In addition to the usual wide ranging abilities of a new class, I have one 4-year-old who has learning delays and three children with speech and language disorders. What can I do to be sure that I'm creating a classroom environment where the needs of all the children in my group can be met?

It's important to start the year off with the idea that all children, those with and without special needs, thrive in an environment that enables them to develop what we call the functional-emotional capacities. Those capacities include the ability to:

  • attend
  • relate
  • gesture intentions
  • problem-solve (first without words, and then with words)
  • develop and express creative ideas
  • become a logical thinker

These capacities are the foundation for all learning and social skills. Children with special needs likely are negotiating the most basic levels. They're learning to engage with another person, to be purposeful (for example reaching for an object they want or pointing to it), and to do what we call opening and closing many circles of communication with another child or an adult.

Children without special needs will also vary in their abilities to master the functional-emotional capacities. For example, they may still be developing their abilities to be imaginative and creative or to think logically.

Helping Children Master the Functional-Emotional Capacities

In order to help children master each of the functional-emotional capacities, try to:

  • Meet each child at his own level of development, foster that stage, and enable the child to move on to the next level. For example, children have individual differences 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 the motor area may barely be able to communicate pre-verbally with pointing, while other children without special needs may have lots of words but differ in the complexity of their thinking. Each needs to be worked with at her own level and then helped to advance.
  • Tailor the environment to each child's strengths and weaknesses and help all the children, 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 need to be a part of ongoing, trusting, intimate relationships that children have with you and with each other. Having dynamic relationships is essential while climbing up the developmental ladder.

Following these three basic principles is the key to a truly inclusive classroom.

1. Observing and Sharing Information

In addition to any information you might be given about the special needs of different children in your group, you should use your own observations in these early days of school to see how each child is functioning. Sometimes in a new environment, children will be anxious and not able to implement the capacities they already have. Parents can be very helpful here. They can tell you how the child is functioning at home, helping you to understand if he is exercising all of his capabilities in the classroom. In turn, you might suggest to parents that some learning areas that have been helpful to the child in the classroom be set up at home. Integrating what is done at school and at home helps children move up the developmental ladder.

2. Learning in Small Groups

Children need to develop certain abilities before they are able to work together in large groups. These include the ability to interact with one another with some degree of attention, to use simple purposeful gesturing (such as taking you by the hand and pointing to something they want), 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 to work with them in small groups of two or three. To create a truly inclusive environment for children, be sure you have adequate staffing, including volunteers. At the very least, the ratio of children to adults should be four to one.

3. Do a Learning Center Check

Be sure that the learning centers in your classroom focus on different processing skills and that the materials in them can be adapted to meet the needs of children who are at varying developmental levels. Ask yourself:

  • Do I have a center where children can have sensory experiences? Are there things of different textures children can touch? Things with different smells?
  • Does the fine-motor area include materials of different shapes and colors so that some children can simply identify them by pointing while others make different configurations with colored blocks and explain why they are doing what they are doing?
  • Do I have simple objects such as trucks and dolls in the dramatic play area for children who are just beginning to move toy vehicles right or left? Do I have boxes and other objects that can be used in a multitude of ways for those children whose creative-thinking skills are more advanced?
  • Do I have objects such as balls and beanbags in the gross-motor area for children who are at early stages of motor development, as well as climbing equipment and materials to build obstacle courses for those who are more skilled in this area? Are there open-ended materials for those children who like to invent games and even make up their own rules?

Book Resources

The following books will help you learn more about working with children with special needs:

  • Building Healthy Minds by Stanley I. Greenspan, MD with Nancy Breslau Lewis. (Perseus Books, 2000)
  • The Child With Special Needs by Stanley I. Greenspan, MD and Serena Wieder, PhD (Addison Wesley, 1998)