All parents in search of child care are looking for someone who provides consistent, loving, and quality care for their child. But if you have a child with special needs, you may have to ask a few more, and different, questions to find a situation that suits your requirements. You'll want to find a child-care provider who has experience working with kids with special needs, who understands the challenges of working with them, and who knows how to adapt activities as needed. Most of all, you'll want to find a provider willing to work with you to meet the needs of your child. Rest assured that you're not alone. According to a National Center for Education Statistics report, the number of special-needs children ages 3 to 5 who are helped under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act has nearly doubled in the last two decades. If you're looking for special-needs child care, here are the best places to start your search.
The American Disabilities Act does not allow day-care centers to refuse to admit a child because of a disability. Instead, the day-care center is expected to evaluate the child's needs on an individual basis and determine if reasonable accommodations can be made to meet that child's needs.
To determine if your child would benefit more from a traditional or special-needs day care, Lamarque Polvado, whose daughter was diagnosed with autism and who is the founder of The Connections Project, a nonprofit that helps special needs families find the resources they need, recommends that you start by listing your child's strengths. "I often meet parents who have a long list of what their child can't do, leaving off entirely what their child can do. In a preschool situation, this has to do with communication, socialization, and being medically fragile," Polvado says. Unsure of the best fit for your child? Polvado advises parents to get a rough estimation by using this formula: Abilities + Behaviors = Proper Placement. "Rate your child's ability to communicate and socialize on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being very functional. [Those with] scores below five will want to look for a more specialized provider in your area."
Once you've decided that a day care that focuses on special-needs children is best for your child, start your search by asking around in the special-needs community -- in support groups and through special-needs Listservs -- which often have a wealth of information about local resources. National child-care referral agencies such as the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (nichcy.org) and Child Care Aware (childcareaware.org), state human service websites, or other local organizations that aid children with special needs, such as Easter Seals, may be able to direct parents to the appropriate day cares. Above all, "recognize that the right provider for your child often is not the right provider for someone else's child. This means taking a tour of the [child care] provider in person, asking lots of questions, and requesting frequent verification that things are on track," Polvado says.
First and foremost, you should look for a "high-quality child-care environment [that] provides responsive caregiving that positively recognizes differences in children's abilities, interests, and experiences," says Lynette Fraga, executive director of Child Care Aware of America. "The focus should be on individualized care and activities, and creating an environment that combines predictability and routine with novelty and stimulation." Polvado adds three key aspects that parents should assess when looking at a day care for their child with special needs, the first being safety. "Ask yourself, is this a safe environment for my child's abilities? Second is structure. Is this an environment that is too restrictive or too free-flowing for my child's abilities? And finally, discipline. How will this provider handle the behavior challenges that my child will display?" Polvado suggests. Most of all, look for a provider that is willing to work with you to create the best fit for your child. "It's especially important for parents and teachers to partner with each other, as well as with community resources and professionals in the early intervention and special-needs fields, to make sure a child-care provider is the right fit for a special-needs child," Fraga says.
If you prefer in-home care for your special needs child, search for a nanny who has experience working with special-needs children. Child-care search engines such as Care.com, SitterCity.com, and SeekingSitters.com often have filters for finding nannies or babysitters with experience working with children with special needs. Polvado suggests extensive background checks for anyone working one-on-one with a child with special needs. Ask for multiple references and be sure that you can verify the nanny's personal information. Unfortunately, he says, "the more severe your child's disability, the greater the chance that abuse will occur by a caregiver at some point in [the child's] life." Polvado recommends having a continual process of review that includes yearly background checks, stopping by in the middle of the day or coming home early from work occasionally, and observing interactions with the child and caregiver at the park or with a NannyCam. Whether it's in-home care or day care, look for a solution that provides safety, developmentally appropriate stimulation, and encouragement that matches your child's diagnosis and socialization needs.
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