As an inclusion consultant with a Masters in Disability studies (majoring in autism and communication), I strongly believe that understanding children's brain development and tailoring the environment and play experiences to their developmental needs is at the heart of inclusive education.
I often hear the phrases, "this child is just trying to get what they want". Of course they are!
They most likely have an unmet need or want (to feel heard, to feel visible, to feel safe, to feel understood, to feel less anxious), and they are finding it hard to ask for what they need appropriately, so they will of course try and find a way to get what they need, the best way that they can, until their emotional, social, and/or physical needs are met.
This may include hitting and biting so the room becomes empty, and they then feel safe. This may include spitting at other children to children move away from them and they then have predictability in their play. This may include screaming at you to leave them alone, so they can then feel a sense of autonomy over what is happening in their day, or in their own mind and body.
My role in inclusion is trying to work out the code, or the pieces of the puzzle so that children's needs are understood, and met as best we can, while your team are also having the safety and support that you need and deserve.
To get started, let's explore answers to some crucial questions educators and teachers often have. To learn more come along to my upcoming special needs workshop here.
Question 1: How can I effectively meet the unique learning and developmental needs of each child with special needs in my classroom?
Strategy: Individualized Learning Plans (ILPs)
- Collaborate with special education professionals to create ILPs for children with special needs. These plans outline specific goals and strategies tailored to each child's abilities and challenges.
- Regularly review and adjust these plans to ensure they align with the child's developmental progress.
- The more specific you can be, the more impact you can achieve. For example, I am often reviewing family's ILPs and notice that a goal may be "for my child to improve their social skills". This is a very broad goal. Would you like them to be able to say 'stop' when they are feeling unsafe or nervous? Would you like them to be able to ask for a turn, before snatching an object from another person? When would you like this goal to be achieved? In 6 weeks, 6 months, 12 months? What strategy is going to be put in place each day to help achieve that specific goal?
- The more specific you can be with the goals, the strategies, and when it will be reviewed, the more you and your child's support team can stay on the same page to build children's learning and development needs.
Question 2: What strategies and resources are available to help me create an inclusive environment?
Strategy: Universal Design for Learning (UDL)
- There are principles called the UDL principles. For example,
- Accessibility and Inclusivity: Ensure that all children, including those with physical or cognitive challenges, can access and participate in play activities. Provide ramps, wide doorways, and adaptive equipment as needed.
- Flexibility in Play Spaces: Design flexible play areas that can be easily rearranged to accommodate various activities and group sizes. Use movable furniture and storage to maximise versatility and provide areas that have high sensory input and low sensory input for children who have different sensory profiles.
- Variety of Sensory Experiences: Create opportunities for children to engage their senses through a variety of materials and activities, including tactile, auditory, visual, vestibular, proprioception, and olfactory experiences. Be sure to know what each child's sensory profile is so that your sensory play experiences can be adapted to the sensory profile and needs of the children.
- Natural Elements: Integrate natural elements like plants, water features, and natural light to create a calming and engaging environment that connects children with the outdoors, as there is great research to show the link between nature play and anxiety management.
- Clear Communication: Use visual cues, labels, and simple signage to help children navigate the play environment independently and understand activity rules or expectations with visuals, not always spoken language.
- Sensory Break Spaces: Include quiet and calming sensory break areas for children who may become overwhelmed, allowing them to self-regulate and return to play when ready.
Question 3: How do I manage challenging behaviours and promote positive interactions among all students, including those with special needs?
Strategy: Inclusive play based learning
- Implement strategies that focus on prevention, teaching appropriate behaviour, and reinforcing positive actions, rather than just reacting to the challenging behaviours. I know this can sometimes be easier said than done. However, when we can look at the child's current unmet needs, and work out an action plan for each of their specific goals, try to see what triggers their behaviours and try your best to prevent, redirect and plan an alternative before their behaviour escalates. If this isn't working, be sure to recruit a multidisciplinary allied health team so they can ensure that the child and their family are supported during this stressful time. In the meantime, some of these strategies may be helpful. Learn more in my upcoming workshop.
- Model Behaviour: Demonstrate the desired behaviour yourself, as children often learn by observing adults.
- Consistency: Be consistent in enforcing rules and expectations across all team members and activities. It takes a village to manage challenging behaviours and consistency is the most important strategy by far!
- Emotional Vocabulary: Teach children to identify and express their emotions, helping them understand and manage their feelings. Learn more here.
- Positive Reinforcement: Use verbal praise and encouragement to acknowledge and reinforce positive behaviour. Ideally children need to hear and see your positive reinforcement, more than negative reinforcement, so try to celebrate even the smallest wins, even if to you they feel like small improvements.
- Clear Expectations: Set clear, age-appropriate expectations for behaviour during play and activities. Visual cards and video demonstrations would work best, as a large number of children with special needs learn best through their visual (seeing what's expected) and kinesthetic learning (feeling what's expected), not auditory (listening to your instructions).
- Redirecting: If a child is engaging in challenging behaviour, calmly redirect their attention to a different activity or area. If you're finding it hard to feel calm right now, that's ok, ask a team member to help as your frustration may escalate the child's frustration (mirror neurons).
- Time for Transition: Give children ample warning before transitioning from one activity to another to reduce stress. Transition objects and transition visual cards are helpful. Learn more here.
- Collaborative Play: Facilitate group activities that require cooperation and teamwork, reinforcing positive social behaviours. For example, ask children to help you carry the picnic rug, fold the tea towels, wipe down the tables before snack, or fill up the water jugs. We all feel better when we feel like we have been able to contribute.
- Storytelling: Use storytelling to illustrate positive behaviours and their consequences in an engaging and relatable way. If the child is finding it difficult to understand these concepts, involve your allied health team to make these stories more explicit and play-based.
- Positive Notes Home: Send notes, photos, or drawings home that highlight a child's positive behaviour during the day. Explain to families what these positive behaviours look like and why they have been a strong focus in your program for the child's learning and developmental needs and goals.
- Visual Supports: Use visual schedules, social stories, and visual cues to help children understand and remember expectations.
Question 4: What support and collaboration opportunities are available for me to work closely with special education professionals and other experts?
Strategy: Interdisciplinary Team Meetings
- Schedule regular meetings with special education professionals, speech therapists, occupational therapists, exercise physiologists, inclusion consultants and other experts involved in a child's early childhood education. Share insights, set goals, and coordinate action plans to ensure a holistic approach to the child's development. I am available via Zoom if you would like to book in a consultation session for your team, or as part of a group meeting.
Question 5: What self-care and stress management techniques can I use to maintain my well-being while juggling the demands of inclusive education?
Strategy: Daily Self-Care Routine
- Prioritise a daily self-care routine to maintain your physical and emotional well-being. Set aside time for relaxation (meditation, visualisation, yoga), exercise (walking, cycling, dancing in your kitchen), creativity (art, music, baking) and hobbies outside of work (gardening, reading, crosswords).
- Seek support from colleagues and mentors when needed and don't hesitate to ask for help or resources when feeling overwhelmed. I'm here to help if you need as I know how it feels to be burnt out by our roles in early childhood. My daily routine is to splash cold water on my face for the vagus nerve, rub lavendar hand lotion into my skin 3 to 4 times per day to reconnect my mind with my body, play soccer or netball with friends once a week, do 5 minutes of yoga or play down ball with my family, and I am learning how to paint at the moment to help calm my mind after a big day at work.
By integrating these strategies into your daily routines, play experiences, and practices, you can promote an inclusive environment that accommodates the diverse developmental needs of every child, making their learning journey more enriching and meaningful.