As a child care provider, you lead the way in making facilities more inclusive and more accessible to an increasingly diverse group of infants, toddlers, and children. As a child care professional, you continuously strive to make your care space a welcoming environment for the children in your community.
In this article, we look at how child care providers can appropriately serve children with disabilities. Many providers have concerns about how to safely care for the child with a disability. While the manner of serving every type of disability is too large to cover here, we can provide a template on how to address services for these children in your child care program.
DEFINING OUR TERMS
What do we mean when we say a child with a disability? When we talk about whether a child has disability, we are looking to see how the child is developing when compared to their peers. For example, the growth charts used by pediatricians show how a child is growing in height and weight compared to their peers. Similarly, when we look at when the child achieved developmental milestones such as first steps, first time smiling, etc. we are comparing the child to peers. A child with a disability lags behind their peers in one of these or other areas.
ENROLLING THE CHILD WITH A KNOWN DISABILITY
Before we can serve a child with a disability, we have to get them enrolled! Review your program’s enrollment documents to see if they might discourage parents from enrolling a child with a disability. For example, when you ask about developmental milestones, does your form ask if the child can “walk normally”? This question should be phrased differently – no parent wants to think that their child isn’t “normal.” However, it is okay to ask when the child started walking, if they can dress themselves, etc. so that you can determine what sort of individualized care plan to put together for the child.
What you should NOT do is tell parents “Our program doesn’t serve children with disabilities/with that particular disability” or “We can’t process this application – you should call the locator service for children with special needs instead.” Under federal and state law, your child care program is considered open to all the ages of children listed on your child care license, regardless of disability. Your program needs to individually evaluate the child’s level of need first and then determine if it can serve the child. To do otherwise puts your program at legal risk.
Some parents will be aware that their child has a disability, either based on their own observations, the diagnosis of a health care professional, an evaluation by the local Infants and Toddlers Program, etc.. You will want to work as a team with these parents to determine what the child’s needs are and how (or occasionally, whether) your program can meet the child’s needs.
WHEN YOU SUSPECT THE CHILD HAS A DISABILITY
Some parents will not be aware that their child has a disability. Not every parent knows every milestone or what other children in their child’s peer group are capable of. This is where your staff of trained child care professionals have an important role to play. While your staff may not be able to diagnose or evaluate a child as having a disability, as the child’s daily caretaker they will be able to identify if the child is not meeting milestones or having other difficulties. When your staff identifies a child who is not progressing like others in their group, it’s appropriate to have an internal meeting with your staff to talk about why the child may not be progressing and what strategies your staff have tried to help address that area. You will then want to have a meeting with the parents to discuss the child’s progress and possible disability, and to provide resources for the parent so that they can make informed decisions on what to do next.
SERVING THE CHILD WITH A DISABILITY
For some children with disabilities, addressing the child’s individual needs in your program will be similar to how you address the individual needs of children without disabilities and have little to no impact on your program. For example, a child who has one hand may require some adjustments in programming when doing activities that require two hands (such as clapping) but otherwise is able to participate in circle time, coloring, etc.
For other children with disabilities, you may have to consider how to adjust your facility so that the child is able to access your program. A child who requires mobility assistance may mean that the class goes out through the door by the ramp to get outside instead of a nearer door with steps. A child who has hearing impairments may require visual signals instead of or in addition to verbal cues.
As the level of services needed to properly serve the child with a disability increases, you will want to consider what your program can provide and the limits of your program. No program for children, whether a child care facility or a comprehensive school, can serve every child. You should consider the requests from the parents and have an internal discussion with your team to see what would be reasonable to address those requests. And of course, you should document your attempts to address the parents’ concerns and the basis for finding that a request was not reasonable for your program.
A child with a disability may, for example, receive services as part of an Individualized Family Services Plan or Individualized Education Program. These services are typically provided by the school system or the health department to the child in the “natural environment,” which can mean your child care facility, often in the child’s classroom. You will want to develop a relationship with the provider and their employer so you are both working together to help the child progress. This provider may be able to work with your staff on strategies to help the child develop and improve their skills as well as offer other resources.
Naturally, you’ll want to communicate with the parents on how the child is doing with the adjustments to serve their child’s individual needs.
WHEN YOU CAN’T WORK OUT A PLAN
Of course, there are times when the parents and your program aren’t able to reach agreement on how to serve the child or what level of service your program must offer. If possible, an in-person discussion with the parents is a good idea. If the child is already enrolled, you will want to talk with your staff to learn how the child is progressing and that they are following the individualized activity plan for the child. If the parents have identified an issue they want addressed that you believe is more than your program can reasonably handle, you should talk to your staff, your providers, your licensing specialist from the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and possibly with your legal counsel, so that you are clear as to what the parents want, what your program can provide, and how that meets your legal obligations.
Ideally, the meeting with parents will result in an agreement. But if not, the licensing staff at MSDE may be able to help. MSDE also has an Ombudsman who can help resolve conflicts like these.
If your discussions with the parent break down completely, you should document what the parent requested and what your program offered. It’s possible that a parent may file a complaint with an agency, such as the Maryland Office on Human Rights or the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office on Civil Rights, or file a lawsuit. In that event, you will want to contact an attorney with experience in child care and disability law who can present your side of the story in the best possible light.
William Fields is Counsel in PK Law’s Education, Labor, and Employment Group. In his practice, Bill focuses on the representation of county school boards across Maryland, as well as representing private schools, higher education institutions, and private sector employers with employment and labor issues. Prior to working as an Assistant Attorney General, Bill was an Assistant Public Defender in the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Parental Defense Division, and Staff Attorney with Disability Rights Maryland. He can be reached at 410-740-3177 or firstname.lastname@example.org.