Working With Special Needs

Myranda Byouk

It is often said by people who mean well that working with children with special needs “requires the patience of a saint.” Not true. What it does require is human compassion — something more of us have than we seem ready to acknowledge.

Working with children with special needs will teach you very important lessons in life. You will come to the realization that you don’t have to be a saint to succeed in meeting the needs of others. You will acquire a better understanding of the problems such children face in their development. This awareness can be of significant help to you in your own life, especially as you may face critical decisions about the development of your own children one day.

You will also learn that some of the difficulties special children face have to do with the way they are perceived and treated by society in general. As a result of your heightened sensitivity, you may never pass by a blind man waiting to cross the street without asking to be of help. You will never express impatience as a New York City bus driver takes the time to lower the hydraulic lift to enable a wheelchair user to board. Your attitude toward people with special needs will be forever altered for the good, and you will function as ambassadors of better understanding for everyone.

Rewards are proportional to risk — the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. The difference you make during the summer in the lives of children with special needs becomes a valuable experience from which you will benefit for a lifetime.

It is important that young people see working in a special needs camp as something that does not require extra-human qualities. It’s a matter of changing attitudes. It is also important that working with children with special needs is viewed as an opportunity to gain valuable life experience.

This is certainly not to suggest that working with children without disabilities is less rewarding. However, the consideration of work in a special needs camp should not be rejected out of hand. In the best of all possible worlds, you should feel free to explore both work experiences with equal passion.

Important Tips to Remember

  1. INTERACT: The same rules of polite conversation apply to adults and children. First, introduce yourself and explain how you are connected to the child. Depending on the child’s special needs, it may be necessary to take the child’s hand, place a hand on the child’s shoulder or even touch each other’s faces to make a proper introduction.
  2. OBSERVE: Some children with special needs perceive sensory input in different ways and may be unable to verbalize discomfort. Remember that all behavior is communication. Always keep a lookout for these differences and think about what the child’s behavior is communicating to you. If you’re not sure what you’re seeing, ask the child’s parents or other adults for advice.
  3. USE COMMON SENSE: Put safety first and arrange the environment for physical and emotional comfort.
  4. BE FLEXIBLE: if a child does not have the appropriate motor skills for an activity, help the child go through the motions and assign a buddy to help the child practice on the sidelines for a few minutes. In a religious education class, a child may have difficulty understanding some concepts; but when those same concepts are presented in a game or hands-on art project, they make more sense.
  5. BE CONSISTENT: If a set of rules is presented to the group, apply those rules consistently to everyone.
  6. HAVE A PLAN AND A BACKUP PLAN: You know what they say about the best-laid plans. In the world of special needs, there is always a Plan B, and usually a Plan C. Make sure that there is space to calm down and move freely if things go badly. Think about what each participant can do instead of focusing on what they can’t contribute.
  7. BE POSITIVE: A positive attitude is the single most important quality for anyone who works with children with special needs.