Teaching Special Needs Children (When You’re Not a Teacher)

Teaching Special Needs Part One

The national average incidence of autism is 1 in 68.

One in 691 babies born in the USA has Down Syndrome.

Now, I could just keep rattling off statistics, but here’s my point: whether it is babysitting, a church calling, or extended family members, chances are you will come into contact with a child with special needs.

In my life, I have seen several instances where an adult has the opportunity to interact with and teach a child, but they feel overwhelmed or don’t know how to effectively teach a child with special needs.

Because of this, I was inspired to write this series on teaching and working with special needs children when you are not trained to be a teacher.

I want this to be helpful to as many people as possible, so I am trying to offer basic principles that can be adapted for any age group or any needs that a child may have. If you have specific questions, please email me!

Set Clear, Simple Expectations

If it’s one thing I’ve learned as a speech therapist (and, let’s face it, more so as a mom) it is that I use too many words. I’ll completely botch a golden teaching moment by trying to explain it as an adult, rather than trying to explain it on a child’s level.

The best thing you can possibly do is set clear, simple expectations.

Notice I didn’t say rules. 

Rules sound so restrictive. Even though kids need (and secretly crave) rules, I think setting expectations puts it in a more positive light. As in this is what I expect and know you can do, versus you can’t do this or this or this.

Here are some examples:

Hands to self.

Raise your hand to speak. 

Eyes on teacher.  

Obviously, these are for little ones- probably ages 3-5.

You can adapt them as necessary.

Use Visuals

Pictures are great.

Pictures help enormously.

Pictures are even more helpful when your expectations are simple and direct.

It really is as easy as printing pictures off of the internet and gluing them onto construction paper.

Maybe cardstock if you wanna get fancy.

Children respond to visual input WAY better than auditory input. This is especially true for children with special needs. Pictures are tangible, and there’s no chance of the meaning getting lost in translation.

Use the Same Phrase

Children with special needs have brains that are wired differently. It’s not bad or wrong, it’s just different.

Whereas other children may have several synapses that can make connections, children with special needs tend to have “tunnel vision” when it comes to language comprehension and following directions.

What are you talking about woman?!

Basically, if you try to say the same thing fifty different ways in an attempt to help them understand, it will most likely not be beneficial because the child cannot comprehend what you are asking of them.

Buuuuuuuuutttt…….. if you have the same simple phrase that has meaning to a child, you are far more likely to get the response you want.

Can you tell what the word of the day is?

Remove the Unknown

Children with special needs often thrive on routine and “the known.” Some children have anxiety and/or will act out when they don’t know how long something is going to take, what is going to happen next, where mom/dad is, etc.

Luckily, you as the teacher can remove the unknown.

Depending on the anxieties of your child, you could use:

  1. a timer (for how long each task will take)
  2. a visual schedule or routine (ha! you’re in luck- I just did a post on this!)
  3. a whiteboard with the number of tasks (check them off as completed)
  4. a countdown timer with how many minutes are left in class (you could keep it on your phone so it’s not a distraction for other students).

I hope that this post has offered you some helpful ideas for working with students with special needs.

Stay tuned for my next post in this series- how to promote engagement with special needs children!