Working with special needs children can be daunting, and asking them to complete a task can seem downright impossible at times. However, providing a safe, welcoming environment for these children is extremely important, especially in the arts. When special needs children are given an opportunity to express themselves, they are able to access vital social, emotional and physical experiences that they may otherwise be excluded from.
You don’t need to be a specialist to have positive interactions with special needs children! However, meeting the needs of these children requires patience, attention and the foresight required to create a safe environment. Here are some tips for helping special needs children get the most out of a dance (or any other) class.
Parents are Great Resources
They know what accommodations are necessary for their child and what their child typically responds to. If possible, check in with the parent before working with the child so that there are less surprises in a class. Ask the parent if there is a particular song or toy the child enjoys and be prepared to use this knowledge if the child needs to be comforted.
Make sure you understand any physical needs of a child before a class and be prepared to modify dance to accommodate these needs.
Have an Appropriate Ratio of Adults to Children
Depending on the needs of a child, it may be necessary to have a higher ratio of adults to children than normal. Smaller groups of children allow you to give the necessary attention to ensure that the environment is safe for everyone. In addition, a smaller ratio gives you a better opportunity to maximize each child’s experience.
If the group is too large for you to give appropriate attention to a child, it may be useful to have an aide present who can focus on helping specific children. (Editor’s note: In my limited experience, I’ve seen about 4 instructors to 10 kids. If you’re just starting, we recommend having at least this ratio.)
Find Something the Child Responds to Positively
Whether it is a specific song, movement, or toy, finding something that roots the child is extremely useful. If a child’s focus starts to wander or they are upset, you can use this to regain their focus and comfort them.
Take your Time
Patience is extremely key. If you are not used to working with special needs children, know that it may be necessary to break down steps further than you are used to. You may need to think of creative ways to explain things. For example, rather than saying “lift your arms up high,” say “try to touch the ceiling!”
Don’t be discouraged if a child doesn’t pick it up as quickly as you are used to. It may be necessary to describe things in many different ways before finding something that works.
Praise Effort, not Correctness
Avoid thinking that there is a correct way to do something. It is important that children are able to express themselves in a way that is meaningful to them, not necessarily that they have all the right answers. Swapping out the “that’s right!” for “you’re working so hard!” can lower anxiety and help kids feel more comfortable.
Be Ready to Change your Plans
Anyone who works with children knows that things don’t always go according to plan, and this is especially true when working with special needs children. Don’t be discouraged or angry if a child is not able to do something that you planned. Be prepared with a backup (and a backup backup!) plan and be flexible. Perhaps you and the child will discover something together that is more meaningful than your initial plan!
Use Refocusing Strategies
Having some simple, silly strategies in your arsenal for refocusing can keep you calm in tough situations.
For example, have the child “shake it out,” starting with their arms and then legs and then face. Try the “lemon face/lion face,” where you make a sour face like you just ate a lemon and then a big wide lion face with a big roar. Go back in forth between these faces. Silly little things like this don’t take up much time but can help regain attention.
Especially with particularly quiet children, make sure you are checking in with them. Ask them what their favorite dance move is and have the class follow them. Giving the child the opportunity to have agency in their own experience boosts their confidence and makes the experience more meaningful for them.
Use the Buddy System
A class can be an awesome socialization opportunity for children. Pairing a special needs child with another child (with or without special needs) gives them the chance to have meaningful reactions with other kids. Buddies can also give kids an opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other.
Remember that special needs children are children!
Even though special needs children may require extra attention and patience, the experiences they gain from the arts are just as valuable as any child. Talk with special needs children and share in their joys. When in doubt, ask them how they are feeling! Providing a safe, creative environment for these children can be extremely awarding and can even change their lives!
Do you have tips for working with special needs children? Tell us in the comments below!
Writer: Kristie Denlinger is a research and evaluation associate at Clayton Early Learning in Denver. She researches early childhood development and educational policy.
All images are courtesy of Access Dance in Kansas City.