Teaching Safety Awareness To Special Needs Toddlers

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Parents anxiously wait for their special needs infants to sit up, crawl and walk.  That last skill can take extra months or years.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, uses walking as a benchmark for maturity and independence.

They shouldn’t.  A child with poor safety awareness isn’t safer when they acquire mobility skills.  Sometimes they are much less safe.  Yes, they may be able to move without your help, but they may need to be more highly monitored and given more assistance to learn how to be safe.  They are exploring their environment and their new skills that took them a long time to develop.  They have been wanting to climb on the couch for months.  Now they can.  Getting down the “safe” way isn’t as important to them, and maybe not as easy as sliding or rolling off.  Oops.

What can parents do to help their child be a safer (notice I didn’t say “safe”) ambulator, crawler, cruiser, etc?  

  1. Talk about safety before they are independent.  Will they understand what it means?  Probably not, but your tone and your insistence on how movement is done says that you value safety and you want them to do the same.  Kids learn from all of our actions.  Make this one familiar to them by being very obvious and explicit.
  2. Take your physical therapist seriously when she or he teaches you how to work on core strength and balance skills.  Yes, I still maintain that safety is more than a sensory-motor skill, but having the best possible sensory and motor skills is important.  Having good safety awareness and safety behaviors without these skills will make a child more vulnerable to falls and injuries.
  3. The same goes for sensory processing activities.  If your child cannot perceive the movement of falling, the tactile and proprioceptive change as they crawl or step on something, or tolerate multiple sensory inputs at once, they are much less safe, even with good strength and coordination.  Really.
  4. Know your child’s cognitive and social/emotional skills.  Impulsive children are less safe overall.  Children that cannot process your instructions or recall them without you are less safe.  Children that enjoy defying you more than they want to avoid falling are less safe.  If you know any of these things, you can gauge safety and react more appropriately.  You will be less frustrated and more helpful to them.
  5. Reward safe execution and do not reward unsafe behavior.   My favorite way to avoid punishment but also to send my safety message home?  Not providing eye contact or much at all in the way of conversation as I stop unsafe actions, and either removing a child from an unsafe situation or assisting them in using the safe method to execute their move.  They get no satisfaction from seeing me react strongly, and they get the message that I am not accepting anything but their best safety skills as they move.
  6. Stop a child that is moving in an unsafe way, and see if they can recall and initiate the safe choice before assisting.  You don’t want to teach them that only you will make them safe and they need someone to be safe out there. They have to learn how to assess, react and respond, and all children can build their skills.  Some need more teaching, and some need more motivation to begin to take responsibility for their safety.  Give them both.

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