Child Care Plus+

Rural Institute Child Care Plus logo

The Child Care Plus Center was based at the Rural Institute from 1987 to 2012. The nationally-focused Center supported and promoted inclusive early childhood environments.

Child Care Plus is no longer an active project. However, the materials are still relevant. To address the needs of a broad audience, Rural Institute staff updated several Child Care Plus resources in 2021.

The updated materials are available below under the Resources and Questions and Answers sections.  Original Child Care Plus content is available below under the Try It Out section.

All of these materials may be downloaded and reproduced for non-commercial purposes.

The updated views expressed in this document may not reflect the original Child Care Plus purpose, or the official position of the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities or University of Montana.

Permission is granted to download and reproduce information from this site for non-commercial purposes, provided you credit Child Care plus+ and list the address of our website on the copies you distribute.

Tip Sheets

Children learn important skills from interacting with peers and play materials. Here are things to think about when evaluating toys for a group-play setting.

Communication is the act of sharing ideas, feelings, and concepts with others. Communication can be verbal and nonverbal. Some children may have difficulty expressing themselves. Other children may have difficulty understanding what is said to them. It is important to identify and encourage all children’s attempts to communicate.

Working with families is an important part of working with children. Ideally, child care providers, teachers and families learn from and support each other. Here are some ideas to keep in mind as you communicate with families.

A child's environment communicates expectations and supports their development. The space around children impacts their sense of order, invites play, and promotes feelings of ownership.

The rewards for putting time and energy into connecting with a child come back to you in many ways. When children are in a caring environment, they learn to treat one another with care.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Each year, we plan a hike on the mountain near our program. We have fun exploring the view of our community--finding road patterns, identifying buildings, and locating our school. This usually leads to activities afterwards as children explore the idea of building their own towns, etc. This year, one of the children in my group uses a walker and is unable to make the hike. I don't want to cancel the hike, and certainly don't want to exclude the child. How do I make this work for everyone?

ANSWER: You've already begun to find the answer when you ask, "How do I make this work for everyone?" Field trips are an extension of your program and you already recognize the importance of including each child. In addition, you display a positive, "can do" attitude about finding a way to make it work!

Start by exploring small adaptations for the traditional hike based on the child's strengths and needs. If this child can successfully make part of the hike, you might establish your picnic site at the base of the hill and allow each child to set his or her goal for hiking distance. Or, explore other ways for the child to make the climb, such as an all-terrain wheelchair. Your awareness of the child's social, emotional, physical, and cognitive strengths and needs will help you decide if these or other modifications would be appropriate.

You could also investigate alternative locations that allow everyone to fully participate. For example, you could plan a bus route to "tour" your community. Or, you might look for another hiking location. Many communities have created accessible trails, and there may be one that offers a similar vantage point as your traditional trail.

The spirit in which changes are made is just as critical as meeting children's individual needs. It is important to ensure that field trip traditions have grown with you in their ability to respond to the uniqueness of each group of children. This process can help you discover exciting opportunities for providing every child new learning experience, as well as leading you to explore new territory! In addition, you are modeling the spirit and practice of inclusion for your community.

QUESTION: I really like my child care program. I have been careful in what I choose for the program. Do I have to adapt? When do I adapt? And will I know what needs adapting?

ANSWER: Adaptations do not necessarily mean large changes in routines, play materials, or environment. Adaptations are made for children based on what each one needs in order to fully participate in the program.

You should also understand that child care providers make "adaptations" all the time! Giving a toddler a sippy-cup instead of a bottle is an adaptation, and providing a number of different sizes and kinds of paint brushes means that each child can find one for his or her needs.

So . . . WHEN do you adapt? When it is clear that the child will not be successful with what is currently available. For example, when a child with a visual impairment has difficulty finding the puzzles she likes in the stack of puzzles, you could put a Velcro dot on the edge of her favorites to make them easier to find by feeling the edges.

And HOW do you know WHAT adaptations to make? Parents and specialists working with the child can give you some hints that have been helpful for them. You can also use your own knowledge of what children like to play with and how they play to guide your observations of whether or not a child is successful in his or her play. The child who may never touch finger paint can be offered a number of adaptations that make finger-painting successful such as rubber gloves, a spoon, paint brushes, sponges, etc.

The important thing is to recognize that the adaptations you make will benefit all the children in your program.

QUESTION: I want to teach the children in my program to share. It's an important social skill and one that all children need to learn. What kinds of toys are best to use?

ANSWER: The surprising answer lies in how many toys are available, more than in what kind. The best examples of spontaneous sharing among young children are seen when each child has access to one or two of the same toys or play materials. In these cases, there has often been an intentional effort by the child care program to follow a policy of "one for every child."

Picture a group of three children playing with markers. If there are three markers, each child will be part of the activity. You may even see them "trade" or "share" markers. If, however, there are only two markers, someone will feel left out. One way to understand why the "one for every child" idea works is to ask yourself this question: How motivated would I be to give up my marker when it means that I do not get to play anymore?

Obviously, you may not be able to have a tricycle, wagon, and swing for each child; there will naturally be times when children have to "wait their turn". However, caregivers can try to acquire materials with "one for every child" as a guide whenever possible.

QUESTION: I really believe I would welcome any child into my program, but I hear alarming stories from other child care providers. Is a positive attitude really enough?

ANSWER: While there is sometimes a big gap between attitude and ability, a positive attitude can have an incredible effect on your approach to the challenges that will most surely arise for you as a child care provider. A positive attitude is often described as a "can do" or a "why not" perspective. This position creates an open door for new ideas, new information, and new skills.

Attitudes serve as filters for everything that is said about a child. For instance, let's say a child comes to your program who, you are told, has been asked to leave several other early childhood settings. While this information may make you anxious, a positive attitude will make it more likely that you will look at a number of factors, explore many solutions, and use every skill at your disposal to work with the family to make your program a good placement for this child. Contrast this response with that of the individual who tells their director they are not prepared to deal with any of "those" kids.

Your attitude filter impacts your choices for professional development, your ability to develop skills, and your willingness to make changes in your program. For example, your positive attitude makes it more likely that you would be willing to learn how to perform an unfamiliar medical procedure or acquire sign language skills. Contrast this with the teacher who believes that because they have always done things a certain way, they should not have to make a change for just one child!

The simple truth is that inclusion is more likely to work when you believe it can. Attitudes affect our acquisition of knowledge as well as our ability to use that knowledge effectively. Your attitude towards problems and challenges directly affects not only your response to them, but the probability of a successful outcome for everyone involved, including you. Is a positive attitude enough, probably not, but it is almost enough.

QUESTION: I have a child with disabilities in my program, but the parents said they will take care of all the stuff. What should I do now?

ANSWER: For a variety of reasons, a few parents may be reluctant to allow the release of any records or information to you. They may be unsure about how the information will be used or fear that if you know everything about their child's disability, you may treat the child differently. As you build a partnership with the family, it is likely they will eventually recognize your need for information about their child. If not, this is a decision you must respect and accept without judgment.

Do not be alarmed if a parent refuses to provide consent for release of confidential information. Remember that this is their right, and in fact, many parents feel obligated to protect their child's records. Without the parent's written permission, you cannot obtain the child's records, but you can still gather general information from the library or agencies familiar with young children with disabilities. Although not specific to the child, this kind of information can help you learn more about the care a child needs while in your program and formulate specific questions to ask the family from time to time.

Since the child's parents are your bridge to the team, offer information about your program (handbook, newsletters, schedule), collect samples of the child's work, and provide written notes from your observations for them to share with team members. You can invite team members to visit your program, to observe, and play with the child during learning activities and routines. This opens the door for collaboration and may eventually result in parents inviting you to become more actively involved on the team.

QUESTION: I have several quiet children in my group. How do I encourage their communication?

ANSWER: When a child initiates communication with you (a baby cries, a toddler grabs your hand, or a child asks a question), your response helps children learn about communication. They learn that:

  • Their communication is important
  • You want to listen to them
  • Communication is often a circular process (you communicate, I respond with a communication, you respond back, etc.)

It makes sense to respond when someone talks to you, but sometimes attempts to communicate can be subtle.

For example, Diana was seated next to the teacher during an art activity. She was pasting colored paper to a paper plate and ran out of paper. She asked for more, gesturing with both hands, but got no response from the teacher. Several minutes later, she pointed to the container of paper, but no one noticed. Moments later, she pounded on the table and was told to "stop pounding or she would have to leave the table."

Having had no positive response to her many requests, Diana left the art table. This example illustrates the effect of failing to respond to a child's initiation. Had Diana had more communication skills, perhaps she could have used words to ask for paper. When she used the communication skills she had and they did not work, so she gave up.

In groups of young children, it may be difficult to respond to each child's request or attempt to communicate. Still, it is important for every child to feel that their contribution is welcomed and encouraged. Acknowledge each child regularly, including the child who may be quieter or less competent. Watch for a comment or a gesture from children who are less able to contribute during the group activity. Be careful that you are not so "busy" in group situations that you miss these wonderful opportunities to model and encourage good communication skills with each child.

QUESTION: I am trying to include a two-year-old girl with disabilities in my program, but I feel like I'm neglecting some of my other responsibilities. I really want to make this work, but I don't want to lose the other aspects of my program I have worked so hard to develop.

ANSWER: Your concern is not all that uncommon. When early childhood professionals enroll a child whose needs are unfamiliar and new, they often try so hard to make it work that they forget the advantages of individualizing within the context of the experiences their program already offers.

A few years ago, another provider had this same question about including a young girl named Rachel. When the provider shared her concerns with her co-worker in the program, they had an eye-opening discussion that changed the provider's perspective and helped her to find the balance she was looking for. The co-worker asked her, "Do you really think it's possible to meet any child's needs all of the time?"

Thinking of this question helped the provider keep things in perspective. She began to realize that she could not meet every child's needs all of the time, but she could meet the needs of each child most of the time. She remarked, "Sometimes children have to wait their turn, and Rachel is learning to wait, too."

Inclusion involves finding ways to include each child in typical activities and routines. Inclusion is grounded in quality early childhood practice which occasionally may take extra effort, extra resources, and support for a particular child. It is almost always doable within the context of typical early childhood routines and activities.

When it seems like it is not, it is wise to look first at your own expectations of yourself in relationship to the child's strengths and needs. Then, take a look at any additional resources that might be needed to ensure that the quality early childhood practices your program represents doesn't get lost to any of the children.

QUESTION: Our program discourages children from bringing toys from home because toys were often lost and some children did not want to share their toys. Lately children are bringing toys anyway and having tantrums when we ask them to put them away. One parent asked if her child could bring a favorite toy to school due to special circumstances. Should we bend the rule?

ANSWER: The rule you describe is common in early childhood settings for good reasons. It is understandable that you would want to protect children's toys from getting lost or broken while at school, and it is certainly frustrating when children bring a fun toy but won't let anyone else play with it.

It may be helpful to think about program rules from a child's perspective. While we might think the "no home toys" rule makes getting along easier for children, bringing something from home can be a way of blending together different parts of a child's world. Some children bring a toy to show the other kids, almost like sharing with family members. A child who is attached to a particular toy is likely to be more comfortable in school if they are allowed to have it with them. A rule against bringing toys from home may interfere with a child's way of building the connection between home and school.

To specifically answer your question about bending the rules, the answer is absolutely not! Do not let yourself get in the position of bending rules. If you are inconsistent, no one will know for sure what the rule is. But, if a rule doesn't work, change the rule.

For example, you may want to explain that toys from home are welcome but that children are responsible for keeping track of what they bring. It will be important that each child have a cubby or box or some special place to "protect" the toy when it is not being played with. You may also want to make sure there is a private play area if the child wants to enjoy the toy alone. You can use these toys from home as a way to learn more about the child and the child's play preferences. If conflicts arise, it will be a perfect opportunity to teach and help children practice problem solving skills.

QUESTION: I don't have a degree in special education, so while I understand it is important to individualize--and I want to--I'm not sure how to design an activity to include a child with a disability.

ANSWER: You are not designing a different activity, you are simply making modifications that will allow each child to participate in a meaningful way. But there are some things that will help you decide what you can do to meet the needs of an individual child. First, ask people who know the child well to get an idea of what kinds of play experiences have been successful. This is especially useful if the child is new to your program.

Most importantly, take your cues from the child. Spend time observing the child's behavior to see what he or she enjoys, what kinds of skills are used easily, and what types of toys seem to be most interesting. If you observe the child busily involved in a play activity in the block area, for example, figure out what makes that activity so successful and try to recreate that strategy in a group activity. Or, if during mealtime you notice that the child loves to experience the squishy textures of food, try to embed the same sensory experience in a group activity. In most cases, children's behavior will give you the information you need in planning the activity, and by watching each child's response to what you have planned, you will know if something needs to change.

Never assume that a child cannot participate. Adopt a mindset that says every child can be involved and then find ways that the activity can be modified to reflect each child's developmental abilities and interests.

Be willing to engage in trial and error. You may not know what will engage a child, but you can try a few different ideas to see if any of them work.

Do not consider the activity a failure because one or more of the children do not participate. Just keep making minor changes in materials, physical layout, or access to play and watch what happens.

QUESTION: I've just enrolled a child with cerebral palsy into my program. The child has severe delays, limited motor skills, and seizures. I'm concerned about how to prepare the other children so they aren't alarmed by the child's behavior.

ANSWER: First, you do not need to prepare the children for the enrollment of a child with a disability by doing any more than you would for any other child who was entering your program. Young children will not understand what cerebral palsy is, and if you try to describe seizures, delayed motor skills, or different sounding speech, you may set up a situation where the children expect to see this child as different or unusual.

What you can do is prepare by learning as much as possible about the child's abilities and disabilities. For example, find out as much as you can about the seizures so that you know how often they occur, what they look like, and what you need to do when one occurs. Discuss with coworkers what will happen if the child has a seizure. If you are prepared and relaxed, the children are not likely to be afraid. They probably will, however, want to talk about it afterward, particularly if they have never seen a seizure before.

Be prepared for questions and do not be concerned if children experiment with different-sounding speech patterns, pretend that they cannot walk, begin to role play or pretend that a favorite doll is having a seizure. These behaviors are perfectly common ways for children to learn about disabilities, and if not discouraged, they will not last long.

Your job is to give children information they need, when they need it, in a way that is calm, honest, and straight forward.

QUESTION: Our program has a limited toy and material budget. If you had only $50 to spend, what toys / materials would you purchase?

ANSWER: Given $50 or $500, the first choice should probably be play materials and supplies, not toys. In fact, given $50, consider using the money to arrange the materials you have to get the most use out of them. You might look for fun containers to store your dress-up clothes, add a science element to your Lego collection by acquiring a scale, put up hooks so that children can get their own bibs for lunch, or create picture labels the children can understand.

The best answer to your question can be found by observing the children themselves. What addition would support the play behaviors you already see? What would help to develop play themes that reflect children's current interests? Remember that the imagination of a young child seldom requires fancy materials. Your budget will go far if you build it around no-cost or low-cost raw materials that are chosen and thoughtfully arranged.

Before you spend a penny, make a list of playthings that you, the children, and their families can gather for free. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Contact a quilting group for scraps of fabric
  • Ask an appliance dealer for large empty boxes
  • Save cardboard paper towel rolls
  • Ask each family to bring in one article of clothing for your dress-up clothes
  • See if a doctor's office will donate unused, disposable medical supplies such as gowns, caps, gloves, etc.
  • Go to a fast food restaurant and ask for unused food containers, napkins, hats, and other supplies

QUESTION: One of the children in my program, Andy, has a severe developmental delay. He has limited movement, doesn't use words, and seldom plays with toys, much less other children. Is social interaction something I should work on with Andy?

ANSWER: Definitely! Children interact with adults, toys, and their peers even when they have significant developmental delays or disabilities. The way interaction occurs may be different from what is thought of as typical, but social interaction is important for every child. Here are ways you might promote social interaction for Andy:

  • Be sure that he has an opportunity to play in each of the activities you provide or areas you arrange. Andy's play may not be the same as another child with different abilities, but it is important for him and for the other children to spend time together – in the same play areas playing with similar materials. In the block area, for example, Andy may not build towers or houses, but he might enjoy knocking down towers or looking at blocks arranged in interesting patterns.
  • During art activities, arrange the art supplies on Andy's wheelchair tray. When children need more paint or another pair of scissors, they can go over to his tray, tell Andy what they need, and pick it out for themselves. This allows Andy to be involved and gives children many opportunities to talk to and interact with him. (Don't forget that Andy needs a turn to create his own art work, too.)
  • During circle time, you may need to be creative in looking for ways that Andy can interact with his peers. He may need an adapted chair or other positioning device so that he can sit at the same level with the other children. You or one of the other children may want to help Andy make the motions to familiar songs and nursery rhymes.

The important thing is to separate social interaction from a child's ability level – it really is possible to interact with people and materials at any developmental level. Your job is to look for and create opportunities that make it easier for children with disabilities to interact with their peers and truly feel a part of the group.

QUESTION: The Speech Therapist and mom are using sign to communicate with Jeffrey. They have asked me to help him by practicing the signs during our routines and activities. How can I incorporate his language into my program?

ANSWER: First, you get a pat on the back for your attempt to incorporate sign into your program, rather than teach sign to the children. Children learn sign language in mostly the same way as they learn spoken language, by imitation and motivation.

One way of incorporating sign in your program is to use it for key words with all the kids during the daily activities and routines. For example, choose words like more, shoe, rain (or the words Jeffrey is learning), and pair the sign with the word every time you use it. Start with one sign, such as more. Post a picture of the sign to remind yourself, staff, older children, and parents. Look for (and collect) ways to use the sign/word throughout your typical activities.

Now pair the sign with the word "more" every time you say it: more milk, more blocks, more helpers, one more chair. Encourage the children to use the sign when they make requests for more. Sing "The More We Get Together" at circle time. I'm sure you are getting the idea, but just in case, let's try it with apple. Again, post the sign for apple, read Ten Apples Up on Top (Dr. Seuss), cut apple slices as a group activity and serve for snack, place plastic/wooden apples in the housekeeping corner, get out the puzzle of fruits, etc.

Doing these things keeps a child's method of communication from being treated as unusual or different. What a wonderful skill: learning a language children can use all their lives!

QUESTION: What I am supposed to do if I stop using timers to get children to move from their favorite learning center to another center? They'll never move, and that will keep other children from having their turn.

ANSWER: When children are satisfied and unworried about being able to play at their own pace, most will voluntarily move on to other activities. They relax because they know for sure that they will have regular opportunities to return if they want. If you throw away the bells and timers (or lights flashing or whatever you use to tell children to stop what they are doing and move on), you would change the nature of your program in just two weeks.

When children have frequent and uninterrupted chances to play, they stop hoarding play materials and play spaces. They eventually become eager to share space and materials with others because they are no longer concerned about getting their turn. They are less anxious because they have been provided with many turns, and they know for sure there will be more in the future.

The depth and complexity of play increases as children are given enough time and materials to expand their play themes or work on child-initiated projects. They build positive relationships with other children because competition for space and play materials has been reduced or eliminated.

Shifting to this approach takes initial commitment, flexibility in scheduling, and enough time for you and the children to get used to this change. The benefits of this approach are huge, especially when it includes children's being able to "save" a play theme or block building for later. Teachers and caregivers who switch from timed play to extended play never seem to want to return to using a timer again!

QUESTION: We are developing a new parent handbook, and we want it to reflect our philosophy of inclusion. Should we say that we are "an inclusive program" or that we "include children with disabilities"?

ANSWER: Because you cannot actually deny services to a child just because he or she has a disability, using either one of those choices probably does not add much to your parent handbook or brochure. It would be more helpful to parents who are interested in your program if you made sure that the handbook used inclusive language and pictures throughout. A parent wants to know how you will include their child in your program, and that's what you need to describe / show.

They also want to know if you have any special qualities, experiences, or training that would help prepare you to meet the needs of their child. You might, for example, describe the kinds of activities the children do and explain that each of these "can be adapted to match the interest and abilities of each child." If you include a biographical sketch of you and/or other staff members, include specialized training you have received or perhaps a description that you "value incorporating cultural and developmental diversity and work hard to make sure that every child's interests are represented in your program."

The idea is to describe, for all families, the different ways in which you include every child in each part of your routine. There is no better way to describe inclusion! You might also be surprised to find that parents of children who do not have disabilities are just as interested in finding out that you will meet their children's individual needs. If your parent handbook uses inclusive language throughout, every family will feel that your program is a special place for their child.

QUESTION: I'm worried that adapting our playground will be expensive. Any ideas about how to pay for it?

ANSWER: It's true that play surfaces and new equipment can be expensive, however, some changes cost very little. To make your playground more accessible, focus energy on ways to improve play opportunities. It's okay to imagine a fabulous play yard, but before you begin major fundraising efforts, you'll want to be clear about what is needed and who will benefit.

Carefully look at the equipment, physical design, and play experiences available. What is needed to make this space more playable? Once you have identified a list of changes that you want to make, you are in an excellent position to ask for help.

Start by approaching parents and other professionals who work with children in your program. The following pointers may help:

  • Talk specifics. Instead of saying, "will you help us adapt our playground," try something more specific like, "Joey can't sit in the swing seats we have now, but I think he would really like to swing. Do you have any ideas?"
  • Make sure there is a clear benefit. Almost any changes will make your play yard look more appealing, but the true benefit should be stated in terms of the children. Not everyone will clearly understand why you need to have a special handle on a shovel. Part of getting people interested in helping you is getting them to understand what these changes mean to a particular child.
  • Do a little research. If you can find a picture, materials, or an example of the exact piece of equipment you want, you stand a better chance of getting the help you need.
  • Remember that you do not always need money; sometimes you need a few hours of labor or the parts and pieces to make the adaptation. Here is where your colleagues can help. Talk to speech therapists, psychologists, motor therapists, and special educators; they have access to catalogs and resources you might need.

Fundraising is only one of many options. More than money, you need a few good ideas and people's energy and support to turn your outdoor play space into a more playful area for all children.

QUESTION: I used to teach the kids as a group doing different crafts, finger plays, and projects. This year I made changes in my preschool schedule and play environment to promote opportunities for kids to have more "free time". The kids seem busy and productive during our longer play time, but I don't feel like I'm teaching anymore. What am I supposed to do with my time while they play?

ANSWER: By extending your child-directed play time and working to use your environment to invite children need to play, you have taken an incredible step toward creating a more developmentally appropriate experience for children in your program. Feeling uncomfortable with these changes is a natural part of your learning journey.

You seem to be struggling with becoming a facilitator during play time-a role that can appear to clash with past expectations that "good" teachers stand in front of the children and tell them what they need to know and do. As facilitator, you work as a partner with the children during play time. You assess their learning and the effectiveness of the play environment, provide support, and make changes in the environment when necessary.

Once you understand your role, it can become just as rewarding as more direct teaching methods. Here is a quick list of what a facilitator does:

  • Observes how children interact with toys and each other
  • Keeps notes about what is seen
  • Asks questions about children's play to guide and expand their thinking
  • Provides props based on children's ideas and needs
  • Introduces new concepts or vocabulary relevant to the play
  • Plays briefly to model a novel use for a materials
  • Assumes a temporary role in small group play to show a child how to join a group
  • Documents children's social, emotional, physical and cognitive growth
  • Asks if the play environment is meeting the needs of all children
  • Uses all of the information gathered to frequently adapt and expand the play environment

Your goal is to provide each child a well-designed environment that allows them to be self-directed in meaningful play. Allow yourself time to explore and change as you continue the process of lifelong learning.

QUESTION: How do you include families who don't want to be included? We have families who never come to parent meetings or respond to notes we send home.

ANSWER: Every family operates differently, and it is unfair to assume that parents are not interested in their child or in your program because they do not participate in traditional parent activities. Building partnerships with parents does not just mean encouraging them to attend special events or be physically present in the program.

Your task is to develop a personalized partnership with each family that allows you and the parents to work together to create a nurturing environment for the child. Parents will differ in how actively they are involved in this partnership. It may help to think of involvement on a continuum from high participation to little participation. For example, involvement might mean joining you and the kids for lunch when you invite them. It could mean taking a quick look at pictures you posted of the children making snack this morning. Or, it could simply mean reading the monthly newsletter.

It is natural to be excited about the parent who comes in every Tuesday to help out with play activities. It is even easier to appreciate the parents who support the program and repeatedly tell you how valuable you are to them. But it is also important to recognize the individual needs of families and allow each family a different response to being a partner in your program.

Offer a variety of opportunities, keep inviting parents to take part, and do not be too disappointed if they choose not to participate every time. Work with each family to discover what they need from you and what they are willing (and able) to contribute to your program.

QUESTION: What should I do when a parent wants me to use teaching or guidance strategies that do not fit with accepted early childhood practices?

ANSWER: It is important to remember that a partnership means shared decision-making. When parents and providers disagree, respectful communication is the key to developing a shared decision and plan. You can start by exploring the issue with the parent and find out why it is important to the family and to share the reasons for your current practices. Understanding each other's perspective is essential to the shared decision-making process. Sometimes, parents and providers are really promoting the same goal and the process ends with a meaningful conversation. Other times, there are deeper concerns and you may need to develop a plan together for exploring the concern. Occasionally, you might see the appropriateness of a parent goal and decide to adapt your program accordingly (and vice-versa)!

When there really is a difference in beliefs--such as when the family values completing a task over allowing the child choices, you can use the following process. First, seek a compromise that allows you to embed some of the parent's goal into your daily routine without violating your philosophy, such as implementing a planning process with the children at play time so they can practice making choices and then encourage following through.

Second, if a compromise is not achievable, you can agree to disagree. This is particularly useful when different approaches will not hinder a child's success at home or in the program, such as allowing the child to choose among play areas in your program and work on task completion skills at home.

Finally, you and the parent(s) can examine the fit between what the child needs and the child care environment by talking openly about similarities and differences in beliefs. Often you will find that there is enough in common to support the child's best interests. Sometimes you find that your differing opinions are getting in the way and/or the fit is not working for the child. When this is agreed upon, your best option is to work with parents to find a program that better matches their needs. This outcome is not about who is "right" or "wrong," rather it is an opportunity to recognize and accept that there are a wide range of family styles and practices and diversity in child care programs.

QUESTION: I'm confused. I've always thought that one of the best ways to get kids to talk is to ask them lots of questions.

ANSWER: While asking a question usually produces a verbal response, some children may feel pressured by the necessity to respond and may turn away or just not answer. Many children who do respond use short and simplistic answers.

In some cases, interactions based on questions do not result in meaningful conversation. The questioner controls the interaction and does most of the talking.

When your goal is to get children to communicate and engage in conversation (as opposed to just talk), you want to use methods that start--and maintain--meaningful exchanges. Using descriptive statements takes away the pressure of responding and at the same time, provides a language model centered on matters relevant to the child. When children choose to respond, they may elaborate in delightful ways that provide the framework for your next statement.

In most cases, interactions based on relevant statements and observations result in conversation where there is a balance of talking. These conversations can go on and on, until one or the other person is done. When you use mostly questions to communicate with young children, YOU direct the conversation and, in many ways, control the response. When you use descriptive statements to communicate, it is likely that children will use more language, add details, and direct the conversation to address their own interests.

QUESTION: I care a lot about the children in my program. Why does it really matter what language I use if my tone and my intent are positive?

ANSWER: Change is easier when you understand the reasons for adopting recommended practices. Your question provides an opportunity for deeper exploration of the language of inclusion. Together, let's look at four primary reasons of using appropriate words and child-first language.

Adults with disabilities have identified and actively promoted language they consider respectful. They have united with a common voice to declare "not about us, without us." Even federal legislation about individuals with disabilities has been revised to read disabilities instead of handicaps and individuals with disabilities instead of disabled individuals because individuals with disabilities and their family members collectively advocated for this change.

Other staff, parents, specialists and therapists hear how we talk about children. They may or may not know us well enough to recognize our positive intentions. Using appropriate language will ensure that you will not be misunderstood / use offensive language.

You are modeling lifelong practices for the children. How do you want them to see one another--as labels and deficits or as unique human beings who are more alike than different? How do you want them to feel about one another? What words do you want them to use to describe each other now and in the future?

When you are talking with parents, colleagues, or specialists who value appropriate language, you will not have to adjust in your thinking and speaking. You will have already mastered these skills and will be able to freely converse without feeling awkward or inadequate. You will present yourself as an educated professional who knows--and uses--the language of inclusion.

Try It Out

When you identify a barrier to a child's participation in a routine or activity, you may need help to come up with a solution to address the special interests and needs of the child. You can get help with ideas by:

  • Problem-solving with the child's parents, specialists and therapists
  • Searching online for ideas or strategies
  • Brainstorming with colleagues and staff members

When you expand your resources and get input from others, you may come up with surprising and creative solutions such as:

  • Plant hanger extensions to lower coat hooks
  • Hanging a multi-pocket shoe storage hanger on the back of the door for cubbies
  • Using symbols on tags instead of names
  • Placing name tags above as well as below the cubby or coat hook

Individualizing for each child adds an exciting and creative element to early childhood teaching. Seeing children's increased exploration and engagement is very rewarding!

Using children's interests to plan daily routines and activities is one effective way to individualize your program. You can discover children's interests by asking questions on your enrollment form, observing the children and communicating with parents. Interests include actions (opening and shutting or stacking), types of toys (little dolls or puzzles), experiences (listening to music or touching silky fabrics), and themes (trucks or dinosaurs).

The following steps can help you use children's interests to customize activities, play areas and environment.

  • Identify each child's unique and individual strengths, needs and current interests.
  • Gather more information about the child's interests through observation and parent input / feedback.
  • Identify resources already available in your program from parents and outside sources.
  • Embed toys and play materials in play areas that reflect the child's interests.
  • Find ways to modify songs and transition activities to reflect the child's interest(s).
  • Use field trips and visitors to foster learning about the child's interests for the whole group.
  • Regularly check the child's progress and adapt routines and activities as interests change.

When a child is having difficulty learning to communicate or form words, a speech therapist may be involved. You can identify which strategies to use to help a particular child develop good communication skills by gathering the following information from the speech therapist:

  • Way(s) the child communicates most effectively
  • Kinds of communication the child understands
  • Sounds the child is having difficulty making
  • What to do when you cannot understand the child's speech or signs
  • What skills the therapist and child are working on
  • How you can help the child's communication development in your program
  • Easy ways for you and the speech therapist to share information about the child's development

A speech therapist is an excellent resource to help you develop your skills in facilitating young children's communication skills. Sometimes it just takes effective communication between the two of you!

You may encounter children for whom a subtle message in the environment is simply not enough. Young children with sensory impairments, for example, may need very specific cues from the environment. It is often helpful to use the expertise of the child's parents and other team members to identify creative ways to let your environment "speak" to a child who has a hearing or vision impairment.

The first step is to clearly communicate your goals. Many parents and specialists may not realize you are trying to create a space that gives children specific messages about order, exploration, and ownership.

Next, be sure you understand the child's strengths and abilities; ask specific questions. If the child is blind, how have other team members tried to provide specific environmental cues? If the child has a difficult time focusing on verbal directions, has anyone tried using picture cues? Knowing what the child can already do and what works in other settings will give you good ideas about strategies you can use in your own environment.

Finally, find a way to show the child's parents and other team members how you use the environment to send messages to children. Learning from environmental cues is a typical way for young children to gain new information. Share your successes!

Ask kids what they think about parachute play, and they'll say, "It's great!" There is something wonderful about the colors flying and the swish of fabric being pulled through the air. Another fun thing about parachute play is that each child can participate in what makes parachute play great. Children large and small can take turns laying under the parachute and experiencing the wave of color and wind as their friends billow the chute above them.

Puffy terry-cloth ponytail holders can be sewn to the edge of the chute (or large scarf, sheet, or blanket). These can be used as hand-holds and placed around a child's wrist to allow infants and children who may have difficulty grasping to join in the up and down motion of the play.

Large triangles of different textured fabrics – burlap, corduroy, velour, flannel – sewn to make a circle, add touch and feel experiences for all children and may be particularly exciting for a child with a vision impairment. Adding a ball in the middle of the parachute challenges children to coordinate their movements to keep the ball from rolling off the edge.

Of course, letting children use their own imaginations may result in additional ideas such as, "Let's make a tent over the climber," How many of us can get under here?", "Can we each sit down on a different color," or "peek-a-boo" as the chute wafts up and down. Parachute play is cooperative, fun, and imaginative; it pulls children together in a breezy swirl of color, touch, and movement.

Your behavior and positive attitude towards healthy and safe practices are noticed. When children see you eating the healthy snack you offer them, they are more likely to eat it. When you arrive in the morning with your bike helmet on, or wear goggles when showing children how to use the hammer and nails, they learn to do these things too. Every activity seems to have a health and safety component. You put a belt on the baby in the high chair and an appropriate play surface under the climber and the swings. You watch for sharp objects and make nutritious snacks. Much of your conversation with children is instruction and guidance for maintaining their safety and well-being.

Effective teachers both plan activities that help children learn to be healthy and safe, and take advantage of unexpected events. A child's visit to the dentist provides an opportunity to read a story about dentists and facilitate children's "playing" dentist with suitable props. Children asking, "will I catch that" or, "how did she get it," when another child has the flu, a broken arm, or a hearing aid provides an immediate teaching opportunity. Providers who engage children in learning about and using good health and safety practices are not only making their day-to-day job easier, they are helping children learn important lifelong skills.

You have probably seen how smoothly art activities go when each child has access to the materials—scissors, markers, paper, glue sticks—whenever he or she is ready to use them. Or you may have seen the opposite when only three scissors or one glue stick were available for a group of six children!

Here are suggestions to ensure you have enough other important play materials:

Balls. Provide different kinds, sizes and colors of balls, and offer enough to allow one for every child.

Trucks and cars. Have many items, but also have a number of duplicate trucks/cars.

Blocks. Better to purchase a lot of pieces of the same set than to have a few pieces of different sets.

Dramatic play items. Provide duplicates of popular items, such as firefighter hats, tutus, and tea pots.

Riding toys. When four or five children can each ride their own, each child is learning and growing.

Keep in mind that it is better to have less variety and more of the same or similar toys or materials than to have more variety and less of the same or similar popular items. If this concept is new to you, try it out. The children will quickly demonstrate the effectiveness of this simple strategy.

Next time a challenge occurs with children in your group, take time to reflect on yourself. Ask yourself the following questions, consider your answers, and try out the simple suggestions.

Are my expectations for the children reasonable? Remind yourself about the "age and stage" of each child in the group, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Can this kind of play continue because it is safe and appropriate for these children or do you need to redirect?

How am I feeling? Could a recent cold or hunger be influencing my reactions? Am I less responsive to the children today than I usually am? Relax the day schedule for one day or grab a snack to meet your needs for the moment.

How is my emotional well-being? Family, home, and "on the job" issues can impact how you respond to children. Try to stay in touch with your emotions, take a deep breath, and get through a challenging day as gracefully as possible. If the issue is a reoccurring one, seek support.

Have I been giving inconsistent messages to children by ignoring this behavior one time and reacting to it the next? Make a clear and informed decision, communicate your expectations to the children, and stick with it.

Has my attention been distracted by an adult conversation or other activities? Turn your focus back to the group. Get down to their level, make eye contact, and let them know that you are with them again.

In order for relationships between parents and caregivers to be "give and take," good communication must be established. An interactive bulletin board might help communicate outgoing and incoming information. A "give-and-take" bulletin board has:

  • Paper and pencils handy for easy use
  • Push-pins and tape so anybody can easily put up displays, information, pictures, and questions
  • Announcements about upcoming events in the program or community
  • Parent suggestions on parenting or program activities
  • Celebrations for parent participation in the program or staff tributes
  • Information from articles or training opportunities

Features or topics for the Give-and-Take Board include:

  • Can You Believe It: Updates on children's and teachers' activities and achievements
  • Parents Say: Suggestions from parents
  • Teacher's Corner: Training events, special requests, program information
  • How About a Hand: Sign-up for projects, field-trips, or help with a special event
  • Picture This: Pictures of children, teachers, and parents

A Give-and-Take Board should not be the only way you communicate with parents, but it is a great start!

You can set up stringing beads as an individualized activity by providing different kinds and sizes of "strings" and "beads." By choosing materials that address the interests and needs of children across age and ability levels, you offer:

  • Chances for each child to be successful
  • Challenge for children at a range of developmental levels
  • Opportunities for children to use both small and large motor skills

To show children how to begin, you may want to start with a few strings of beads and leave them lying around the area. The following suggestions for strings and beads are grouped from most challenging to least challenging.

Ideas for Strings

  • Fishing line
  • Yarn or string
  • Shoe laces
  • Leather cord
  • Plastic wrapped wire
  • Rope with taped ends
  • Lengths of hose

Ideas for Beads

  • Buttons
  • Beads of various sizes
  • Macaroni noodles
  • Giant manicotti noodles
  • Empty paper towel rolls, cut in 2" sections
  • Short lengths of PVC pipe
  • Frozen juice or other cans, ends cut out

Parents who have young children with disabilities look for child care for the same reasons any parent does. However, finding child care is often more challenging. They may have additional concerns and perhaps a need for specialized care or equipment. You can help parents who have children with disabilities decide if yours is the "right" program— one that fits their needs as well as their child's needs—by listening to the parent's interests and concerns, describing your program accurately, and discussing together whether your program matches their expectations.

When a parent makes that first call to your program:

LISTEN and learn about the child's strengths and needs, any special concerns, and the kind of care they expect. This is your first chance to gather information about how the child could be included in your program.

DESCRIBE your program, including your philosophy as well as hours and fees. Tell parents what you expect from children and families in your program and what they can expect from you. Talk openly about your experience of including children with disabilities. Let parents know what services you can offer as well as what services you are not able to provide.

DISCUSS how the parents' needs match your program's abilities. Talk honestly about your concerns and explain the kind of support you may need. Together identify ways to successfully include their child. Ask them for help with any special equipment or skills you will need. Use this discussion to set the stage for a future partnership based on communication and trust.

Using this process, both of you will have begun to identify what it will take to be sure that yours continues to be the "right" program.

A number of early childhood programs require that children "reserve" a spot in the area or center where they want to play by posting a name tag. While this practice may help limit the number of children in the play area, this commonly used strategy may also create stress in children. To assess the situation in your program:

Watch to see whether children hurry (or even run) to put their name tag up, pushing other children aside.

Look for instances when children forget to move their name tag to a new center, dash across the room to retrieve it, and return to find someone else has taken their play space.

Be alert to children who are tempted to remove another child's name tag so they can get into a center—to be with a best friend, for example—effectively pushing someone else out.

Observe for children waiting outside a play area, unengaged for extended periods of time, because the name tag board is full for that area.

If you found any of the above problems are occurring in your program, you will want to switch to other less stressful options. While name tags may help children with name recognition, many other methods (labeling cubbies and signing art work themselves) are equally, if not more, effective.

Here is a simple strategy to start your day that immediately creates a positive climate and increases young children's appropriate behavior.

  • Set up the learning environment at the end of each day or early in the morning. Be completely prepared before children arrive.
  • Identify the most frequent arrival time for children.
  • If you work alone, set up a play area with puzzles, stringing beads, and other small toys near the entry area. This way, children can become engaged in individual or small group activities while remaining in an area you can easily supervise.
  • If your program has multiple staff, assign one person to the greeting area and a second to supervise the rest of the group at play during the time when most children arrive.
  • Be in the entry area to warmly greet each child. Get down to eye level with the child. Look at the child; touch the child's shoulder. You might say, "I am so glad to see you today," and tell the child about one or two activities planned for the day.
  • Tune in to children who arrive later; they need the same friendly welcome as well.
  • Warmly acknowledge each parent and briefly ask about their day so far. You might ask, "Is there anything I need to know to make your child's day go well?"

This simple greeting routine not only improves children's positive behavior, it can change your perspective about the children and the day as well.

Facial expressions are perhaps one of the earliest expressions of a child's needs. A grimace, smile, frown, pout, or stare communicate important messages. A child may look at a desired object as a way to indicate she wants it or make eye contact with an adult as a way to initiate interaction. Children with disabilities that interfere with their ability to use spoken language may rely heavily on facial expressions and other forms of nonverbal communication to initiate social interaction with others and to get their needs met.

A child's position in relationship to a particular object, event, or person is another communication signal. Children who back away from an activity or pull away from an adult may be expressing discomfort.

A child who is frustrated or anxious may move toward a familiar adult in an attempt to gain consolation and comfort. When children feel secure and comfortable in the setting, they are more likely to join into play activities. On the other hand, physically avoiding participation may mean a child is worried or uncomfortable.

Young children use gestures to express themselves. When a child points to a toy, raises both arms toward a familiar adult, or shakes their head from side to side, the intent is relatively clear. Children and adults use gestures when they use their hands to form signs (as in American Sign Language) to communicate with each other. Although gestures may be the easiest to interpret, all of the messages children give us are important elements of communication.

Your use of sign language to accompany common words like cookie and book (whether or not any children in your program are primarily communicating with sign language) lets children know there are many ways of communicating. Using sign language in natural ways gives powerful information to young children who have a good understanding of what they hear—but still do not have the ability to say the words.

Frequent use of facial expressions, head and hand gestures, positive touch, pictures, play props, eye contact, word or picture labels on objects, sign language, and other nonverbal strategies provides multiple ways for children to understand and communicate with you and with each other.

If a team is going to work together, frequent communication is important. Think of how busy you are. It is likely that the other team members are equally as busy. Here is a list of ways teams can communicate.

Team meetings. If the meeting is scheduled when you cannot get away, write down your ideas and give them to another team member so your observations or questions can be addressed.

Written reports. Sharing reports does not happen automatically. In order for a therapist or physician to share their latest report, they must know you want and need a copy, and they must have written permission from the child's parent.

Working together. Many teams regularly schedule opportunities for two or more team members to observe the child together, using the results to plan interventions.

Telephone calls. When a meeting is impossible to schedule, regular contact can be maintained through telephone calls.

Team notebook. When different team members are involved, it may be difficult to keep everyone updated on the child's daily progress. Creating a notebook that goes back and forth with the child allows team members to regularly communicate about the child's progress. This notebook is an especially useful tool for new team members because it shows the child's progress over time.

There are many ways to build relationships and make connections with young children as they play and learn in your program. Here are a few that fit right into the daily routine.

Greet each child. Greet every child warmly each day as the child enters your program or group. Get down at the child's level or look into the child's face, and use his or her name.

Join a child at play. Quietly ask, "Can I sit by you for a minute while you paint?" And then pay attention.

Write a short note. "I had fun watching you build castles in the sand box today."

Follow up on a child's interest. "Yesterday, you told us about your boat. I found this book on boats for you to look at (or for us read together)."

Respond. When you catch yourself ignoring a child or a child's request, don't let the moment pass. Take a deep breath, relax your facial expression, bend or kneel down, and say, "I think you have something to tell me and I want to listen."