Classroom Ideas for Teaching Children with Developmental Disabilities

Teaching children with developmental disabilities can be an extremely rewarding and captivating experience. Finding a variety of ways to teach these differently-abled kids is vital to creating that rewarding classroom environment. While a classroom of neurotypical kids may be able to learn in roughly the same ways, children with developmental disabilities may benefit from including multiple methods of learning, some of which can work as types of therapy (i.e. occupational, speech, and inter-social), and some which can be learning activities masquerading as games.

Teaching Children with Developmental Disabilities

Incorporating creative ideas for teaching children with developmental disabilities is integral to the classroom, but there is a lot more to a successful special education program. Talk to parents about the ways their children learn best. Talk to the children about what they enjoy doing, how they learn, and what makes it difficult for them to focus or engage. This communication is essential, as it may reveal areas for improvement that you may not have otherwise considered.

For example, the decorations many classrooms contain may be a distraction for students who learn and live differently. Try using furniture (such as shelves) to separate different areas of the classroom, creating clear boundaries that can be useful to many students for a more organized learning experience. Then (and perhaps most importantly), take stock of the curriculum and materials available to you, and make sure to talk to your administrators about what you need to help your students be successful.

Finally, while these ideas may be labeled for the classroom, note that many of them are also effective at home, in daycare, or in day-program settings for children with developmental disabilities. It may be helpful to communicate your classroom methods to the parents so that they may practice implementing them at home, where possible.

Encourage Self-Discovery and Communication with Sensory Tables

One proven method for aiding the development of differently-abled children is a sensory table, which can be a great option for both stimulation and destimulation. Set up a table with a variety of sensory options for students to explore. You might have a bowl of dried beans, a mound of cotton balls, and some kinetic sand. Arrange a small cup of water to pour. Experiencing new textures, shapes, and other things like these encourages discovery and curiosity, which can be highly beneficial for children who like routine and sticking to the same few things.

Sensory tables can offer much more than just new sensations. Small items require fine motor skills like pinching and grasping. Touching new things may promote a verbal response, which you can use to encourage interaction, social development, and language. Pouring water from cup to cup can be soothing for a child who is getting agitated. Never underestimate the benefits of creative methods like this one when it comes to enriching your classroom for students with disabilities.

Hide Occupational Therapy and Gross Motor Skills Work as Physical-Activity-Based Games

No matter the time of year (whether you are inside or outside), physical activity is crucial to every child’s development—neurotypical or differently abled. For children with physical or developmental disabilities, however, working on gross motor skills is very important. Some physical games can double as occupational therapy, and in spring and summer, you may have more options to go outside and engage in games that take up a wider area of space and encourage more, faster movement.

Yoga, “Simon Says,” and “Mother May I?” are all great indoor options to keep kids moving. Outdoors, you might arrange a scavenger hunt or nature walk around the school. Play tennis with balloons and fly swatters. Get back to the basics with hopscotch or tag. Any of these activities can be easily modified to include children with physical disabilities or who require assistance with movement. Be creative; it will offer opportunities for therapeutic development activities that are also fun—especially when the whole group is involved.

Light Boxes for Growing Visual Skills

Light boxes are another great option for children with developmental disabilities or vision impairments, as they encourage the use of visual-perceptual and visual-motor skills. According to Teaching Students with Visual Impairments, light boxes can “be used as a tool to facilitate visual tracking, visual scanning, eye-hand coordination, visual discrimination, and visual perceptual skills.” This can be a great benefit for kids who do not like to pay attention to “boring” materials presented on paper or in one dimension.

The light box lights up from behind, and the students can use bright, transparent shapes to create their own patterns, pictures, and other visually appealing scenes for it. It can also be used for tracing or with other transparent objects like marbles, gel clings, or vellum cut outs. You can even pour a small amount of sand into a small, clear box on top of the light box to be moved around into interesting designs.

If you do not have the funding for or access to a light box, you can make one yourself by putting a string of holiday lights or fairy lights inside a clear plastic box. Make sure to drill a hole in the side to feed the lights through so the cord is less accessible and less tempting for children to play with. Note that children who are prone to seizure activity should not use light boxes that flicker or present a repeating light-up pattern. Similarly, children with visual sensitivities may benefit more from using a light box in a well-lit room.

Using Music Therapy for Voices and Bodies

Music is such an incredible motivator for children, and it activates virtually every part of the brain. Learning new songs is a great way for a child to remember crucial information and to become more comfortable using their voice—even if they’re just humming. Nonverbal children can benefit, too, from using their bodies or just making sounds. Music presents a fantastic way to get little bodies moving, which can help deal with cases of the wiggles for children who have difficulty sitting still and is a great option for encouraging motor skills.

Try handing out some instruments; maracas, bells, egg shakers, tambourines, and bongo drums are great choices for kids with minimal fine motor skills. Encourage everyone to participate in being a member of the band. Spend time each day singing the same handful of songs. Teach your students a dance, or have them help you choreograph a dance to the song. Maybe everyone does their own dance, or the class can have a dance contest. Singing and dancing like this are both great indoor or outdoor activities, depending on the weather and your school, and they can do wonders for children with developmental disabilities.

Take Advantage of Art Therapy for Fine (and Gross) Motor Skills

Kids love creating, and expressing this creativity can help them feel more confident (especially those with developmental disabilities). Different forms of art are also great ways to practice fine and gross motor skills.

Use clay or playdough to create sculptures. In the spring, head outside with sidewalk chalk; it makes for great fine motor practice while drawing, but you can also encourage your students to find the most creative positions they can get into to draw (activating their gross motor skills). Create a collaborative project, like a mural or a hand-traced-leaf tree. Or, for older students, consider letting them make a vision board by cutting out pictures that represent their goals and hopes for the future.

If ideas run short, you can always lean on upcoming holidays to find appropriate projects. For example, children can create holiday cards for each other, or you can cut out a large paper tree and let each child make ornaments to help decorate the tree in time for Christmas. Alternatively, your students could make snowflakes out of a variety of mediums (e.g. construction paper, sculpting, gluing cut-out shapes together, etc.) and then decorate the door or wall. The options are virtually endless!

For More Information

If you teach children with developmental disabilities, you have many options to encourage improved motor, social, and cognitive skills. Even activities that are traditionally designed for neurotypical children can be altered to be more appropriate for kids with developmental disabilities. And, as students get older, your focus may turn more towards helping them transition out of the school environment and into the world—whatever that might hold for them and their level of independence.

Integrity, Inc. is here to help. We provide support and access to community-based services for children and adults with developmental disabilities every day. Contact us online, or call us at (501) 406-0442 today, and learn more about how we can help you create the best environment for your differently-abled students.

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