family. Learn as much as you can, not only about the specific disability but also about the impact on each family member. Make sure that your conversations don’t always revolve around the child with the disability. Families of a child with a special need also experience all the normal ups and downs of life, and the sibling in your child care program will be affected by those changes. Be approachable and create opportunities for each parent to talk openly with you. Show an interest in the family’s day-to-day experiences, just as you would with any family. Connecting with the family will establish a balanced, holistic provider-family relationship and will help the sibling view her family as having a lot in common with other families.
  • Reflect on your own feelings. The best child care providers are willing to look within and honestly assess their own attitudes and beliefs. Many of us are not even aware of our feelings about children with disabilities. When a child with special needs enrolls in your program, consider it an opportunity to grow and learn in your teaching skills and in your understanding of people with disabilities. Be willing to talk or write about fears, stereotypes, false beliefs, feelings of inadequacy or discomfort, or feelings of protectiveness or pity. Talk with other providers, your director, or a respected mentor that you can trust to listen without judgment. Ask good questions, and look for support as you stretch beyond your comfort zone to become a wiser, more sensitive child care provider and human being.

There is no simple pathway to support the siblings and parents of a child with special needs. These suggestions are important starting points. More information and guidance can be found on the NICHCY website and at the Sibling Support Project, which provides opportunities for siblings to connect with other siblings of children with special needs. 

For More Information

To learn more about supporting children with special needs in child care, check out the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care section on Child Care for Children with Special Needs, or take a look at the following articles: