If you’ve worked in early care and education very long at all, you will have had the experience of working with children with special needs and their families. I remember every one of the young children with special needs that I cared for during my 15 years in early childhood classrooms. And I also remember how unprepared I almost always felt, from the day I was introduced to my first child with disabilities – Neil, a bright, funny four-year-old who was legally blind – to my first day co-teaching in an inclusive classroom of 4- and 5-year-olds, half of whom had an identified disability (thank goodness for my brilliant co-teacher who was trained in early childhood special education!).
Navigating the World of Special Needs
But as unprepared as I felt as a child care provider and teacher, my challenges were nothing compared to the journey of the parents of each of those children. Every parent of a child with special needs must work their way through the daunting obstacle course of: getting a diagnosis; finding and getting services for their child; managing the logistics of multiple service providers, therapy appointments, and IEP/IFSP processes; and, beneath it all, their own emotions, thoughts, and needs as parents.
With each family whose child I cared for, I learned a little more about the challenges of that journey. I also came to appreciate the role that I could play in coming alongside them, providing encouragement, support, and most importantly safe, loving, quality care for their child.
Being Military Means More Challenges
Last week I had the opportunity to hear the story of Wendy Kruse, a Marine wife and mom to two girls, one of whom has multiple disabilities. From Wendy, I learned that, on top of all of the challenges that every parent of a child with special needs faces, military families experience:
- Feelings of isolation because of their distance from extended family and familiar personal support networks.
- Difficulty in understanding and navigating a complex, often disconnected system of care and services within the military complex.
- Starting from scratch in finding service providers and piecing together a plan of care after every relocation, learning the hard way that the availability of services can vary widely from installation to installation, and community to community. Relocation also means being put at the end of waiting lists for services that can often stretch many months, even years for some – time during which the child often regresses without the therapies he or she needs.
- Adjusting to deployment: managing it all as a single parent as the homefront spouse, and not being able to contribute practical help as the deployed parent.
What a tremendous weight to bear.
Becoming Parents’ Partner in Care
As child care professionals serving military families, there are many ways that we can help.
Be a connector. When a new military family with a child who has special needs enrolls in your program, connect them to:
- Other families with children who have special needs. Social isolation and feeling like no one understands is one of the most difficult challenges of a military parent of a child with special needs.
- Early intervention or disabilities specialists in your community. Military-connected children with disabilities receive services primarily from non-military, community-based early intervention or special education providers, even when that care is paid for and/or coordinated by military programs. Connecting families to those with expertise and knowledge about local services for young children with special needs can save them a tremendous amount of valuable time in identifying service providers, getting their name on waiting lists, and completing eligibility requirements.
Be a resource. Here are several resources that you can share with families:
- The Military Special Needs Network – a virtual network created by parents for parents
- The DoD Special Needs Parent Tool Kit – in addition to the downloadable toolkit, this webpage includes lots of additional information for military families with children with special needs.
- The Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) – this program from the Office of the Secretary of Defense provides support, information and service coordination for military families with a member having identified special educational or medical needs. Local EFMP Family Support offices are located on every installation.
- For National Guard, Reserve, or Active Duty families not living near a military installation, consultation is available through MilitaryOneSource’s help line: 1-800-342-9647
Be a learner. Providing the best care possible for children with special needs in any family requires us to be continual learners. Here are a few sources of information on serving young children with special needs in child care settings:
- “Include Me: Guide to Inclusive Child Care”: a helpful handbook for those who are new to caring for children with special needs in child care settings
- Extension Alliance for Better Child Care articles on many aspects of inclusive child care
- TACSEI (Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention): tons of free resources for caregivers in supporting the social and emotional needs of young children with special needs
- Center for Inclusive Child Care: lots of resources available, including online courses, podcasts, print-based materials, and consultation with an inclusion specialist
- Easter Seals: more tools for providing high quality inclusive child care
At the Heart of Inclusive Care for Military-Connected Children
More than anything, military parents of young children with special needs need us to be willing partners in the care and education of their child, good listeners (who value confidentiality) when they need to unload some of their frustration, and consistent sources of warm smiles and hugs for them as well as their children. Most of all, they need us to look beyond the special needs and see their child as a unique, wonderful, precious human being.
This was written by Kathy Reschke, Child Care Program Specialist with the Military Families Learning Network