Adapting Environments for Children with Special Needs

By Becker's

Update April 2020


As parents and educators, we know that each child is unique and special in his or her own way. While you may question how you can provide support if you have not received any formalized training, be comforted to know there are some simple changes you can make to your environments to support children’s specialized needs.


Adapting your home or classroom with small modifications can establish a solid foundation for learning. With a little patience, an open mind, and a couple of environmental changes, adults and children will reap the benefits.


Home and Classroom Modifications 



Decluttering the learning areas will serve you well as too much of a good thing may be distracting and create simulation overdrive. Keep visual distractions to a minimum, arrange furniture to allow for ease of motion without obstacles, and ensure that materials are easily within reach.


Simplify Activities

When applicable, simplify the task at hand. By providing additional guidance and assisting children through a modified variation of the activity, it may be easier for them to accomplish a goal. Even something as simple as setting the table can be broken down into smaller tasks that allow a child to feel successful. (Count 4 plates. Put one plate on each placemat. Count 4 forks. Put one fork next to each plate.)


Alter Toys and Equipment

Minor alterations to toys and equipment can allow all children to participate in activities. These adjustments can be as simple as adding pencil grips to crayons or setting up an easel on a tabletop to allow for bigger arm movements while drawing or painting.


Be Mindful of Transitions

Sudden transitions may startle or upset children at home or at school, so be sure to give ample warning of an upcoming activity, or schedule modification. No one likes to be pulled from an activity that they are enjoying or that is satisfying some emotional need at the time. Think about the last time, you were quietly enjoying a cup of tea and someone unexpectedly came to your door!


Manage Noise

Loud noises may cause children to become anxious or feel overwhelmed. You can overcome this by communicating the need to manage noise levels with other family members or classmates. A gentle reminder to use indoor voices will help keep them on track, and it will become second nature to them as they put it into practice daily.


Create an Inclusive Environment

It is important that we model and encourage acceptance of differences in our homes, classrooms, and communities.


Below you can find a list of resources that may help guide this conversation:

Teachers and Parents as Partners 


Connect with your student’s parents and work together as a team. They know their child best, and are aware of likes and dislikes, and helpful hints that may be useful for you in the classroom. As a parent, use teachers as a resource. They will likely appreciate the initiative to connect further, and in turn it will make you feel like you’re on the same team!


Address Strengths and Challenges

Address strengths and challenges upfront. Are there certain subjects or activities the child is more drawn to? Are there certain triggers that you should avoid? The more you know about a child’s preferences, the easier you can shape a personalized plan and daily approach.


Discuss Personal Preferences

Gain a deeper understanding of how the student’s parents address their child’s disability, and how comfortable they are having you address it with the rest of the class. By discussing personal preferences, you can confirm exactly how to approach this, and the parents will be appreciative that you asked for their input in the matter.


Review Your Student’s Individualized Education Program

Also discuss the student’s IEP (Individualized Education Program) if applicable. The IEP is typically established upon an evaluation provided either by the school itself, or through a developmental therapist. Ultimately, the plan provides a roadmap for the best learning approach for the student and sets goals for future development. By understanding the child’s goals, it can help shape your approach and lesson planning.


Schedule Check-In Meetings

It may be valuable to schedule check-in meetings with parents to discuss ongoing student progress and behavior. By sharing your observations from the classroom, you could potentially aid parents at home as well, as they gain a deeper understanding of their child’s performance and interactions within the classroom.


Follow Your Intuition

At the end of the day, this will be a learning experience for everyone involved. Go with your gut, and experiment to see what works best for your child or your student. Every child is unique and special, and it is up to you to help them flourish in your learning environment!