Specific Ideas for Child Care Providers to Help Children with Social and Emotional Disabilities

Child Care September 14, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

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Working with a child who has a social or emotional disability can be challenging in the child care setting. Children with social and emotional disabilities may display one of three types of extreme behavior: withdrawal, aggression, or high activity level. Each type of behavior may require a different type of support in order for the child to participate successfully in the child care setting.

Children with social and emotional challenges need consistent daily schedules and dependable interactions with others. Many children with this type of special need have challenges moving from one activity to another. Changes in routine may upset them, and they may require more time and warning to handle transitions.

Children with social and emotional disabilities may also have challenges managing their own feelings or relating with adults and other children. They may need help and support handling anger or frustration, and they may have difficulty playing with other children.

Specific Ways Child Care Providers Can Support Children with Social and Emotional Disabilities

The key to supporting children with a social or emotional disability is to provide the guidance and support they need to interact with others. Here are some specific ideas for making the child care setting a supportive environment for a child with a social or emotional disability.

Provide adult guidance and support

  • Set up regular schedules and routines, and follow them consistently.
  • Post a picture schedule. Take photos of different daily activities (indoor play, clean-up, snack time, etc.) and post the photos on the wall in order. Encourage children to check the pictures so they will know what comes next.
  • Encourage a withdrawn child to observe an activity, but don't pressure her to participate right away. As the child becomes more comfortable, demonstrate how to play with materials or toys. Encourage the child to play along with you.
  • Watch for signs of aggressive behavior.  Document all aggressive behavior and  identify behavior patterns.  For example, does a child get aggressive every day before lunch?  If a child tends to be aggressive, be sure a teacher is nearby  to intervene if needed. 
  • Teach children problem-solving skills. Help them identify the problem, brainstorm possible solutions, choose the best solution, and test it out. These steps can be used both for individual problems and for problems with other children.
  • Help children plan or organize an activity. For example, if a child wants to play firefighter, you might help him make a list of the materials he needs, talk about what the play area should look like, think of other people he needs, and help him find ways to invite other children to play.
  • Provide a cozy, quiet space for times when a child needs a break from other children or activities.

Adapt activities to support children's learning

  • Provide activities that will help the child feel capable. Avoid activities that can be done only one way. For example, you might provide dough and a wide variety of tools for all children. Encourage the children to find different ways to manipulate the dough.
  • Capitalize on children's interests. If a child is a dinosaur expert, build in dinosaur-related activities, and encourage the child to teach other children. If the child loves active play, be sure to build in plenty of ways for children to be physically active, both indoors and outside.
  • Watch for periods when children are more calm and in control. Use these times to present a new activity.
  • Keep stories and group activities short to match attention spans. Seat the child near you and away from distractions such as a nearby toy shelf.
  • Offer an appropriate number of toys and materials. Children need choices, but too much "stuff" may overwhelm them. Avoid giving children too many toys or activities to choose from.

Guide transitions

  • Announce clean-up time and other transitions ahead of time. Giving children a "warning" prepares them that they will need to stop their current activity soon.
  • Assign a specific task to the child during the transition. For example, rather than ask a child to clean up, ask him or her to pick up the red blocks.
  • Avoid empty waiting periods. All young children have a hard time waiting, but children with social and emotional disabilities may find waiting even harder. Be sure the next activity is set up before you begin the transition. Fill waiting periods with songs, fingerplays, guessing games, and other activities to keep the children engaged.

For More Information

To learn more about supporting children with social and emotional disabilities in a child care program, check out the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care section on Child Care for Children with Special Needs, or take a look at the following articles:

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USDA / NIFA

This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.