More and more frequently, parents are seeking nannies who are adept in caring for and bonding with children who have special needs, ranging from conditions such as Down syndrome and autism to behavioral disorders like ADD or ADHD. In honor of National Down Syndrome Awareness Month, we thought we’d share some tips for nannies working with (or considering working with) special needs children.
When caring for a child with Down syndrome…
Learn how the child communicates. When you begin working with a family, always be sure to ask the parents how the child prefers to express him/herself, especially if he/she is nonverbal. As you spend more time with the child, their communication style will reveal itself to you. Don’t be afraid to observe as the child interacts with others to see if there are different modes of communication triggered by different activities or people.
Keep rules simple. It can be difficult for kids with Down syndrome to follow directions, so ask the parents about any family rules, and stick to them. Be sure any new rules or guidelines you set for the child are as simple as possible. It can also help to get the child used to a routine, so they know what to expect at a given time. If necessary, you can enforce rules and routine with visual, auditory, or tactile cues.
Be patient! When helping the child perform a task such as showering, getting dressed, or brushing their teeth, give them cues if they need help, but make sure you don’t do the activity for them. Repetition is the key to learning. If they don’t understand immediately, it’s okay. Consistency is important when working with a child who may have behavioral issues and outbursts. Always be aware that stubborn or oppositional behavior may be a way of communicating frustration or a lack of understanding.
Safety first! There are many different levels of functioning within the Down syndrome community, so get to know the child’s specific medical history. Typically, children with Down syndrome have lower muscle tone and difficulty with coordination. It may be difficult for them to move quickly; this does not mean they don’t like to play outside! It’s important to help them exercise their muscles safely.
How you do this depends, of course, on the individual child’s level of musculoskeletal impairment, but guidelines recommend that children with Down syndrome engage in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. If the child knows how to swim and enjoys it, taking them to the pool is a great low-impact, high-reward option. Playground activities such as swings and slides are also a good way to make physical activity fun. Always keep a close eye on the child; wandering or running off is a common behavior for children with Down syndrome. As a caregiver, you must make sure they do not inadvertently find themselves in dangerous situations.
Create social situations. Find something the child enjoys, and do it with them. Children with disabilities are often less exposed to social situations and activities than other children. To help a child with Down syndrome learn developmentally appropriate social skills, make sure he or she has one-on-one time with a variety of classmates outside of the classroom in addition to time with you.
Have a plan—and a backup plan. Oftentimes, things don’t go as planned. It’s important to know how to deal with difficulties as they arise, but sometimes the best option is to regroup and do something entirely different. Whenever you plan an outing, make sure you have a mental list of modifications to the plan should something go awry, and another plan entirely on the backburner. For example, you might plan to take the child to a parade, but find on that morning that he or she is irritable or having difficulty processing sensory information. You do not want to bring a child who is already on edge to a large social gathering, so you should be prepared to propose alternative activities: to watch the parade on TV, for instance, or play quietly in the backyard.
When caring for a child with autism…
Be a detective. When a child has difficulty communicating, as a caretaker you need to be able to decipher what they’re trying to say without harming their self-esteem or causing frustration. This often requires a particular brand of detective work. For example, we spoke with a special education teacher who shared this anecdote: “I worked with a student who would say ‘Planet, planet, planet, planet, planet’ randomly throughout the day, and we had no idea why. Then we watched an episode of VeggieTales. In the video, one veggies says he’s so hungry he could eat a whole planet. It turned out the student was using the word ‘planet’ to try to tell us he was hungry.”
Engage in their interests with them. It seems obvious, but having something to engage with the child about makes your interactions much more meaningful, and it shows them that you care. Even if the child is not traditionally affectionate, the attempt to interact with them on their level makes a huge difference in the relationship. Many autistic children become passionately focused on a particular area of interest; a good nanny will recognize this interest as a means of forming a connection with the child. For instance, if the child is particularly fascinated by maps, you could suggest exploring the house, neighborhood, or town and drawing a special map using things you find as markers on the map’s legend. Additionally, if you happen to be in New York, the Children’s Museum of the Arts has a fascinating exhibition about the art and imagination of cartography running through January 17, 2016.
To avoid behavioral outbursts, make transitions between activities smooth and clear. It’s important to try to maintain a calm environment. To do this, you could use a visual timer so they can see how much time they have left. You could also give them 10-minute, 5-minute, 2-minute warnings so they’re aware of what’s about to happen. If you’re transitioning away from a preferred activity (for example, playing with toys), make sure the next activity is at least somewhat preferred as well (such as a snack) to avoid noncompliance behaviors.
Be a support system. Talk to them, and help them talk to others. Research shows that students with disabilities hear fewer words than their nondisabled peers and experience fewer activities outside of school. Things that come easily to you may require more teaching for the child, but that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of doing them! Try to let them be as independent as possible, while letting them know you’re there for support if they need it.
Go slowly. When it comes to physical contact, it’s better to start small. Ask the parents how the child reacts to physical touch and go from there. If the child doesn’t react well, don’t push it. To promote trust, try sitting near the child as they play and mimicking what they’re doing. This can get their attention and lead to more interactive play.
When caring for a child with an attention disorder…
Engage in outdoor games to help expend energy. Try outdoor activities when the children have excessive energy during the day. Avoid particularly competitive or contact-driven sports, as these can exacerbate behavioral issues. Instead, try activities such as swinging, jumping rope, or hopscotch.
Keep in mind that this can backfire if it’s too close to bedtime. In the late afternoon and evening, help the child wind down with low-key activities such as watching a movie or reading or book. Even gently rocking in a rocking chair can help kids calm down when it’s time for bed.
Give specific directions. Kids with attention disorders often have difficulty following directions. Be as specific as possible, and always ask the child to repeat directions back to you so you can be sure they understood.
Be flexible. It can help to provide the child with a daily schedule, so they have an idea of what’s coming. If there are tasks they must complete (homework, etc.), you’ll definitely want an hour-by-hour calendar—but be prepared for it to fall by the wayside. Children with ADHD often tire of activities more quickly than other children, so it’s important to have plenty of ideas for additional things to do in case their attention wanes.
Be consistent. This is important for setting rules as well as for moving through activities. Children with attention disorders require a strict framework to keep them on track. When moving through the day’s activities, try to avoid switching gears too drastically. It’s much easier for a child with an attention disorder to move from a high-energy activity to a medium-energy activity than it is for them to go straight from soccer to naptime.
Lastly, and most importantly, a child with special needs is a kid just like any other kid. Their brains and/or bodies may work differently than those of other children, but they are not defined by their difficulties. A positive attitude is key to initiating a relationship with any child, and that’s the same for children with disabilities. A good nanny focuses on the child’s strengths, not their challenges, and does her best to nurture those innate strengths while helping the child reach their full potential. If you are a nanny who has experience with working with children with disabilities, send us your resume!
Is your family seeking high-quality, experienced nannies? The Nanny Authority works with many caregivers who specialize in children with special needs (like the fabulous nanny in the picture attached to this post!), as well as with families whose children need special care. Call us today for more information!