One of the questions homeschoolers get asked most often is “What about socialization?” And, my answer is always the same: “My kid doesn’t live in a shoebox.” While he doesn’t attend school with 26 other children in one room, he is exposed to people, and talk and activities all day long – only, in a way that he can best handle. It’s absolutely ridiculous for my child, who has been tested at being years behind his actual birth age, to be expected to interact with a roomful of other people in a meaningful manner – if at all. My child builds relationships best when he’s one-on-one. As soon as there are two people (who eventually end up chatting/ playing amongst themselves anyway), he just moves along and does his own thing.
Pinterest offers plenty of activity suggestions for groups of children. Whether with your own family or when inviting friends over, I explain how you can best include your child who needs extra support in the group setting.
Why group activities may be a challenge for children with special needs
- A child with a cognitive delay may not be developmentally ready for social activities/ games and the rules of social interaction that stem from them.
- A child with a speech or language delay may not have the words required to strike up a conversation with peers.
- A child who may have difficulty reading the emotions of others make find himself in conflict during group activities.
- A child who is prone to having anxiety issues may find it difficult to initiate an interaction or even partake in a group setting.
- A child with auditory sensitivities may find the noise level of group activities intolerable.
- A child who may easily have temper outbursts may not have his behavior understood by peers and adults alike.
Suggestions for adaptations/ modifications for group activities
- Contrary to what society thinks you need to do for “socializing” your child – you know your child best – therefore, you know how best to introduce him to a group setting. As an item on a checklist, “socialization” is completely arbitrary. It’s not something you insist your child partake in just because it’s what the rest of the world does in a classroom. Unless your child is indeed living in a shoebox, your child is in the constant state of building relationships with others. Whether it’s his parents, his siblings, his caregivers, his neighbors, his therapists, his grandparents, his cousins, his friends – your child is continuously interacting with human beings. There is a luminous exchange that happens daily between your child and the people he encounters. You know your child best. Can he really handle being in a roomful of more than 5 children? If not, don’t subject him to it. He’s not going to gain more from being around 5+ children than he will from being with one.
- Begin slowly. As with everything else I have suggested, this, too, requires time. If your child already has siblings, he is at a great advantage because he’s in a loving environment with others who fully understand him and his behaviors. The social threat for your child is probably non-exisitent amongst his siblings. If you have many children and you find that your disabled child gets the short end of the stick, try to organize a time for you and just one other child/ sibling. Work your way up to 2 children and then, three. If you’re going to bring in an outsider (a friend who doesn’t normally live in the home), you need to begin the process slowly. Invite one child over, with his parent(s). Age does not matter.
- Prepare the visitors. Ensure that the parent(s) know your child’s situation (ie: if too much noise will set him off, or that he doesn’t know to share yet, and may have a meltdown if another child takes away a toy). This doesn’t mean that the other child has to give in to your child. Instead, you are preparing the other family for anything that might come across as unusual to them. This way, they’ll know what to expect, including how you’ll handle it. It’s also important for the parents to explain to their child what your child’s limitations might be. I often ask first-time visitors to explain to their child what to expect when they meet my son: he needs support to stand, he uses signs and pictures to talk, and he needs his parents to feed him. This way, the child isn’t shocked when he sees a 6-year old still commando crawling, not replying to questions, and sitting at an adapted chair to be fed by his mom.
- Prepare your child. If I know that 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 not only prepares him for what’s to come later, but it also helps him build a connection to my words when we do see the person. “It’s ________! I told you we’d see her today!” I inevitably see my son’s eyes light up – both when I initially tell him who we’ll see, and when we actually see them. It’s pure magic.
- Pick a quiet setting. No matter if it’s in your home, a friend’s home or in a public setting – ensure that it’s a calm place without a multitude of distractions. It’s the best way to avoid distressing sounds that might trigger anxiety, fear or outbursts. Your child is taking in a lot by being in a new setting with a new person. There is no need for additional unexpected and confusing input. You might even decide to take the activity outdoors since there is potential for a more serene experience (if you know your child can handle the outdoors better).
- Know your 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, so that you’re not creating a scene that day). Be ready to leave before a crisis sets in. I always find it easier to have people over at my house since we have all of my son’s adapted 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. It’s just never happened. However, if you know that your child can only really handle one hour with company over (and mommy’s attention being taken over by other adults), then, let your visitors know ahead of time why you may need to give them a signal when it’s getting to be too intense for your child. Family and friends will never be insulted by your mention of this. They love you and your child too much to be hurt by your escorting them out – so do not be afraid to let them know.
- Know your limits. Your energy gets drained by planning an activity with others. You are not only thinking about the company, but also about your child’s needs – which do not go away just because there is an activity planned with a friend. It’s a heavy load – different from what your friends might be able to handle – so be kind to yourself. Don’t plan group activities two days in a row. Give yourself a little time to recuperate. Your friends and family will understand this as well.
- Structure an activity. Some children need to have some kind of structured game/ activity for at least part of the visit. I encourage you to do this at the beginning of the play date so that the adults help ease the interaction. Plan activities like: a story, songs, chants, movement activities, fingerplays, or a short game that you know your child will understand.
- Set your child up for success. If your child struggles with pretend play, don’t set-up costumes and toys for imaginary play. Put out toys your child is already comfortable with. If it’s blocks, then have blocks out.
- Allow for some free play. 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, he may initiate the play). It’s ok if your child isn’t really playing with the other child – but only beside him. Since there are only two of them in the room, your child feels the other child’s presence. He may be observing the other child. He may simply be absorbing the sound of his voice – even if he never makes eye contact with him. There is so much your child is taking in. Trust the process and don’t be discouraged by what you see. There is a richness taking place greater than meets the eye.
Group activities are really hard on parents because of all of the energy it takes to set something like this up. Further, the fact that your child doesn’t interact with others easily can be heartbreaking. On the other hand, a child who interacts so intimately with other children and adults has the opportunity to build lifelong, meaningful, soul relationships. I’ll take that over highly-stimulating, overcrowded theme party dates any day.
How to you handle group activities for your child? What do you do when you gather?