Schools work hard to serve special needs students, but can youth programs say that they do the same? In the public school system, formal individualized education plans (IEPs) outline the supports that will ensure the success of special students. But youth programs don’t have IEPs.
These kids have the same right to participate, have fun, and learn as other kids. This isn’t just an ethical question. The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities to all public accommodation and commercial facilities, including education.
As a parent of two children who have special needs, I have a personal stake in advocating for how the 4-H program can be a place for special kids. As a member of our center’s diversity and inclusion shared learning cohort, I have a professional stake, too. I recently co-produced a video on adapting summer day camp programming to accommodate a special needs youth that improved the camp experience for all participants and youth leaders.
- Talk to the child’s parents about how their condition and what they need
- Educate volunteers on what they can do to make the experience succeed
- Treat every young person as an individual
- Develop a plan
- Assign a mentor if needed
- Don’t draw attention to the individual when they need a break, act up, etc.
- Recognize and encourage positive behaviors
- Realize that not every young person’s participation is going to look the same
- Strive to improve the experience every time
Some 4-H programs stand out for doing a great job. Indiana 4-H piloted the Intentionally Inclusive 4-H Club Program, which created accessibility and engaged communities in an effort to benefit everyone in the program, with and without special needs.
Ohio 4-H implemented The Winning 4-H Plan, which provided resources for those working with youth, including activities to better understand the challenges that these youth face every day.
These efforts should be expanded. How do we make serving special youth and being a safe haven where they can gain skills, experiences, and friends a priority for program staff, volunteers, parents, and other youth participants? What experiences have you had working with special needs youth? What has been successful? What have you or your program gained from the extra efforts made to accommodate special kids?
-- Darcy Cole, 4-H program coordinator, Meeker County