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Developmental Disability in the Classroom

All types of children, both disabled and not, struggle in school at one time or another. Children who miss developmental milestones like speaking, walking, reading, and writing, as well as emotional milestones, may have a developmental disability.

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All children develop at their own pace, so it can be difficult to gauge or recognize a developmental disability. Early diagnosis can help children in the long run by identifying areas where they need support. A stable support team is essential and development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) can benefit the student greatly. The time of diagnosis and development of the IEP, accommodation, and support may be a frustrating one for the student as they navigate a system of trial and error. No child is alike and these struggles are natural.

It’s important to provide a positive environment that doesn’t shame failure or build up success so students are able to learn resiliency and self-esteem.

What are Developmental Disabilities?

Developmental Disability (DD) is an umbrella term for a group of conditions children and adults have, resulting in an impairment in the following areas: behavior, physical ability, language and learning, and socialization.

These limitations impact each individual in different ways, from long-term difficulties to activities of daily living. Developmental disabilities are pervasive, meaning they affect the whole life of the individual and last throughout a person’s lifetime. However, with accommodations and services, individuals with DD can lead healthy, happy, successful lives.

Specific Developmental Disabilities: (not an exhaustive list)

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder
  • Down Syndrome
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Fragile X Disorder
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
  • Hearing and Vision Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Learning Disorders (dyslexia, dyscalculia, etc.)
  • Muscular Dystrophy
  • PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified)
  • Speech and Language disorders (aphasia, apraxia, dysarthria, etc.)
  • Spina Bifida
  • Tourette Syndrome

Almost all DD conditions are genetic in nature and so, children do not grow out of them. The idea of curing a pervasive life-long disability can be harmful to a child or an adult, as it minimizes the full life they are capable of living with accommodations and support. However, a developmental disability is a delay, not an inability, and many children may “catch up” to most of the milestones they miss. Some do not and that’s okay.

Traits & Characteristics of Developmental Disabilities:

The wide range of disabilities encompassed by the DD term make it difficult to pin down a set of common characteristics or limitations. Each child with each disability may present differently.

Below are lists of some of the most common traits found in many of the disorders but this is by no means a diagnostic tool. It should also be noted that many of these conditions are co-occurring and the traits and symptoms may be nearly indistinguishable.

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Cognitive traits:

  • Difficulty learning and retaining new ideas
  • Uneven skill development
  • Difficulty interacting or communicating with others
  • Taking longer to respond than typical
  • Difficulty with transitions
  • Difficulty comprehending spoken words
  • Responding inappropriately to the situation
  • Difficulty following directions

Physical traits:

  • Poor hand-eye coordination
  • Poor fine and gross motor skills
  • Associated vision and hearing impairments
  • Inability to sit or keep hands and feet still
  • May communicate non-verbally, exclusively or partially
  • Repetitive self-soothing behaviors (stimming)

It’s important to note the detrimental effects of suppressing or discouraging natural behaviors that do not present harm to the student or their peers. Commonly used phrases such as, “quiet hands” and “use your words” when a child is trying to communicate naturally can cause undue self-esteem issues.

Stimming (flapping hands, rocking back and forth, fidgeting, touching certain things) is a common trait across the spectrum of developmental disabilities. These behaviors are natural and self-soothing, stopping them can cause further distress for the child and allowing them to continue will help keep them calm and focused.

Classroom Accommodations

Each child is different and just as with typical children, it takes time to understand the motivations and behaviors of a disabled child. Each child will have specific areas they struggle with and it’s best when parents work with teachers to ensure a complete overview of the child is considered. Below are a few accommodations that can help make any classroom accessible for all students.

Multi-modal cues: Visual, verbal and tactile cues help students orient themselves in the classroom, such as identifying boundaries, instructions, or specific-use areas. Students with disabilities may need different types of cues because they’ll miss others. Presenting important information in multiple formats will help make the classroom accessible to students with all abilities.

Clear and predictable schedule: Typical and atypical students alike thrive in structured and predictable environments. Children with specific needs may react more strongly than typical children when the schedule isn’t clear and expected. Like with cues, it’s best to present a schedule in multiple formats, from a posted written schedule, pictures, to objects that can be felt.

Build motivation: The desire to learn when it presents challenges can be difficult to maintain for disabled children. Alternating preferred and less-preferred activities and assignments can help students maintain the momentum to get through a challenging task, as they know something more fun will come next. Providing meaningful choices in the classroom can also help students stay motivated, giving them a sense of autonomy and control. An example of this would be assigning two tasks and allowing the student to choose the order in which they do them.

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Make expectations clear: Children with developmental disabilities may find it difficult to infer expectations based on past experiences. For this reason, consistent feedback and instruction (even if repetitive) can reduce stress in the classroom. Each task should include the following essential information: how much work is to be done, how the task should be executed, when the work should be done, and what the payoff is for finishing the task.

Provide structured participation: Students with disabilities are often excluded from social interactions with their peers due to their limitations. Providing structured activities that allow disabled students to interact with their peers will help foster better relationships between students, both inside and out of the classroom. These situations may look like giving a child a helping role, such as distributing materials or tools with specific instructions (coach the student to ask, “what color would you like?”). It’s also helpful to give atypical children simple strategies for interaction (this is sometimes called ‘scripting’). An example would be coaching a child to ask, “what is that?” when they see a peer with something they’re unfamiliar with.

Assistive technology: There are assistive devices for a large range of limitations, from mobility aids to communication devices (Alternative and Augmented Communication AAC). It may take some research to find a device or tool for each child but there are many solutions (both high and low tech).

Accommodating unique learners in the classroom not only helps them access the same information and opportunities as their typical peers, but it will also teach them that their limitations are worth accepting and supporting in all environments.