Some children with special needs perceive sensory input in different ways and may be unable to verbalize discomfort. They can even get extremely upset, and in a busy daycare setting teachers might not notice their distress. This is where volunteers can step in and be the extra pair of eyes and ears.
Remember that all behavior is communication. If a kid is minimally verbal or non-verbal, keep a lookout and think about what the child’s behavior is communicating to you. If you’re not sure what you’re seeing, ask the child’s teacher or caregiver for advice.
Any sensible adult will keep an eye on kids and make sure they don’t do impulsive things like run into the street, jump into deep water or climb too high. When it comes to special needs kids who might not be verbal or ambulatory, there are other factors to consider.
For example, an active adult or child will be able to keep warm, or at least verbalize their discomfort and make a plan if they’re cold. A wheelchair-bound child is likely to get chilly more quickly in the open air, or in a chilly classroom. Volunteers should be extra-sensitive to these factors, put safety first and arrange the environment for maximum physical and emotional comfort.
It’s common practice in a teaching environment to say “I won’t change things to accommodate one person in a group – that person must adapt.” This is (unfortunately) often the only option available to teachers in an overcrowded classroom or daycare setting.
If you’re volunteering with children, your primary function is to give the kids individual attention they wouldn’t otherwise get from overworked staff. With special needs children, this individual approach is even more important. Volunteers can help teachers use a variety of methods to help the kids understand and master new skills.
If a child does not have the appropriate motor skills for an activity, you can help the child go through the motions and practice with them. It’s important to encourage the child to push themselves, but also to realise when enough is enough!
If a set of rules is presented to the group, apply those rules consistently to everyone. Children need consistency to feel safe and encouraged and to learn discipline – don’t say one thing, then do another, or change the rules from day to day.
Being consistent is even more important with special needs children, especially those on the autism spectrum or with other sensory and cognitive issues. Consistency just makes things easier for everyone involved.
Having the right cues in an environment can mean the difference between participation and non-participation for many children with special needs. Kids might ignore someone speaking to them, but might pay attention to someone singing, clapping, snapping or whistling. Volunteers who work with children quickly learn not to be shy!
Tactile cues such as gently touching a shoulder, offering a blanket or other soft fabric, or providing something like silly putty or plasticine are easy ways to mark a transition in activities, and help a child focus their attention.
There’s an old saying from Scotland about how even the best plans can go wrong. In the world of special needs, there is always a Plan B, and usually a Plan C. Make sure that there is space to calm down and move freely if things go badly.
Think about what each participant can do instead of focusing on what they can’t contribute. As a volunteer, you can talk to the child’s teacher or caregiver for more insight.