Work effectively with special needs youth

When working with special needs youth, it is important to engage with parents and guardians, and have a thorough understanding of their needs and abilities.

Have you ever worked with a special needs youth? I bet you found that special needs youth aren’t that different from any other youth. You probably found that some of your activities or projects need to be adapted to meet their needs, but that the fundamentals of 4-H youth development were still present.

National 4-H Council explains that the mission of 4-H is to empower youth to reach their full potential, working and learning in partnership with caring adults. Furthermore, we know that the national 4-H motto is “To Make the Best Better.” Does this change when we talk about 4-H staff and leaders working with youth with special needs? Not at all!

One of the keys to successfully working with special needs youth is to become educated about their needs. Consider their abilities, rather than their disabilities. A good resource for learning about a youth’s abilities is their parent/guardian. The leaders handbook “Making 4-H More Accessible” by the regents of the University of California give the following tips for topics that should be discussed:

  • General characteristics: What are the youth’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • Physical disabilities: What situations may affect the member’s participation?
  • Mental capabilities: What is the youth’s present grade, developmental level, reading abilities and listening abilities?
  • Medication: What are the possible side affects of medications the youth is currently taking?
  • Discipline: Discuss any club rules including the code of conduct.
  • Dietary and eating problems: Is there a special diet needed for the youth or any restrictions?
  • Living skills: Is the youth able to handle their personal needs?
  • Transportation: Reassure that transportation is the parent’s responsibility.
  • Emergency procedures: Discuss procedures to be taken in the event of an emergency. Who is the emergency contact? Where can the information be easily found?

Don’t forget that youth don’t all develop in the same way. A project or activity that is appropriate for one 8-year-old may not be a task that is appropriate for all 8-year-olds. Each youth grows and develops at different paces. Be sure to consider the youth’s social, emotional, physical and intellectual development. For example, a youth may be participating in an after-school program where they are rapidly growing in their social development, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are growing intellectually as well.

The Gesell Institute for Youth Development reminds us that each child is unique, bringing his or her own individual and special differences to the growth process.

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