TEY hears from Cathy Fuller on supporting the individual needs of children…
The very first thing we do when a child joins our setting is find out about their individual needs and interests – what do they like to play with? What comforts them?
In the mornings, we use circle time to try to name emotions, so that children can share how they’re feeling that day and what they’d like to do. We incorporate Makaton, which helps both verbal and non-verbal children to express how they’re feeling.
I’m the SENCo for our younger group of children, so work on their individual plans together with families and where relevant, speech and language therapists or equality and inclusion practitioners.
We have children who are on the pathway to an autism diagnosis, children with speech and language needs, and children with medical needs. The latter involves working closely with their medical specialists.
We do our best to nurture the way each individual child plays and respond to their needs. Many children with autism have repetitive behaviours and do things that some people might find alarming, such as flapping their arms or running back and forth, but those stimming traits are how children self-regulate.
It’s easy to feel embarrassed as a parent and or think it’s dangerous at the setting if a child’s running up and down, but it’s important to embrace and accommodate for a child’s stimming traits so that they can safely stim, rather than try to stop them.
If they run or jump (vestibular stimming), it’s a physical sensory impulse that they have to do, and we need to factor that in – they need to run, then they’ll be able to do some focused activities for a short time, then they’ll need to run again.
If we want the child to get the most from our provision, we must consider their individual sensory needs first.
Some children grind their teeth, hum or make noises (auditory stimming). The vibration that they feel going around in their mouth helps them to regulate.
It can be harder if a child does something that might hurt, such as biting their fingers.
A non-verbal child does this to show a range of emotions – it’s their way of telling us when they’re happy or upset, so we need to ensure that we’re familiar with the things that can cause them to feel upset, do our best to remove the cause and be there to co-regulate.
We factor sensory activities in every day, so there’s always a lot of messy play, painting, shaving foam, cornflour – all sorts of things for them to get involved in.
We focus on these types of activities as school readiness, rather than saying that children have to be able to read or write before school.
Sometimes parents come in with 2-year-olds asking if their child will be able to write their name when they go to school. We don’t focus on that.
Instead, we focus on strengthening children’s fine motor skills with lots of play, like rolling play dough, that helps build up those muscles in their hands, so that when they do go to school, they have the strength in their wrists and hands to hold a pencil correctly.
We work with our local primary school, so we do focus on phonics but on a much simpler and age-appropriate level – looking at patterns or numbers, trying out phonics sounds verbally, maybe tracing or drawing.
So, we give an early introduction to phonics, but it’s not a pressurised activity and they’re not expected to learn to write.
It’s more about being able to concentrate and sit in a group, being able to look after themselves and their hygiene, find their own bag – all those things that help children to feel confident and independent.
Since Covid, some children have struggled to separate from their parents because being at home is almost the only thing they know; groups and music clubs haven’t been running. So, those children might take a bit longer to adjust and get used to that transition.
If children want to bring something in from home, then we encourage that – a blanket or a favourite toy.
We also create a little book with pictures of their key worker, the room and the toys, so they can talk about Scalliwags when they’re at home, then bring in a picture of their family to share with us – all those things that make connections with home and help children to feel more at ease with us.
We have a strong family ethos and tailor our approach to meet each family’s needs. A child may feel frightened without their parent. In this case we would arrange for them to come in for shorter sessions and for their parent to stay throughout.
You’d often expect a child to be upset to start with and encourage the parent to go as quickly as possible so that we can show the child the setting and find out what they like to play with. But you can tell if a cry comes from fear or from not understanding what’s going on.
So, for the child who struggles to separate due to fear or their specific needs, they have the comfort of their parent being at the setting, they learn to look around, explore and see what else is going on.
Their individual needs are being met, they feel secure as they settle in, and the parent feels reassured, too. The child learns that the setting is a safe place too, the parent then gradually reduces the time they spend at the setting leaving the child to explore independently.
Cathy Fuller is Deputising Senior Practitioner and SENCo at Scalliwags Pre-school CIO in Paddock Wood.