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Are we doing enough for special needs youth?

By Darcy Cole

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.

The story in our video is not unique one – diversity accommodation for one person often benefits the rest. Successful strategies for adapting your program can include:
  • 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
Most importantly, remember that the ultimate goal is to provide a positive experience for every young person in the program!

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

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  1. Darcy, thank you for this important blog post and for the contribution of your wonderful video! You raise so many important points. One of the things that this topic raises for me is the fact that it encourages us to really take a closer look at the basic youth needs. We need to recognize that young people's needs for mastery, generosity, belonging, and independence can manifest in different ways if they have special needs, and yet they still are fundamentally the same needs. As we train and support volunteers, we can definitely help them to ask the questions that you raised as they (and we all!) work to make our 4-H clubs and programs a place where everyone feels welcome and everyone can participate. Thanks for being a real leader in this area.

    1. Kathryn,
      I appreciate you pointing out that all youth have the same basic needs, regardless of their abilities and the fact that the fulfillment of those needs may look different in different kids. I also agree that volunteer training is essential to being able to successfully support special 4-H members.

  2. In my past I have done a fair amount of teaching of robotics and engineering with youth and adults. When teaching I have seen 3rd grades that can think through a program in their mind, create it at the computer and have it run flawlessly. I've also seen adults that struggle with the basics of programming. In each situation it is important to find out where the learner is at and where they want to go. Although the majority of my experience with special needs learners has been those that had moderate needs I believe the same strategy would apply for learners with greater needs. I'd start out by learning where they are at with their skill, interest and abilities as well as where would they like to be.

    Do you agree? What would be the challenges you would see if a coach/teacher tried to use this strategy?

    1. Mark,
      Thanks for sharing your experiences! I agree with your process of "learning where they are at with their skill, interest and abilities as well as where would they like to be". It just might look very different than with other kids. For example, I think about using your strategy with my oldest child, who is a kindergartener this year, but not a 4-H'er. She is an amazing little girl who has severe Autism Spectrum Disorder and is non-verbal and due to her extreme hyperactivity/behaviors and her receptive and expressive communication difficulties, she would never be able to sit through a club meeting or any other program and at this point, would find great challenges participating in any type of judging experience. Some of the challenges that I think a coach/teacher may face using the strategy that you described include: that there my be a lack of knowledge about the conditions that these kids have (research and parent meetings can be very helpful), a lack of experience working with special kids (strategies used with these kids some times need to be more intensive and look very different than what is used with other kids), a lack of people to help out (substantially more volunteers may be needed to successfully support these kids than others), and there needs to be the realization that not every kid will be able to do everything (some kids may have such basic skills that project learning is not a realistic outcome for them).

  3. Anne,
    The think working with special needs youth / diverse audiences would be an amazing fall 4-H volunteer training topic. An online training module might also be an option, it just wouldn't likely get the viewership that fall volunteer training receives. I'd be very happy to serve as a resource to the region volunteer systems team, however you see fit. I honestly feel that working with special needs kids is an area that we have not focused enough on and that could you some attention. Would you agree?

  4. Great blog post, Darcy! I truly appreciate your work you did with the video as it opened my eyes to the idea of diversity and inclusion and raised a lot of good points. I really liked the examples you used from Indiana and Ohio, along with your own example as these helped me sit back and think of ways that I can include youth with special needs into our program. I really like your strategy list, this helps me sit down and think about what I can do to make 4-H a positive experience for youth with special needs and their families. Thank you for your work with the cohort and the great post!

    1. Thanks Krista for the feedback! I appreciate the fact that you mentioned that this opened your eyes up to diversity and inclusion. I think that people often think of race when they think of diversity, but there are some many other facts that can too easily be overlooked that also fall into the categories of diversity and inclusion. I'm glad that my blog post was helpful to you and that it made you think more about this very important topic!

  5. One of the things that I have found most important is making sure you (as a leader, program, volunteer) create space. It is easy to want to move through business and get to the end of the meeting, but often times I have found the best moments for learning happen in the process of these interactions. Does it take more work to advocate diversity and inclusion? Yes. Do you encounter more challenges? Yes. Do we all come away better because of it? Yes.
    In Montana we ran a specific camp for kids and adults with disabilities and the high school counselors who were working directly with these campers always found they grew more themselves in relationship with these individuals then they felt they were able to give back.

    1. Thanks Jeremy for the great thoughts! You mentioned that the high school counselors grew more themselves that some of the special needs people that they served. Were there any specific strategies that they found most useful in working with this population? What specific skills did the counselors gain?

  6. Hi Darcy -

    Thanks for raising this important question and for engaging us in an online discussion about an issue that doesn't get enough attention in our field. I would love to learn more about your program design. Please share some examples when you have time.

    jennifer skuza

    1. Thanks Jennifer! Programs can be designed the same ways for special needs kids as they are for other kids. There just need to be extra supports in place to help them be successful, training for staff and volunteers, the understanding of what success may look like for these kids, and additional "homework" ahead of time. I'd love to chat more about this topic in the future and see how we can make moving the agenda of serving these kids more of a priority in youth work!