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What are some tips or suggestions for raising a child with special needs?

Some strategies for promoting the development of your exceptional child

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Do you have a child with special needs? For instance, does your child have a learning, developmental, physical, or behavioural or emotional disability?

If so, you’re faced with a tall task. Raising a special needs child can be a huge challenge. Of course, it can also be highly rewarding.

As a parent, you should aim to learn everything you can about your child and their challenges, to promote their health, development, and happiness. This means doing lots of research. You’ll need to do plenty of reading, connect with the relevant agencies and associations, talk with other parents of children with special needs, and meet with doctors and specialists.

In general, it’s important to seek guidance from those who know about and have experience working with special needs kids. Below, educational experts offer advice on how to raise a child with special needs. To learn about special education, and view a list of special needs schools, read our comprehensive guide.

Click here to view a list of special needs schools

Educational experts' answers

Jillian Roberts, professor of educational psychology at the University of Victoria and founder of Family Sparks
“A child, with or without special needs or learning disabilities, develops in a variety of ways, within many different environments. Promoting an environment that will see the child and not the disability or, not just the disability, is by far the best thing you can do for that child’s development—both mentally and emotionally.

Here are 15 strategies for promoting the development of a child with a disability:

  1. Start by recognizing your own biases and prejudices in your heart and mind towards people who have disabilities and then learn how to create new positive ways of seeing a person and their great potential.   
  2. Look at your child holistically. Don’t just see their weaknesses or what they are incapable of doing. Find their strengths and enhance them.  
  3. Get to know your child: their personality, what they like or don’t like to do, what makes them smile and laugh or mad and sad. Know them personally.
  4. Create a collaborative, team environment among everyone involved in your child’s life—teachers, psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, parents or relatives, and your child.
  5. Cultivate an inclusive and encouraging school, community, neighbourhood, and home.
  6. Remove all barriers that keep your child from physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually succeeding and excelling—e.g., no elevators, no ramps, compacted classrooms, limited materials, one kind of test or exam, beliefs they have reached their potential, thoughts they can’t do something or gain anything anymore.
  7. Learn about your child’s specific disability to better understand it, as well as the interventions that can help improve their academic skills, life skills, and behaviour.
  8. Think: what is the best thing I can do now that will build self-efficacy and independence now and in the future?
  9. Act: plan specific conversations, assignments, and develop curriculum that builds self-efficacy and independence.
  10. Develop a growth mindset and encourage that from the team of professionals as well as your child.
  11. Go out often. Go out into the public. Use public transportation and public access.
  12. Create many opportunities for conversations and interactions to take place between your child and those who aren’t disabled and those who are.
  13. Invite, welcome, and encourage parent, sibling, and family involvement.
  14. Learn. Have the attitude that you can always learn from those who are disabled. If you do, they will change your life.
  15. Be free to have fun and make messes.”

Ruth Rumack, director of Ruth Rumack’s Learning Space, a personalized educational support program, in Toronto, Ontario
“For parents, patience, mindfulness, and empathy are important attributes that are helpful in supporting children with particular challenges. In addition, encouraging strong self-esteem and resiliency go a long way to raising well-adjusted and capable children. Also, parents should not confuse a child’s avoidance or frustration with laziness or defiant behaviour. It is important to remember that children with special needs are dedicated and often work harder than their peers. Overall, parents should be attentive and listen or take note of any aspects of a child’s academic or social life that seem challenging.

Seeking outside help can establish a strong support system for children and their families. It is important to bring in the right people and professionals to best promote your child’s development. For example, developing a good relationship with classroom teachers throughout the school year can allow parents to feel more comfortable pursuing any concerns with their child right away. A useful tip is to create a file to document all interactions, interventions, reports, and details of a student’s needs and progress in order to have all the information in one place for further reference. Ultimately, a parent needs to remember that learning is a process and that any new skill will take time to develop, particularly if a child is behind their peers. It is important to empathize with the child and celebrate successes no matter how small they are and recognize that although a child may not be meeting typical milestones, given enough time and the right intervention, they will likely find success.”

Joanne Foster, educational specialist, author of Creativity and Special Needs Learners
“Each individual, including a special needs child, has areas of strength and weakness, and it’s incumbent upon the adults who live and work with children to strive toward supporting all the dimensions of their well-being. This includes their social and emotional health, cognitive growth, moral and character development, and more.

With that in mind, a person’s creativity is a vital part of what makes that person unique. Creativity helps children solve problems and overcome challenges. It fosters resolve, inquiry, new perspectives, independence, positivity, confidence, and ingenuity. Certainly parents and teachers are right to focus on academics, including remediation, accelerated learning opportunities, or other special education programming modifications or accommodations, as required. All that can and should occur—while also paying attention to children’s creative potential.

Adults have to help children make the right kinds of choices. That is, to take a chance, step outside of comfort zones, try new approaches, test limits. Kids may need extra encouragement, or assistance in the form of help, reinforcement, or guidance so as to be able to maximize their strengths, talents, interests, energy, effort, and coping mechanisms. Patience, choice, reassurance are fundamental for encouraging children’s creative expression. So is honoring the validity of children’s thoughts and feelings, without being judgmental.

Dona Matthews, educational specialist, and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids
“My best advice to parents is to love your child for the beautiful special person they are. Keep your focus on their strengths, trusting that with time and the right kinds of support, they’ll learn to manage, surmount, or cope with whatever differences they might have from others. Do your best to learn what their weaknesses/problems/disabilities might be, and to provide the right kinds of support for those, but don’t put so much time, attention, and energy into their differences from ‘normal’ that you and your child lose sight of their essential wonderfulness. And remember: special learning needs change over time. The more scientists learn about the brain and its development, the more evidence there is of neural plasticity, the capacity for change over time. What looks like a problem today might in time look like a strength.”

Una Malcolm, director of Appletree Learning, a personalized educational support program in Toronto, Ontario
“Parents should be prepared to be dogged advocates of their child’s needs in order to ensure that his or her needs are met. Specific programs and approaches have more of a basis of empirical research support. Parents should ensure they are aware of which programs and approaches are established as successful.”

Click here to view a list of special needs schools



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