8 Tips for Making Storytimes Accessible

Working with children with special needs can take many librarians aback; after all, most of us don’t have specialized training in this area. It can be a challenge to meet the unique needs of one child while simultaneously trying to meet the differing needs of the rest of the group. Sometimes, a child may seem uncommunicative or disruptive, and we might even wonder if he or she is getting anything out of storytime at all. Remember, all children need a variety of settings in which to learn and a healthy exposure to a variety of adult role models. In the storytime setting, you can set the tone for inclusion and respect for diversity through the attitude you display.

1) Make it active!:

Activities that make use of props, visuals, and movement work well with typically developing children too, of course, but for children with special needs, these elements may be even more necessary to catch and hold attention and foster understanding.

2) Use your resources:

Ask the child’s parent or caregiver what kinds of activities may work best. Don’t be afraid to establish a dialogue; just make sure you are always broaching to topic from the standpoint of wanting to provide the best possible storytime experience for the child.

3) Think about placement:

Location is particularly important for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, who should be seated near the front of the room for best sightlines. If you are working with an interpreter, he or she should be as close as possible to the speaker, so that the child can follow both. For children with mobility issues, find a place that is easy to get to and will allow for maximum participation on the part of the child.

4) Use consistent visuals or signals for transitions:

Some students with special needs may find it difficult to transition from one activity to another—that is, to transfer their attention from one task to another. Getting students’ attention may be as simple as using a visual signal, such as raising two fingers in a letter V, flickering the lights, singing a certain song, or repeating a special verse. These sorts of “rituals” help children make sense of their world.

5) Wait 10 seconds:

When you ask a question or ask for volunteers, wait 10 seconds before calling on someone. This gives everyone time to process the request (and, if you are working with an interpreter, gives him or her time to interpret it!), providing a fair chance for everyone to answer. Due to differences in learning styles, allowing an extra moment before calling on someone to answer can level the playing field for typically developing children as well. Some children naturally take more time to process than others.

6) Use movement response: 

When you ask a question, have all the children respond simultaneously via a gesture. For example, you might say, “If you think the fox will try to eat the grapes, touch your nose. If you think the fox will run away, touch your bellybutton.”

7) Manage turn-taking:

Many special needs students respond well to visual or tactile prompts, and so a “talking stick,” stuffed animal, or other special object that denotes whose turn it is to speak will help keep storytime orderly.

8) Keep it uncluttered:

You may need to keep program materials out of reach or even out of sight until needed. Children on the autism spectrum may become easily overstimulated or distracted. Keep your program area uncluttered to maximize their focus.

In essence, every child is an individual with his or her own special needs. Looking at the children in your storytime with this attitude means that you accept and include each student. Attitude is the most important factor in working with special needs students. In storytime, children at every level of development are absorbing language and information about the world through interactions with you and other children. When in doubt, focus on what a child can do, rather than what he or she cannot do.
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