Parents securing girl in a motorized car

How to encourage your child with special needs

Raising kids can be a challenge for all parents, but parents of children with special needs can have even more questions about what is right for their child.

Children with physical or cognitive disabilities often need extra help and attention, but encouraging independence is an important part of helping kids grow.

“Kids with special needs are first kids. The special needs are secondary,” said Dr. Sue Caldecott-Johnson, a pediatric rehabilitation specialist at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois and chief of child development and rehabilitation at University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria. “What’s good parenting for an able-bodied child or a child who doesn’t have any cognitive challenges is generally good for the child who happens to have physical or cognitive challenges as well.”

Find what interests them

“Rehab medicine is all about helping kids be more functional,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said. And finding the best way to motivate them is essential to engaging them in therapy.

Whether your child is interested in sports, art or theater, find a way for them to participate in that activity.

You may be able to find a class or instructor that can accommodate your child’s needs. Sometimes, they might be better suited in a program designed for children of different abilities. Adaptive programs are available for performing arts, skiing, basketball and many other activities.

“There’s lots of options out there. But it comes back to what we all should be doing as parents, which is learning what makes our children tick and finding ways to participate in that – even if that’s a little bit different with kids with disability,” she said.

If you’re not sure what your child might be interested in, give them opportunities to see other children at play, especially children with similar abilities.

Don’t fear failure

Many parents struggle to balance how much they should do for their children and how much children should do for themselves. Watching your child struggle can be difficult, but for them it’s an important part of learning.

“It’s not our job to make everything easy for them, but if we figure out what’s motivating to them – what makes them happy – we can help them find a way that they can participate in that activity with whatever adaptations they need. That’s how they’re going to shine, learn how to have fun with their life and problem solve,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said.

Combine patience and creativity

Young girl in a motorized car

An enthusiastic smile from a young motorist, courtesy of the Go Baby Go program.

Whether they are learning through therapy at a medical center or at school, children with disabilities often have to figure out their own unique way to walk through the world – and finding the way that works for them can take time.

“When you’re trying to help a child with a certain activity, even a fun activity like a coloring page, don’t be concerned if it’s taking that child longer than the next child. That’s OK, because if we don’t take that extra time and we do it for them instead, they’re never going to learn that skill,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said.

Take a step back to watch how your child responds to a challenge. Something that feels painfully slow and labor intensive to parents might feel much more normal for a child who is used to living at their own pace.

Assign responsibility

Maybe they won’t do the same chores as their siblings or classmates, but giving children an opportunity to contribute to the family can promote independence.

Find something that fits their level of ability. If folding the laundry is too difficult, can they sort clothes into piles? If they can’t do the dishes, can they help clear the table?

“Maybe what they’re going to do is going to take a lot longer and you could do it more quickly yourself, but having a role in the work of the home can really help them work toward being more independent,” Caldecott-Johnson said.

This can also include having and enforcing rules that your child can understand and follow, as long as any discipline is geared to their developmental age.

Encourage exploration

Kids learn through exploration.

For a typically developing child, this is usually through crawling, walking and running through their home, yard or classroom. Children who have difficulty moving in that way still need opportunities to explore.

Dr. Caldecott-Johnson started a local Go Baby Go program after her arrival at OSF Children’s Hospital. The program connects volunteers with children who have special needs and provides them with a motorized car specially adapted for them.

“The smiles that light up the room as they figure out that they can control where they are in the room on their own instead of relying on somebody else is just a joy to see,” she said.

Many times, this means kids can keep up – or outpace – their peers for the first time.

“They’re learning that they can explore on their own. That’s a good thing from a physical standpoint. It’s a phenomenal thing from a cognitive standpoint and what that does for their thinking skills.”

Learn more about Go Baby Go in the OSF HealthCare Newsroom. To learn more about volunteer opportunities or the special fund for those who would like to donate to a car for a child, contact the OSF HealthCare Foundation at (309) 566-5666.

Last Updated: November 5, 2018

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About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Kids & Family, Physical Therapy