It is important to start the school year off with the idea that all children, those with and without special needs, thrive in an environment that enables them to develop what they call the functional-emotional capacities. Here, Greespan offers tips on what teachers can do to be sure that they are creating a classroom environment where the needs of all the children in the group can be met.

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, and become a logical thinker.

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

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 Thrive in the Classroom

In order to help children master each of the functional-emotional capacities they need to meet daily classroom challenges, 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 child needs to be worked with at his own level and then helped to advance.

Tailor the environment to each child's strengths and weaknesses and help all 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.

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.

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 most, the ratio of children to adults should be four to one.