Veteran special education teachers and the parents they work with will often tell you that one of the most helpful tips for parents with special needs kids is to remember that every child is different. There are never any “textbook cases” – a child’s potential depends on a variety of factors. For this reason, preconceived ideas have no place in the education of special needs kids.
He was four when doctors and preschool teachers recommended that he get therapy so he could learn to handle touch without pain and he could improve his gross motor skills. The experts created a list of skills he’d never be able to master: He would not be able to ride a bicycle, let alone drive a car. He would probably never read, or would only be able to read a few words. Writing would be pretty much out of the question. He’d be unable to hold down jobs in the workplace unless it was a special position created just for someone with his learning disabilities. At the age of four, this child’s life was looking pretty bleak.
Fortunately, his family didn’t believe in limiting his exposure to learning opportunities just because the experts said he wouldn’t be able to master certain skills. The other children pulled out the bike with training wheels that they’d learned on. His parents read him books and patiently went over his ABC’s with him.
He didn’t learn every skill that was introduced to him. He never could grasp computers or driving, but he could ride a bike, hold down a regular job and read books for teens and adults. Imagine how different this child’s life would have been if everyone had decided not to give him a chance to learn things that should have been too hard for him to grasp.
Don’t Tell a Child He or She Can’t Learn
Teachers and parents who work with children with disabilities understand that it is a bad idea to tell a child that they should be able to learn something that is too difficult for that child to grasp. However, telling a child that they can’t learn something is just as bad an idea. Instead, think about what you can do to introduce the new skill to the child as simply as possible and break that skill into a series of steps.
Take time to discuss what you’d like to teach the child that day. For example, if you are introducing a skill like riding a bike, you may want to say, “Johnny, you mentioned that you really want to ride a bike like your brother. Why don’t we learn more about riding bikes and then practice riding this bicycle?”
Demonstrate the New Skill
Ideally, you should watch someone practicing the skill the child wants to learn and discuss exactly what he or she is doing. “See how Karen rides a bike? She is just learning how to ride, so she is using training wheels to help her keep her balance. She is wearing a helmet to keep her head safe in case she falls. Let’s ask Karen to show us how to get on and off a bike.”
Some children may be a bit frustrated by this step, because they want to just jump in and start trying. Keep the demonstration short and fun.
Go over all the parts of the task one more time. “Johnny, do you remember what to do before you get on the bike? That’s right! Your helmet goes on first.” Use props or have the person who demonstrated the skill do each part of the task as you review.
Allow the Child to Try the Skill
It is time for the child to try the task. Guide them through the task. “Swing your leg over the seat. That’s it. Now, hold onto the handle bars. Great! Put your feet right here on the pedals…”
Practice for ten or fifteen minutes once a day. If the child is struggling with the task and is getting extremely frustrated, suggest taking a break and doing something they have already mastered. It is important to reinforce that the child can do some things well so that they don’t get so discouraged that learning new skills becomes something to avoid. If the task is beyond the child’s current abilities, suggest taking some time off to work on something else. They can always try again in a few months if a new learning plateau is reached.
Approach each task – each stage – as a unique opportunity to see just what your special needs kids can achieve! With you by their side, they will do amazing things!
If you have more helpful tips for parents with special needs kids, we welcome your comments below.