All preschool classrooms are filled with children who have a wide range of abilities, and most teachers try to create an environment in which all children — those with and without special needs — thrive.
A great environment will enable all children to develop what we call "functional-emotional" capacities, which are the foundation for all learning and social skills. They include the ability to pay attention, relate, show their intentions through gestures, problem-solve (first without words, and then with words), develop and express creative ideas, and become a logical thinker.
Children who have special needs are most likely negotiating the most basic levels of these skills. They're learning to interact with others and to be purposeful; for example, reach for an object they want or point to it. They are also learning to "open and close" many circles of communication with other children and adults.
Children without special needs will also vary in their abilities to master these important skills. For example, they may still be developing their abilities to be imaginative and creative or to think logically. In order to help all her students master each of the functional-emotional capacities, your child's teacher should try to:
- Meet your child at her own level of development, foster that stage, and enable him to move on to the next level. For example, when it comes to motor development, some children will be able to carry out complex actions (such as tying their shoes or doing a complicated drawing) while others may barely be able to draw a line. A child with special needs in language may barely be able to communicate through pointing, while other children without special needs may have lots of words but differ in the complexity of their thinking.
- Tailor the learning environment to children's strengths and weaknesses and help all of them, special needs or not, to build greater competency.
- Interact with children in ways that help them to think and problem-solve at their own levels. These interactions will be a part of the ongoing, trusting, and intimate relationship the teacher builds with each child. Having dynamic relationships is essential for children as they climb up the developmental ladder.
Working with Your Child's Teacher
Forming a solid, trusting relationship with his teacher is the key to your child's successful inclusive-classroom experience. In a new environment, he may be anxious and not able to use the skills he already has. As a parent, you can be very helpful here. Share your observations about your child with your child's teacher in these early days of school. Describe how he is functioning at home, helping the teacher to understand whether he is exercising all of his capabilities in the classroom.
In turn, your child's teacher might be able to suggest some things that you can do with your child at home. Integrating what is done at school and at home helps her move up the developmental ladder.
Children need to develop certain skills before they are able to work together in large groups. They need to be able to interact with one another with some degree of attention, to use simple purposeful gesturing (such as taking you by the hand), to discuss ideas logically, and to answer "why" questions. Since many children with special needs are not ready to do these things, it's important that teachers work with them in small groups of two or three. To create a truly inclusive environment, the teacher must have adequate staffing, including volunteers. At the very least, the ratio of children to adults should be four to one.
What You Can Do At Home
There are many things you can do at home to help support your child's processing skills. Here are some suggested materials to keep on hand:
- Items that stimulate the senses — objects with different textures she can touch; things with different smells.
- Materials of different shapes and colors so that he can identify them just by pointing.
- Colored blocks for making different configurations. Encourage her to explain why she is doing what she's doing.
- Simple objects such as trucks and dolls, especially if he is just beginning to move toy vehicles right or left.
- Boxes and other objects that can be used in a multitude of ways, if her creative-thinking skills are more advanced.
- Balls and beanbags if he is in the early stages of motor development.
- Materials to build obstacle courses if she has solid motor skills.
- Open-ended materials if he likes to invent games and even make up his own rules.