Try it Out

The Child Care Plus Center was based at the Rural Institute from 1987 to 2012. The nationally-focused Center supported and promoted inclusive early childhood environments.

Child Care Plus is no longer an active project. However, the materials are still relevant. To address the needs of a broad audience, Rural Institute staff updated several Child Care Plus resources in 2021.

A popular feature on the original Child Care Plus Tip Sheets was the Try It Out section. Please click on a topic button below to view original Try It Out content.

When you identify a barrier to a child's participation in a routine or activity, you may need help to come up with a solution to address the special interests and needs of the child. You can get help with ideas by:

  • Problem-solving with the child's parents, specialists and therapists
  • Searching online for ideas or strategies
  • Brainstorming with colleagues and staff members

When you expand your resources and get input from others, you may come up with surprising and creative solutions such as:

  • Plant hanger extensions to lower coat hooks
  • Hanging a multi-pocket shoe storage hanger on the back of the door for cubbies
  • Using symbols on tags instead of names
  • Placing name tags above as well as below the cubby or coat hook

Individualizing for each child adds an exciting and creative element to early childhood teaching. Seeing children's increased exploration and engagement is very rewarding!

Using children's interests to plan daily routines and activities is one effective way to individualize your program. You can discover children's interests by asking questions on your enrollment form, observing the children and communicating with parents. Interests include actions (opening and shutting or stacking), types of toys (little dolls or puzzles), experiences (listening to music or touching silky fabrics), and themes (trucks or dinosaurs).

The following steps can help you use children's interests to customize activities, play areas and environment.

  • Identify each child's unique and individual strengths, needs and current interests.
  • Gather more information about the child's interests through observation and parent input / feedback.
  • Identify resources already available in your program from parents and outside sources.
  • Embed toys and play materials in play areas that reflect the child's interests.
  • Find ways to modify songs and transition activities to reflect the child's interest(s).
  • Use field trips and visitors to foster learning about the child's interests for the whole group.
  • Regularly check the child's progress and adapt routines and activities as interests change.

When a child is having difficulty learning to communicate or form words, a speech therapist may be involved. You can identify which strategies to use to help a particular child develop good communication skills by gathering the following information from the speech therapist:

  • Way(s) the child communicates most effectively
  • Kinds of communication the child understands
  • Sounds the child is having difficulty making
  • What to do when you cannot understand the child's speech or signs
  • What skills the therapist and child are working on
  • How you can help the child's communication development in your program
  • Easy ways for you and the speech therapist to share information about the child's development

A speech therapist is an excellent resource to help you develop your skills in facilitating young children's communication skills. Sometimes it just takes effective communication between the two of you!

You may encounter children for whom a subtle message in the environment is simply not enough. Young children with sensory impairments, for example, may need very specific cues from the environment. It is often helpful to use the expertise of the child's parents and other team members to identify creative ways to let your environment "speak" to a child who has a hearing or vision impairment.

The first step is to clearly communicate your goals. Many parents and specialists may not realize you are trying to create a space that gives children specific messages about order, exploration, and ownership.

Next, be sure you understand the child's strengths and abilities; ask specific questions. If the child is blind, how have other team members tried to provide specific environmental cues? If the child has a difficult time focusing on verbal directions, has anyone tried using picture cues? Knowing what the child can already do and what works in other settings will give you good ideas about strategies you can use in your own environment.

Finally, find a way to show the child's parents and other team members how you use the environment to send messages to children. Learning from environmental cues is a typical way for young children to gain new information. Share your successes!

Ask kids what they think about parachute play, and they'll say, "It's great!" There is something wonderful about the colors flying and the swish of fabric being pulled through the air. Another fun thing about parachute play is that each child can participate in what makes parachute play great. Children large and small can take turns laying under the parachute and experiencing the wave of color and wind as their friends billow the chute above them.

Puffy terry-cloth ponytail holders can be sewn to the edge of the chute (or large scarf, sheet, or blanket). These can be used as hand-holds and placed around a child's wrist to allow infants and children who may have difficulty grasping to join in the up and down motion of the play.

Large triangles of different textured fabrics – burlap, corduroy, velour, flannel – sewn to make a circle, add touch and feel experiences for all children and may be particularly exciting for a child with a vision impairment. Adding a ball in the middle of the parachute challenges children to coordinate their movements to keep the ball from rolling off the edge.

Of course, letting children use their own imaginations may result in additional ideas such as, "Let's make a tent over the climber," How many of us can get under here?", "Can we each sit down on a different color," or "peek-a-boo" as the chute wafts up and down. Parachute play is cooperative, fun, and imaginative; it pulls children together in a breezy swirl of color, touch, and movement.

Your behavior and positive attitude towards healthy and safe practices are noticed. When children see you eating the healthy snack you offer them, they are more likely to eat it. When you arrive in the morning with your bike helmet on, or wear goggles when showing children how to use the hammer and nails, they learn to do these things too. Every activity seems to have a health and safety component. You put a belt on the baby in the high chair and an appropriate play surface under the climber and the swings. You watch for sharp objects and make nutritious snacks. Much of your conversation with children is instruction and guidance for maintaining their safety and well-being.

Effective teachers both plan activities that help children learn to be healthy and safe, and take advantage of unexpected events. A child's visit to the dentist provides an opportunity to read a story about dentists and facilitate children's "playing" dentist with suitable props. Children asking, "will I catch that" or, "how did she get it," when another child has the flu, a broken arm, or a hearing aid provides an immediate teaching opportunity. Providers who engage children in learning about and using good health and safety practices are not only making their day-to-day job easier, they are helping children learn important lifelong skills.

You have probably seen how smoothly art activities go when each child has access to the materials—scissors, markers, paper, glue sticks—whenever he or she is ready to use them. Or you may have seen the opposite when only three scissors or one glue stick were available for a group of six children!

Here are suggestions to ensure you have enough other important play materials:

Balls. Provide different kinds, sizes and colors of balls, and offer enough to allow one for every child.

Trucks and cars. Have many items, but also have a number of duplicate trucks/cars.

Blocks. Better to purchase a lot of pieces of the same set than to have a few pieces of different sets.

Dramatic play items. Provide duplicates of popular items, such as firefighter hats, tutus, and tea pots.

Riding toys. When four or five children can each ride their own, each child is learning and growing.

Keep in mind that it is better to have less variety and more of the same or similar toys or materials than to have more variety and less of the same or similar popular items. If this concept is new to you, try it out. The children will quickly demonstrate the effectiveness of this simple strategy.

Next time a challenge occurs with children in your group, take time to reflect on yourself. Ask yourself the following questions, consider your answers, and try out the simple suggestions.

Are my expectations for the children reasonable? Remind yourself about the "age and stage" of each child in the group, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Can this kind of play continue because it is safe and appropriate for these children or do you need to redirect?

How am I feeling? Could a recent cold or hunger be influencing my reactions? Am I less responsive to the children today than I usually am? Relax the day schedule for one day or grab a snack to meet your needs for the moment.

How is my emotional well-being? Family, home, and "on the job" issues can impact how you respond to children. Try to stay in touch with your emotions, take a deep breath, and get through a challenging day as gracefully as possible. If the issue is a reoccurring one, seek support.

Have I been giving inconsistent messages to children by ignoring this behavior one time and reacting to it the next? Make a clear and informed decision, communicate your expectations to the children, and stick with it.

Has my attention been distracted by an adult conversation or other activities? Turn your focus back to the group. Get down to their level, make eye contact, and let them know that you are with them again.

In order for relationships between parents and caregivers to be "give and take," good communication must be established. An interactive bulletin board might help communicate outgoing and incoming information. A "give-and-take" bulletin board has:

  • Paper and pencils handy for easy use
  • Push-pins and tape so anybody can easily put up displays, information, pictures, and questions
  • Announcements about upcoming events in the program or community
  • Parent suggestions on parenting or program activities
  • Celebrations for parent participation in the program or staff tributes
  • Information from articles or training opportunities

Features or topics for the Give-and-Take Board include:

  • Can You Believe It: Updates on children's and teachers' activities and achievements
  • Parents Say: Suggestions from parents
  • Teacher's Corner: Training events, special requests, program information
  • How About a Hand: Sign-up for projects, field-trips, or help with a special event
  • Picture This: Pictures of children, teachers, and parents

A Give-and-Take Board should not be the only way you communicate with parents, but it is a great start!

You can set up stringing beads as an individualized activity by providing different kinds and sizes of "strings" and "beads." By choosing materials that address the interests and needs of children across age and ability levels, you offer:

  • Chances for each child to be successful
  • Challenge for children at a range of developmental levels
  • Opportunities for children to use both small and large motor skills

To show children how to begin, you may want to start with a few strings of beads and leave them lying around the area. The following suggestions for strings and beads are grouped from most challenging to least challenging.

Ideas for Strings

  • Fishing line
  • Yarn or string
  • Shoe laces
  • Leather cord
  • Plastic wrapped wire
  • Rope with taped ends
  • Lengths of hose

Ideas for Beads

  • Buttons
  • Beads of various sizes
  • Macaroni noodles
  • Giant manicotti noodles
  • Empty paper towel rolls, cut in 2" sections
  • Short lengths of PVC pipe
  • Frozen juice or other cans, ends cut out

Parents who have young children with disabilities look for child care for the same reasons any parent does. However, finding child care is often more challenging. They may have additional concerns and perhaps a need for specialized care or equipment. You can help parents who have children with disabilities decide if yours is the "right" program— one that fits their needs as well as their child's needs—by listening to the parent's interests and concerns, describing your program accurately, and discussing together whether your program matches their expectations.

When a parent makes that first call to your program:

LISTEN and learn about the child's strengths and needs, any special concerns, and the kind of care they expect. This is your first chance to gather information about how the child could be included in your program.

DESCRIBE your program, including your philosophy as well as hours and fees. Tell parents what you expect from children and families in your program and what they can expect from you. Talk openly about your experience of including children with disabilities. Let parents know what services you can offer as well as what services you are not able to provide.

DISCUSS how the parents' needs match your program's abilities. Talk honestly about your concerns and explain the kind of support you may need. Together identify ways to successfully include their child. Ask them for help with any special equipment or skills you will need. Use this discussion to set the stage for a future partnership based on communication and trust.

Using this process, both of you will have begun to identify what it will take to be sure that yours continues to be the "right" program.

A number of early childhood programs require that children "reserve" a spot in the area or center where they want to play by posting a name tag. While this practice may help limit the number of children in the play area, this commonly used strategy may also create stress in children. To assess the situation in your program:

  • Watch to see whether children hurry (or even run) to put their name tag up, pushing other children aside.
  • Look for instances when children forget to move their name tag to a new center, dash across the room to retrieve it, and return to find someone else has taken their play space.
  • Be alert to children who are tempted to remove another child's name tag so they can get into a center—to be with a best friend, for example—effectively pushing someone else out.
  • Observe for children waiting outside a play area, unengaged for extended periods of time, because the name tag board is full for that area.

If you found any of the above problems are occurring in your program, you will want to switch to other less stressful options. While name tags may help children with name recognition, many other methods (labeling cubbies and signing art work themselves) are equally, if not more, effective.

Here is a simple strategy to start your day that immediately creates a positive climate and increases young children's appropriate behavior.

  • Set up the learning environment at the end of each day or early in the morning. Be completely prepared before children arrive.
  • Identify the most frequent arrival time for children.
  • If you work alone, set up a play area with puzzles, stringing beads, and other small toys near the entry area. This way, children can become engaged in individual or small group activities while remaining in an area you can easily supervise.
  • If your program has multiple staff, assign one person to the greeting area and a second to supervise the rest of the group at play during the time when most children arrive.
  • Be in the entry area to warmly greet each child. Get down to eye level with the child. Look at the child; touch the child's shoulder. You might say, "I am so glad to see you today," and tell the child about one or two activities planned for the day.
  • Tune in to children who arrive later; they need the same friendly welcome as well.
  • Warmly acknowledge each parent and briefly ask about their day so far. You might ask, "Is there anything I need to know to make your child's day go well?"

This simple greeting routine not only improves children's positive behavior, it can change your perspective about the children and the day as well.

Facial expressions are perhaps one of the earliest expressions of a child's needs. A grimace, smile, frown, pout, or stare communicate important messages. A child may look at a desired object as a way to indicate she wants it or make eye contact with an adult as a way to initiate interaction. Children with disabilities that interfere with their ability to use spoken language may rely heavily on facial expressions and other forms of nonverbal communication to initiate social interaction with others and to get their needs met.

A child's position in relationship to a particular object, event, or person is another communication signal. Children who back away from an activity or pull away from an adult may be expressing discomfort.

A child who is frustrated or anxious may move toward a familiar adult in an attempt to gain consolation and comfort. When children feel secure and comfortable in the setting, they are more likely to join into play activities. On the other hand, physically avoiding participation may mean a child is worried or uncomfortable.

Young children use gestures to express themselves. When a child points to a toy, raises both arms toward a familiar adult, or shakes their head from side to side, the intent is relatively clear. Children and adults use gestures when they use their hands to form signs (as in American Sign Language) to communicate with each other. Although gestures may be the easiest to interpret, all of the messages children give us are important elements of communication.

Your use of sign language to accompany common words like cookie and book (whether or not any children in your program are primarily communicating with sign language) lets children know there are many ways of communicating. Using sign language in natural ways gives powerful information to young children who have a good understanding of what they hear—but still do not have the ability to say the words.

Frequent use of facial expressions, head and hand gestures, positive touch, pictures, play props, eye contact, word or picture labels on objects, sign language, and other nonverbal strategies provides multiple ways for children to understand and communicate with you and with each other.

If a team is going to work together, frequent communication is important. Think of how busy you are. It is likely that the other team members are equally as busy. Here is a list of ways teams can communicate.

Team meetings. If the meeting is scheduled when you cannot get away, write down your ideas and give them to another team member so your observations or questions can be addressed.

Written reports. Sharing reports does not happen automatically. In order for a therapist or physician to share their latest report, they must know you want and need a copy, and they must have written permission from the child's parent.

Working together. Many teams regularly schedule opportunities for two or more team members to observe the child together, using the results to plan interventions.

Telephone calls. When a meeting is impossible to schedule, regular contact can be maintained through telephone calls.

Team notebook. When different team members are involved, it may be difficult to keep everyone updated on the child's daily progress. Creating a notebook that goes back and forth with the child allows team members to regularly communicate about the child's progress. This notebook is an especially useful tool for new team members because it shows the child's progress over time.

There are many ways to build relationships and make connections with young children as they play and learn in your program. Here are a few that fit right into the daily routine.

Greet each child. Greet every child warmly each day as the child enters your program or group. Get down at the child's level or look into the child's face, and use his or her name.

Join a child at play. Quietly ask, "Can I sit by you for a minute while you paint?" And then pay attention.

Write a short note. "I had fun watching you build castles in the sand box today."

Follow up on a child's interest. "Yesterday, you told us about your boat. I found this book on boats for you to look at (or for us read together)."

Respond. When you catch yourself ignoring a child or a child's request, don't let the moment pass. Take a deep breath, relax your facial expression, bend or kneel down, and say, "I think you have something to tell me and I want to listen."