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Creating a proactive learning environment for children with special needs is a very important part of special education. Children learn best when they feel safe, comfortable and can explore their environment on their own. However, having a disability often results in a lot of obstacles to this learning process. Here are some ideas that you can use in a classroom or at home to help children with special needs explore their environment and learn from it.
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Accessible Structure and Furniture
The classroom or home must be accessible to the child with special needs. If the child is in a wheelchair, all the activity areas of the classroom must be wheelchair accessible as well as at a height that can be reached easily from the wheelchair. Similarly, toys and other storage areas must be accessible to the child. You may need some special chairs or other furniture to help the child position themselves so that they can use their arms and hands well. In some cases, the child may use different aids for mobility indoors and outdoors. For such children, provide adequate space for storage of the additional mobility aid. For children who can walk, but have difficulty with balance, railings and grab bars in the classroom can make it easier for them to move around safely. Here are more details on how you can modify the classroom for students with physical disabilities.
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Accessibility for Manipulation
Some children with special needs have difficulties with fine coordination and manipulation. These kids usually struggle with handling art materials like paintbrushes and pencils, puzzle pieces and have a hard time playing educational games that require fine coordination. You can help these children to learn by providing modified art materials like thick-handled paintbrushes, add handles or other grasping aids to puzzles and toys, and also by providing alternate activities that do not require a lot of fine coordination. You can also provide an adapted computer keyboard or mouse that can be used more easily for a child with hand function difficulties.
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A lot of children with special needs have associated deficits in vision. The classroom must be safe as well as accessible for these children. Corners and edges must be marked with contrasting colored tape or paint. Puzzles with a contrasting background color are much easier to do. Use bright colors and plenty of contrast in the learning materials to make them interesting for the child. Provide books with large and bold fonts to make them accessible for the children.
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Choosing the Right Activities
Children with intellectual impairments can get easily frustrated if they are under challenged or over challenged. To help them, provide activities that they can do and gradually challenge them. Regular assessments will help you know more about what skills the child already has and which ones are developing. Providing activities that require skills that are currently developing will be enjoyable for the child. Slowly introduce more complex skills as the child is getting used to the activity. For example, if the child can sort red and yellow, provide activities where the child needs to sort three colors, and also help the child to learn the names of the colors they are sorting. Another way of encouraging the child to move forward in their learning is to suggest new and creative ways to play with their favorite toys.
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Support and Encouragement
In addition to providing a proactive learning environment, the teacher or parent will need to support the child to encourage them to learn. They will need to provide materials and ensure that the child is comfortable, as well as encouraging them to keep going. Reward and praise children for staying with the task with stickers, candy or by showing their projects to the rest of the class and/or the parents of the special education student.
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Try to keep the overall classroom arrangement and schedule consistent. This makes it easier for children with special needs as they find ways of adjusting to an environment over a period of time. Constantly changing furniture layouts, work spaces or storage areas will make it harder for them to adjust, and thus learn.
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Take additional precautions to ensure that your classroom is safe. Provide non-slip flooring and work surfaces, grab bars or rails and stable furniture to promote safety. In addition, it is good to teach children safe practices like not running in the classroom or throwing objects in the classroom, etc. This will help children with special needs work and learn more comfortably without being fearful about falling or getting hurt.
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These are just a few ideas that can help you to create and maintain a proactive learning environment for children with special needs. Use them to make your classroom a safe and comfortable place to learn.
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This article is based on the writer's experience as an Occupational Therapist.