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Daycare & Respite for Children with Disabilities: Tips for Parents and Providers

Jackie D. Igafo-Te'o, Bridges4Kids, April 9, 2006

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Our experiences with childcare have been both positive and negative. In Michael’s current childcare setting, employees use structure, a steady temperament and patience, blended with a series of choices to positively engage Michael during his visit – whether it is for an hour or for ten hours. Sometimes this can be as simple as knowing when Michael needs to be in a quiet space away from the other children, sitting down and drawing a cartoon character with him or fixing him a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner.

A few years ago, at another childcare center, I walked in after work only to witness a worker throw my 60 pound son up against the wall in the main hallway. Looking back, I realize that the incident occurred because the staff member was not prepared to work with Michael nor did he want to work with Michael. He saw his behavior merely as bad behavior instead of Michael’s attempts to communicate discomfort or fear. The atmosphere was simply too overwhelming for Michael.

Finding someone who “gets” your child and who understands their special needs is a true blessing for any family. The extra challenges and time required to care for a child with special needs can never be underestimated.

Our experiences have been filled with trial and error, success and failure. Here are some things that those who have worked with our children have found to be useful:

1) Study up on the disability. Never take anything for granted. One child’s seemingly “bad behavior” may be his reaction to transition or an overwhelming noise level. It may not be behavior related at all but merely his way of communicating his discomfort or difficulty in accepting the things around him.

  • Ask the parents about what works and what doesn’t.

  • Get a good idea of what it takes to care for this child.

  • Learn about his/her communication methods and how he/she deals with pain or with uncomfortable situations.

2) Track data related to outbursts and questionable “behavior” in order to figure triggers and possible ways to calm the child.

  • Track behaviors along side possible ‘triggers’ that may cause them ie. Sitting in circle time may cause the child to put his hands over his ears and rock because he is uncomfortable sitting in such close proximity to other children.

  • Use the data to come up with ways to avoid possible ‘triggers’ or meltdowns for the child.

3) Match the child with someone who compliments his personality. Avoid matching up a child with someone who is overly aggressive or “grouchy”.

  • Personalities are a big issue. Children (like those with autism) have a keen sense of who likes them and who doesn’t.

  • Children may display dislike with someone by acting out.

  • Children may be uncomfortable with a certain staff member because they remind them of someone else who they’ve had a bad experience with.

  • Learn not to take it personally.

4) Have the family provide information beforehand on known likes, dislikes, triggers, calming methods, sensory issues, transitions, allergies, food sensitivity, potty training practices and medications.

  • This can help you avoid situations where the child may become embarrassed or overwhelmed.

  • Try to keep the child away from things/situations that are known to cause frustration.

  • Remember that behaviors are NOT ALWAYS BAD behaviors. They can be a child’s way of expressing their feelings.

  • Transition can be hard on any child – especially a child with a disability such as Autism. You may have to come up with a ritualistic way of blending into the next thing on the schedule.

5) Value the input from siblings. You can never underestimate the words of wisdom from a sibling. They may have great insight into things that will help you as you work with the child.

  • It’s amazing what a 4-year-old child may be able to tell you about their sibling with a disability. For instance, a child who constantly cries may have sensory issues that only the sibling can clue you into when the parent is not present.

6) Avoid making a “big deal” at pick up time about every single negative thing that happened during the day. Parents already know that it is challenging to care for their child.

  • This is one of my pet peeves. It is not necessary to fill the parent in on every single negative happening of the day. Believe me – we already know how challenging it is to care for a child with a disability. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to bring up disturbing issues though – this may be a good way to find out additional, important things about the child.

  • Perhaps a notebook is best. This way you’re not “telling” everything but you’re documenting as a way of trying to figure out triggers and/or behaviors of concern.

7) Try to find ways to include the child in activities which interest them. Find ways to incorporate turn taking and playing with other children. Tap into their strengths. Take something positive and use it in other aspects of their day. For instance, if a child excels at reading, let him read a book to the toddler group or allow him to pick a book on Fridays to read to the group.

  • A good way to make a child feel more comfortable in their environment is to boost their self-esteem and comfort level about a situation.

  • If a child excels at reading, possible let the child pick a book once each week or read a book to a toddler group.

  • If this child ‘gets along with’ children younger then them, maybe it’s their way of fitting in. Find ways to incorporate this “like” into their day.

  • If the child is very ritualistic in nature, find something that he can do that is positive. For instance, allow him to clap the erasers or stack the puzzles…or line up the books at the end of the day.

8) Avoid stigmatizing the child; don’t make him seem anymore different than he may already seem to his peers. Avoid putting them into situations which are known to cause meltdowns or tantrums. This only further stigmatizes the child and makes your day much more difficult. In other words, pick your battles.

  • Remember that children are like little sponges. They absorb everything we say and do. They look up to us.

  • Speak kindly of a child with a ‘difference’ and you’ll set the tone for a life filled with acceptance for the ‘typical’ children.

  • Don’t make a big deal about differences. If you must call a child out, do not do this in a public forum. Pull the child aside and talk to them. You might find that their behavior is warranted.  Have conversations with children about how everyone is different - and that differences are part of what makes us each special.

9) Invite the parent to come in so that you can observe them as they work with their child in the childcare setting. This will give you an idea of how they deal with specific situations that may arise.

  • This is a good way to see how the child acts within your center. See how the parent deals with issues that arise. Take notes if necessary.

  • If possible, try to observe the child in their own home. This is a GREAT way to see how they act on a regular basis. It is also another opportunity to see how the parent deals with issues that arise.

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