This article is part of the 31 Days of Pinterest Hacks series. Find the main page for this series here.
Pinterest offers many activities for groups of children. How you can best support a child in the group setting?
Why group activities may be a challenge for neurodivergent and disabled children
- Social activities/games and conventional rules of social interaction are not always inclusive.
- A child may not know how to strike up a conversation with others.
- An anxious child may find it difficult to initiate an interaction or even partake in a group setting.
- A child with auditory sensitivities may be uncomfortable with the noise level.
- A child who may feel uneasy in a group setting may not have their behavior understood by others.
Suggestions for adaptations/modifications for group activities
- Contrary to what society thinks needs to be done for “socializing” a child, you know the child best. As an item on a checklist, “socialization” is entirely arbitrary. It’s not something you insist a child partake in just because it’s what the rest of the world does it easily. Children are continuously building relationships with others. The child constantly interacts with human beings, whether with parents, siblings, caregivers, neighbors, therapists, grandparents, cousins, or friends. A luminous exchange happens daily between the child and the people they encounter. Never force anyone into an uncomfortable situation.
- Begin slowly. If the child already has siblings, they are at a great advantage because they’re in a loving environment with others who fully understand them. The social threat for the child is probably non-existent amongst siblings. Have the child interact with others slowly—one peer at a time.
- Prepare the adults. Explain to others what the child’s needs might be—discretely and with dignity. I often explain to first-time visitors what to expect when they meet my son. He needs support to stand, uses ASL and AAC to communicate, and uses an adult’s support for feeding.
- Prepare the child. If I know someone is coming over that day, or if we’re going to visit someone, I always let my son know—even if it’s his grandparents. This prepares him for what’s to come later and helps him build a connection to my words when we see the person. “It’s ________! I told you we’d see her today!” I inevitably see my son’s eyes light up when I initially tell him who we’ll see and when we see them.
- Pick a quiet setting. Whether in your home, a friend’s home, or a public setting, ensure that it’s a calm place without many distractions. It’s the best way to avoid distressing sounds that might trigger anxiety, fear, or sensory overload. The child is taking in a lot by being in a new setting with a new person. You might even decide to take the activity outdoors since there is potential for a more serene experience (if you know the child can handle the outdoors better).
- Know the child’s limits. Just because everyone else can handle a play date for 4 hours doesn’t mean you need to stay that long. Especially at the beginning, prepare to stay an hour or so (let the hostess know ahead of time). I always find it easier to have people over at my house since we have all of my son’s equipment here. Since he’s in a familiar setting, he is usually very comfortable with others coming by. I’ve never had to usher anyone out prematurely because he couldn’t handle it. However, if you know that the child can only handle one hour with company over, then let your visitors know ahead of time why you may need to give them a signal when it’s getting too intense for the child.
- Teach the child to self-advocate. If the child can communicate their discomfort at any point, let them advocate for themselves! Notice the changes in behavior and validate them, “It looks like you’re getting tired now.” That can be the cue for others.
- Know your limits. Your energy gets drained by planning an activity with others. You are not only thinking about the company but also about the child’s needs—which do not go away just because an activity is planned with a friend. Be kind to yourself. Don’t plan group activities two days in a row. Give yourself a little time to recuperate.
- Structure an activity. Some children need to have some structured game/activity for at least part of the interaction. Plan activities like a story, songs, chants, movement, fingerplays, or a short game you know the child will understand. Ideally, have the child and the other children choose what they would like to do.
- Set the child up for success. If a child struggles with pretend play, don’t set up costumes and toys for imaginary play. Put out toys the child is already comfortable with. If it’s blocks, then have blocks out.
- Allow for some free time. While you supervise from a distance, allow the children to do their own thing. You will find that they may easily gravitate toward one another (especially if the other child is comfortable socially, they may initiate the play). It’s OK if the child isn’t really playing with the other child but only beside them. The child feels the other child’s presence. They may be observing. They may absorb the sound of voices—even if they never make eye contact. There is so much the child is taking in. Trust the process. There is a rich exchange taking place greater than meets the eye.
Group activities can be challenging for adults because of all the energy it takes to set up. Keep in mind that a child who interacts with others has the opportunity to build lifelong, meaningful relationships. I’ll take that over highly-stimulating, overcrowded theme party dates any day.
How do you support group activities for a neurodivergent or disabled child?