Modifying 5 Classroom Routines for Young Children with Significant Disabilities

Activity-based intervention (ABI) is a trusted approach designed to help young children who have or are at risk for disabilities learn and use important developmental skills. The foundation of the ABI approach is the daily transactions that occur between young children and their physical and social environments, and learning opportunities that are embedded into these daily activities.

Although the basic ABI framework is the same for all young children, those with significant disabilities often require more intensive and structured intervention strategies. In the book An Activity-Based Approach to Early Intervention, JoAnn Johnson, Naomi L. Rahn, and Diane Bricker offer ideas for modifying commonly occurring activities and types of play so that children with significant disabilities can participate. Use these modifications to help children make choices, express preferences, and interact with peers in a variety of early childhood settings.

Block Play

  • For a child with a significant motor impairment, positioning and support may be necessary precursors for child-initiated block play. The child may need to be positioned in a way that allows them to reach and manipulate the blocks or physical support to help maintain balance.
  • Lighter-weight blocks that are soft and easier to grasp might be provided to enable the child to stack them.
  • If stacking blocks is challenging for a child with significant motor impairments, you might suggest to other children in the block area that the child play the role of knocking the blocks down.
  • For a child with vision impairments, the use of large blocks in bright colors might support the child to participate in the block play activity.
  • Children on the autism spectrum often engage in repetitive behavior such as building block towers and then knocking them down. This child-initiated activity might be used to address a communication goal of signing more by asking the child to produce the sign to get additional blocks to build another tower. Interactions with peers can also be encouraged by creating a game of building and knocking down towers.

Book Play

  • For a child with significant motor impairments, a book with repetitive lines can be programmed into a large button device so that each time the child touches the switch, the story line is re-read. This provides a way for the child to engage in child-initiated book reading with peers. A peer could read the book with the child, turning the pages and talking about each page, while the child with more significant impairments can push the switch.
  • Board books that have thick, sturdy pages that are easier to turn may help a child with motor impairments engage in book reading activities.
  • If children need more assistance in turning pages, add pieces of cardboard tabbed out from the side of the book to provide a larger area for grasping the page.
  • For children with vision impairments, include books with large print in the classroom book area.
  • Provide alternative seating such as soft beanbags for a child who likes the feeling of being surrounded by the beanbag chair.
  • For a classroom that includes a child with significant motor impairments, there should be open space to accommodate an adapted chair on wheels that provides the child with enough support to allow their hands to be free to turn pages in books.

Pretend Play

  • For autistic children, mini picture schedules of typical housekeeping routines (e.g., doing laundry, baking a cake) or play scenarios (e.g., going to the doctor, going to the grocery store) can be included to help the child learn the typical sequence of events in these activities.
  • Children may be taught how to engage in specific roles within the pretend play center (e.g., being the cashier at the grocery store or a waiter at a restaurant) using pictures and modeling by adults and peers.
  • For a child with significant motor impairments, a communication device might be programmed with simple words or phrases that could be used in the center to facilitate social interactions. For example, if the play center is set up as a veterinarian’s office, the device might be programmed with a picture of a cat, dog, and other animals; it might also be set up with common phrases someone would use when bringing their pet to the veterinarian’s office (e.g., “My dog is sick”).

Art Activities

  • Switches can be used to allow children with significant impairments to participate in art activities. For example, you might connect a large switch to a paint spinner. This activity encourages children of all abilities to participate in the activity by providing different roles that require different skills. For example, one child can put the paper in the spinner, while another child can push the switch button. A third child might squirt paint onto the paper as it spins. The activity promotes social interactions and provides a meaningful way for all children to participate.
  • Other art activities might require a range of materials adaptations. For example, a vision specialist might suggest thicker highlighted lines on paper to represent where a child with a vision impairment should cut the paper. A child might also use adapted scissors (e.g., spring loaded, mounted on a wooden stand) to promote independent cutting. It might also be helpful to tape the paper to the table to help the child steady the paper while cutting.

Circle Time

  • Adaptive seating might be used for a child with cerebral palsy to allow the child to focus attention on activities during circle time rather than maintaining an upright body position.
  • A child on the autism spectrum might be encouraged to bring a favorite toy to circle to help ease this transition.
  • For children who are nonverbal or who have limited expressive language skills, their preferred mode of communication (e.g., ASL, communication device, picture symbols) should be used throughout circle time activities to allow them to answer questions and interact with peers.
  • For a child with significant motor impairments, you might use two large switches, with each switch having two pictures with voice output to allow the child to participate by talking about a topic (the weather, for example) with the class. Another option would be to provide the child with one switch with only the correct picture and a brief sentence or two describing the weather to allow the child to act as the weather reporter for the day. Children might also be paired together to act as a weather team, allowing for multiple responses and opportunities for social interactions.

Use the ideas in today’s post to facilitate social interactions and meaningfully involve all learners in everyday activities. And for a complete guide to the nuts and bolts of activity-based intervention, check out the book behind today’s post!

An Activity-Based Approach to Early Intervention, Fourth Edition

By JoAnn (JJ) Johnson, Ph.D., Naomi L. Rahn, Ph.D., & Diane Bricker, Ph.D.

With this classic professional guide, you’ll discover how to embed learning opportunities in everyday activities to help children birth to 5 acquire and generalize functional skills and reach developmental goals. Case stories, examples, and sample forms throughout clarify important points and procedures.

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