I’m concerned about a 4 1/2-year-old girl in my room who is far behind the group in all her skills. Rather than participating in group activities, she tends to stay in her own world, absentmindedly playing—running her hands through the sand at the sand table over and over or rocking and staring into space. There are times when she shows signs of alertness in her play, but often her interactions and the way she expresses herself are different from the ways other children do. Her play can seem shallow, as if she’s just not progressing. Her parents are worried, too. They ask whether she will ever catch up and are concerned about her future. What can I tell them and what can I expect her to accomplish this year?
Many of our age-related expectations for children, such as when they will read, write, sit at a table, or even pay attention during group time, are rather arbitrary. While these things are important, we ought to think of them as branches of a developmental tree and first be sure there’s a sturdy trunk providing support.
Looking at Developmental Stages
To meet ordinary preschool expectations, a child has to have acquired the ability to focus and attend to another person and to engage easily and warmly—exchanging simple, friendly gestures, smiles, head nods, emotional expressions, and meaningful sounds. She must be able to communicate, to show another person what she wants, and to take the next steps toward logical thought and problem solving.
Children with special needs are often missing some pieces related to these prior stages of development. Does the little girl in your class express her desires verbally or take you by the hand to indicate her wants and needs with gestures, sounds, and the like? Before one can relate, engage others, and gesture, it’s not possible to proceed toward the next steps of formal learning. But when that foundation, that trunk, is solidly there, we can almost always help a child learn to read, write, do math, and live “a normal life.”
What You Can Do
The first thing to do for this little girl who has special needs is establish where she stands on the developmental ladder. Her progress may be slow because people are not tuning in to her rung of development. Perhaps she requires some practice in simple gesturing and relating or in doing some preverbal problem solving.
All children are capable of making some progress, going from their level to the next. But first we have to know where they stand and not focus on how far behind they might be. So, for example, if this child is not taking an adult by the hand and showing what she wants or using words to describe her wants, that’s the level you should be working on, rather than on prereading or writing activities, or matching picture cards or shapes.
Children without special needs effortlessly learn to attend and engage, acquire shared language, and spontaneously use ideas creatively and logically. And we can get right to the focus on prereading, writing, and math with these children, because the foundations have been learned without our paying much attention to them. We have to work at these foundational pieces, the building blocks of all learning, when a child has special needs.
Mastering Current Milestones
With this little girl, your task is to help her to be engaged and interactive all the time. Rather than asking her to simply join group activities, you, or an aide, might do more individual work with her. Look at books together, encouraging her to point to the picture she likes and then perhaps to use a word to describe what she likes about it. You might choose to have long discussions about snack, whether she wants the big cup or little cup of juice. And then you or the aide will want to join her at pretend play to get her language going—in which, for example, your doll talks to her doll.
You can also take little everyday challenges, such as opening a door, and raise questions, such as, “Who’s going to turn that doorknob?” Be very expressive: “Oh, I can’t do it. It’s hard. Can you help me do it?” Any little interactions like these will help her to be interactive, to use ideas logically, and will eventually bring her closer to reading, writing, and doing math. It may be hard to believe, but helping her master her own current milestones is the surest way to achieve the goals you and her parents have for her.
Assessing Pace and Progress
As for the rate of her progress, that will depend on two factors: her natural ability and whether, as we’ve been saying, she is offered the opportunity to practice what she currently needs to learn. Even in an optimal learning environment, a child will often move ahead quickly, then seem to level off for a while. The child’s progress is still continuing, but in a more subtle way. Soon, you should see more spurts of growth.
So, to answer the questions about how far she can go, consider what has happened over months of time. That should tell you, too, if her learning program is correct. No progress over the course of a number of months means you have to reevaluate the program and make sure there isn’t something else going on medically or in the family, or whether there are just shifts in this child’s own nervous system due to growth and development. Remember, even a cold or an ear infection can cause a temporary slack. The point is to worry less about her day-to-day accomplishments and more about whether the child is progressing in the direction you want to see.
We should look at every special-needs child’s learning curve over a period of time. If we see what has happened in an optimal program—between ages 2 and 4, for example—we can get some sense of the kind of progress the child is going to make. So, watching the learning curve over a period of a few years can give us a pretty good hunch about whether this child is moving in a way that will lead to certain skills being developed in time.
Right now, though, you can advise the parents not to worry about their child’s catching up. Instead, all of you should focus on building that trunk of skills that are ordinarily learned early in life.  ECT