If you're an early childhood educator or caregiver, you know that teaching infants with special needs can be challenging. Infants with developmental disabilities often struggle to communicate what they want or need to succeed, so it's up to you to observe them and pick up on the clues that will help you understand their wants and needs. In her book Teaching Infants, Toddlers, and Twos with Special Needs, Clarissa Willis, PhD, offers the following tips on how educators and caregivers can teach infants with developmental challenges:
- Follow the child's lead. Try to plan child-directed activities as much as possible. Keep in mind that identifying objects that interest a child with multiple developmental challenges or sensory loss may be difficult. If you struggle to find interesting objects for the child, try using bright and colorful objects that have exaggerated features.
- Look for opportunities throughout daily routines that encourage children to make choices, practice, and learn. Make an effort to give an infant with special needs two choices to choose from when possible. If he or she indicates which one they want, reinforce the choice by giving it to him or her. It's also important to incorporate learning and practice opportunities throughout the day. For example, you can help an infant learn and practice how to grasp an object and bring it into midline as they eat breakfast, play, or listen to you read a story.
- Use natural consequences. Infants need to learn the natural consequences of actions, such as a ball rolling away when it is thrown. Offering positive reinforcement when infants try something new or complete a task by smiling, gesturing, hugging, or clapping your hands to show your excitement and approval will also teach infants about natural consequences.
- Respond consistently. Consistency is an important factor in helping infants gain trust in their world and the people in it, so be sure you respond to an infant's crying, movement, and smiles. Reinforcing infants' early attempts at communication will help them grow and develop.
- Break tasks into manageable steps. New tasks will be easier to complete if infants can approach them in smaller easy-to-accomplish steps.
- Set the child up to succeed. Make sure you design activities that infants can successfully complete. Setting achievable goals that are just beyond infants' current abilities will help them gain the skills they need and overcome their developmental challenges.
- Allow the child time to rest and reflect. Some infants with special needs may require longer periods to rest if they expend great amounts of energy to respond. You should also make sure that your room or facility has a quiet area for the infant to rest.
- Work collaboratively with the child's family. Make sure you communicate with an infant's family about the child's challenges and successes. You should also encourage the child's family to tell you about what is happening at home or about any changes in sleep patterns or eating habits. All of this information will help you better understand and care for the child.
Be sure to read Teaching Infants, Toddlers, and Twos with Special Needs for more information about helping young children with developmental disabilities become successful learners. You can also browse our Special Needs and Inclusion section for a variety of inclusion materials.