8 Important Tips For Volunteering With Special Needs Children

Many of the world’s children live in poverty, and ethical volunteer organisations work hard to make sure volunteers working with children overseas are aware of all the issues.

Special needs children are without a doubt the most vulnerable group in this already vulnerable sector of society.

In the West, many disabled children have access to top-quality care and education in facilities outside the home, and their parents even have access to professional advice and assistance inside the home if needed.  In this nurturing environment, the kids learn how to be as independent as possible and are able to live up to their full potential. They can often even find gainful employment within the scope of their abilities.

In developing countries, this is usually not the case. Government and non-profit facilities are very basic – in places where they exist at all! Parents don’t have the finances to send children to expensive schools to be taught and cared for. The facilities that do exist for these children are usually hopelessly underfunded (often reliant purely on charity), lacking in every kind of resource, and understaffed.

Often, the staff themselves are untrained and are working with the children purely out of the goodness of their hearts, sometimes using their own resources to try and care for them when the parents are extremely poor, or the child is an orphan.

Children are rarely able to develop sufficient skills to find any gainful employment and take some pressure off their caregivers, thus adding to the poverty cycle and affecting whole families. This is a bleak situation for special needs children and their caregivers – which is why people who volunteer with special needs kids are sorely needed!

Volunteers at special needs facilities can help a great deal to take the pressure off the staff, and give the kids much-needed extra attention. Khaya Volunteers helps to organize an ethical and well-run volunteer program for special needs kids at the Ithemba Special Daycare in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

If you’re interested in volunteering overseas with special needs children but don’t have much experience, here are some tips we put together from professionals working with special needs kids.

1. Interact with the child

The biggest mistake that adults make when they meet a special needs kid is failing to interact with him or her.  

As adults, we’re generally pretty impatient in everyday life with each other, but are more likely to listen carefully to a “normal” child and give them time to communicate. Special needs children are often not given a chance to interact – it’s assumed that they don’t understand or can’t answer, then the adult gives up and start talking to the caregiver instead.

The same rules of polite conversation apply to adults and children.  First, introduce yourself and explain who you are.  Depending on the child’s special needs, it may be necessary to take the child’s hand, place a hand on the child’s shoulder or even touch each other’s faces to make a proper introduction.

Then explain the activity that you will be doing with the child.  Explain the different steps of the activity, including the beginning and the end – while making as much eye contact as possible. Simple, patient communication can help gain the child’s trust and let them know you care!

2. Observe the child

Some children with special needs perceive sensory input in different ways and may be unable to verbalize discomfort.  They can even get extremely upset, and in a busy daycare setting teachers might not notice their distress. This is where volunteers can step in and be the extra pair of eyes and ears.

Remember that all behavior is communication.  If a kid is minimally verbal or non-verbal, keep a lookout and think about what the child’s behavior is communicating to you.  If you’re not sure what you’re seeing, ask the child’s teacher or caregiver for advice.

3. Use Common Sense

Any sensible adult will keep an eye on kids and make sure they don’t do impulsive things like run into the street, jump into deep water or climb too high. When it comes to special needs kids who might not be verbal or ambulatory, there are other factors to consider.

For example, an active adult or child will be able to keep warm, or at least verbalize their discomfort and make a plan if they’re cold. A wheelchair-bound child is likely to get chilly more quickly in the open air, or in a chilly classroom. Volunteers should be extra-sensitive to these factors, put safety first and arrange the environment for maximum physical and emotional comfort.

4. Be Flexible

It’s common practice in a teaching environment to say “I won’t change things to accommodate one person in a group – that person must adapt.” This is (unfortunately) often the only option available to teachers in an overcrowded classroom or daycare setting.

If you’re volunteering with children, your primary function is to give the kids individual attention they wouldn’t otherwise get from overworked staff. With special needs children, this individual approach is even more important. Volunteers can help teachers use a variety of methods to help the kids understand and master new skills.  

If a child does not have the appropriate motor skills for an activity, you can help the child go through the motions and practice with them. It’s important to encourage the child to push themselves, but also to realise when enough is enough!

5. Consistency is Key

If a set of rules is presented to the group, apply those rules consistently to everyone.  Children need consistency to feel safe and encouraged and to learn discipline – don’t say one thing, then do another, or change the rules from day to day.

Being consistent is even more important with special needs children, especially those on the autism spectrum or with other sensory and cognitive issues. Consistency just makes things easier for everyone involved.

6. Don’t be shy to use visual, auditory or tactile cues

Having the right cues in an environment can mean the difference between participation and non-participation for many children with special needs. Kids might ignore someone speaking to them, but might pay attention to someone singing, clapping, snapping or whistling.  Volunteers who work with children quickly learn not to be shy!

Tactile cues such as gently touching a shoulder, offering a blanket or other soft fabric, or providing something like silly putty or plasticine are easy ways to mark a transition in activities, and help a child focus their attention.  

7. Have a plan.  And a back-up plan. Maybe even a third back-up plan!

There’s an old saying from Scotland about how even the best plans can go wrong.  In the world of special needs, there is always a Plan B, and usually a Plan C.  Make sure that there is space to calm down and move freely if things go badly.  

Think about what each participant can do instead of focusing on what they can’t contribute. As a volunteer, you can talk to the child’s teacher or caregiver for more insight.

8. Stay positive

A positive attitude is the single most important quality for anyone who works with children with special needs.  Volunteers with no experience or knowledge of disabilities can jump right in and change kids’ lives for the better.  



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