For any parent, the stresses of raising a child up through the school years and beyond can be numerous and taxing. The hope is that eventually, children will grow, learn, and find their independence in the world of adulthood. But if you are the parent of a child with special needs, the stresses can feel doubled, and that’s where organizations like the Providence Foundation of Central Florida come in, offering programs, services, and helpful information.
Utilizing a team of professionals in multiple disciplines such as psychology, speech language pathology, occupational therapy, behavior therapy, counseling and special education, the foundation is a community based non-profit that seeks to aid parents, children, and educators in working with and through the issues that special needs can present.
Finding a path to independence is a multifaceted route that requires special considerations on the part of parents, and of those considerations are social educational development.
“Exceptional social skills lead to enhanced relationships which have a positive impact on creating life goals and achieving happiness in society,” says Valerie Lovegreen, M.A., a speech language pathologist with Providence. “When this does not happen naturally, parents and teachers can intervene and as a team, help children to learn how to identify their feelings, evaluate their experiences and see the perspectives of others. This leads to confident problem solving and reasoning skills and creates relationships that have a lasting value.”
Since so many benchmarks of a child’s social development occur during the early school years, Lovegreen points out that addressing issues early on is the best way to prevent problems in adulthood, especially for children with developmental or cognitive disorders.
“As preschoolers, children become interested in interacting with other children because they begin to look outside themselves,” says Lovegreen. “They learn what sharing entails and what it means to be responsible, which usually involves other people.”
From that point on, a child’s educational and social development become linked, with every time period marking a new milestone. For example, by Kindergarden, children learn to play cooperatively, by elementary, they learn the parameters of selecting friends, by Middle School children learn how to work within groups, and by high school, children begin to see and understand the perspectives of others.
But when these benchmarks toward independence aren’t met, Lovegreen says the effects can be negative. “When these developmental milestones do not happen, children can tend to seem egocentric, rigid, inflexible and incapable of problem solving in group situations.”
Because the risk of these socially detrimental perceptions are highest among children with special needs, it’s imperative that parents become active participants in their child’s extracurricular activities and build a home setting that emphasizes the importance of meeting and working with others.
“When a child is challenged with social development, opportunities for social interaction should be well supported, both in anticipation of the activity, during the activity and after the activity is completed,” says Lovegreen. “Guided mediation of situations is required because innate, instinctual responses or modeling of what has been seen in other situations does not occur naturally and has to be supported to achieve success. Children should be challenged but not overwhelmed.”
Overall though, parents should maintain focus on their child’s schoolwork, as a dysfunction in class performance can reflect a halt in social development and vice-versa. And while all parents should be aware of what their child is doing in school, Lovegreen believes consistent, ongoing communication between teachers and parents of children with special needs is a must.
Though social interactions and educational experiences may influence a huge segment of reaching eventual independence, considerations toward physical health and well being are equally paramount, as many children with special needs may not necessarily fit into the category of cognitive disorders.
Insuring a healthy future for your child starts with picking the right medical specialist or pediatrician
“When we hire a babysitter, an employee, or a handyman we often take time to carefully interview people and get bids for work that needs to be done,” says Florida licensed school psychologist and president of the Providence Foundation, Alicia Braccia. “We as parents need to also feel comfortable interviewing physicians, especially when we have children with special needs. Scheduling a consultation appointment with a pediatrician is a perfect way to meet with them and ask them questions about their areas of expertise, their experience with certain conditions, and get a feeling for how invested they are in your child.”
But while selecting the right doctor can be a huge sigh of relief for parents, the true benefit for special needs children comes when they are taught the importance of maintaining their own health and become proactive rather than ashamed.
“Involving children in organizations that have training in working with children with special needs is a great way to get them involved with groups of children who have similar issues or are involved because they have siblings with special needs in social groups or organized sports,” says Braccia. “The Special Olympics, The Miracle League baseball program, and the Special Needs Children Meetup group are a few programs to look at. The YMCA also have great programs for all children.”
All three areas – social, educational, and medical – play a key role in your child’s growth, and understanding how they work together to develop independence is a sure-fire way to give your child the tools necessary, regardless of their needs, to live a happy, healthy, and productive life.
The Providence Foundation has a number of programs designed to help children and parents tackle the obstacles of development, and on August 25, the foundation will be hosting a Parent and Professional Symposium at the Rosen Centre Hotel. The goal is to bring doctors, therapists, educators, and parents together to learn and share information about Pathways to Independence for children and young adults with special needs. For more information on the event, how to sign up, or general questions about the services and testing that Providence provides, visit www.Providence-Foundation.org.
By Victor Ocasio
Check out The Top 10 Things Parents Should Know Regarding Their Special Needs Child, a helpful list of considerations from Providence Foundation’s president, Alicia Braccia.