As an Early Childhood Education professional, you already understand the importance of creating an early learning environment where all children can grow, learn, develop, and thrive. In this article, we will take a look at practical ways to create an inclusive early learning setting for children with special needs, including learning disabilities, physical disabilities, hearing or visual impairment, speech or language disorders, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Read on to find out more.
How to Create a Supportive Early Learning Environment
Creating a classroom environment at your early learning center that supports a wide variety of children’s developmental needs sounds like a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. Since the early learning environment is one in which children with differing abilities may have special needs that are known or yet to be discovered, it is important to cultivate a learning environment that will help all children thrive.
Consider the following ways you can make your early learning setting more inclusive for children with special needs:
Classroom Organization – Your childcare classroom should be organized in a logical way. Children of all abilities, including those who may use a wheelchair or other assistive device, should be able to move easily around classroom furniture and equipment. Storage baskets, cubbies, and containers should be clearly labeled with simple words or pictures and accessible to all children. Classrooms should also be free from unnecessary clutter.
Classroom organization also includes your daily routines and teaching structure. Many children with special needs, especially children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), thrive in an environment where there is predictability and structure. Having a flow to your daily routine and preparing children in advance when there will be activities outside of the normal routine, like a classroom party or a guest speaker, can help these children feel safe and prepared.
Classroom Decoration – Your classroom should be painted with soft, neutral colors instead of bold and bright primary colors. Cheerful yellows and reds are fine in moderation but understand busy colors can be distressing and overwhelming to some children with special needs. Posters, wall art, and other classroom decorations should be chosen with care. They should add something to the early learning environment, not detract from it by creating a chaotic, cluttered look. A peaceful, friendly, and warm classroom can be achieved with tasteful decorations.
Furniture, Toys, and Equipment – An inclusive early learning environment contains furniture, toys, and equipment that can be utilized by all children. Adaptive furniture offers flexible arrangements and supports children who may have physical challenges or who need to move around easily to thrive in a structured setting. Toys that can be modified so that children with different abilities can enjoy them are a must. And any classroom equipment with which children interact should be accessible to all.
Light – What is the lighting like in your early learning environment? There should be plenty of natural light coming in from the windows. In addition, adjustable lighting that can be turned up or down can help children with visual impairment as well as children with autism, depending on the unique needs in your classroom.
Sound – What sounds can be used to enhance your early learning environment for children with special needs? A white noise machine or soft, gentle background music can provide sensory stimulation for children who need it. Use these tools for part of the day or the whole day as needed.
Temperature – Every classroom at your early learning center should ideally have its own thermostat, so teachers can adjust the temperature settings as needed. If this is not possible, then fans, open windows, or other means of temperature control should be utilized. Everyone should be able to learn in a comfortable environment.
Spatial Arrangement – How are the seats, tables, and different areas of your classroom arranged to support children with special needs? Giving children the ability to sit close to the front of the room or with a buddy can be immensely helpful. Providing a quiet area of the classroom can be a respite for children who are overwhelmed by sensory input.
Peer Interactions – Today’s special education model stresses the importance of an inclusive classroom where children with special needs learn alongside and interact with their peers. These interactions are crucial, beginning with the early learning environment. Encourage all children to play together and teach little ones without disabilities how to include and interact with their peers with disabilities. Helping children to appreciate their differences and form friendships with differently-abled peers is an essential skill for all.
Supportive Staff – Finally, you and your childcare staff should be prepared to provide the educational, emotional, and physical support required by children with special needs. Maintaining an appropriate adult-to-child ratio in the classroom, including specially-trained teachers or classroom aides on your team as needed, and forming intentional and close relationships with differently-abled children and their families will be key to providing the inclusive early learning environment they need to thrive.
We hope these practical ideas will help you create a supportive early learning setting for children with special needs.
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