Rethinking School Readiness for Children with Additional Needs
With the new school year fast approaching, a new cohort of young students are set to attend ‘big school’ for the first time.
Some kids will enter cautiously and some will run in with barely a wave. Supporting this group are their families and you, their early childhood education and care (ECEC) nurturers. I use the word ‘nurturers’ because I want to emphasise the word ‘care’ in ECEC. I do this not because education isn’t an important part but because, as you will read, care and connection hold primacy in nurturing young minds to be ready to take the next step in learning and growing. This is even more true when supporting children who have neurodiverse brains, including children with additional needs.
In discussions about school readiness, there tends to be a focus on academics and developing skills, like writing your name, counting and naming colours. However, as a paediatric occupational therapist with over two decades of experience, I propose that true school readiness transcends these checklists. It’s less about academics and more about a child’s capacity to feel safe and emotionally connected, and only then can they truly begin to engage in learning.
When contemplating school readiness one might ask, “What is the purpose of school?” The initial response is often “to educate”. Yet on deeper reflection, what we really seek is to foster successful, happy adults. Our heart knows that the goal of a successful life is, as our American friends might say, the ‘pursuit of happiness.’ That is what we want for our kids, regardless of their needs and abilities. Yet, there’s a discrepancy between this heartfelt goal and our head-driven focus on skills and metrics. The research has supported the instincts of our heart for a long time and yet our academic heads are often hard to convince. Willard W Hartup put it beautifully: “The single best childhood predictor of adult adaptation is not school grades and classroom behaviour, but rather, the adequacy with which the child gets along with other children.” I take this a step further to say that the starting place is connecting with the key adults in their lives.
For children, particularly those with additional needs, success in school is not a solitary journey but a collaborative effort. ECEC providers can begin this collaborative process by collaborating with the child’s family and team including speech pathologists, occupational therapists, psychologists and physiotherapists, in order to understand the child’s unique profile.
In my new book Challenging the Story: A Surprisingly Simple Approach to Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviours, Jenny is a first-grade teacher navigating the complexities of supporting children who have a range of needs. Through her journey, the book illustrates the importance of community, collaboration, and seeing the child beyond the behaviour. For Jenny, supporting children involves more than individual strategies; it’s about connecting, understanding, and adapting to each child’s unique needs. She collaborates with one of her students, his parents and even engages the wider school community in strategies to support his success. Jenny learns to reflect on the behaviours she sees objectively so that she can understand ‘why’ the child is behaving the way they are, and then supporting the child in their needs, and at their developmental level.
So, what can educators and caregivers do to prepare children with diverse needs for school?
Focus on connection: Support the development of shared engagement and create a safe space where children can learn, and feel safe to seek and accept help. Ultimately, school readiness is about fostering a child’s innate curiosity and desire to learn. As adults, our role is to facilitate this journey with empathy, understanding and a willingness to connect.
Focus on development over age: Development develops, it isn’t taught. We need to support children at their developmental level and foster growth from their current abilities, rather than their chronological age. The priority is social-emotional development. Being able to connect, engage, and seek support are far more important than fine or gross motor skills or understanding cognitive concepts when we are considering readiness for school.
Reading Cues: ECEC providers can support children by reading their cues and helping them understand their own body’s cues. “Your body is wriggling – I’m wondering if you need to go to the bathroom?” We can also help them read the cues of others, supporting understanding and engagement.
Communication: With the child’s team, we can help them to develop communication strategies including words, actions, visuals, and Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), so they can communicate their needs and ask for help.
Meaningful engagement: Once children are feeling safe and connected, ECEC providers can support children by offering opportunities to explore and develop a love of learning, particularly through incorporating their interests in learning.
Above all else, we need to get down on their level and connect with the child. Even short moments of shared connection (10-20 seconds) light up the neural wiring of connection and build safety and trust in caring adults. Children with additional needs need their ECEC nurturers to support them to feel safe and connected, and then to develop a love of learning. This is the state where they can learn – the state where their brains are ready for school.
Dave Jereb is a Paediatric Occupational Therapist with over two decades of experience, Co-Founder of MoveAbout Therapy Services and the author of Challenging the Story: A Surprisingly Simple Approach to Supporting Children with Challenging Behaviours.
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