BY JENNIFER WOODWORTH, PSY.D.
Often, inclusion is a word used in education when a child with special needs is included in a typical classroom, with or without an aide. What about outside of school? How does inclusion work when coaches or other group leaders are not informed, do not understand the challenges that your child faces, or how to handle them? It is possible and beneficial to include children of all abilities in recreational activities as appropriate; and the military does promote inclusion in youth sports on installations.
Aboard Camp Pendleton, California, the youth sports program firmly supports inclusion at all age and skill levels. Even though disclosing your child’s special needs is optional, proper care and inclusion cannot happen if you are holding back information that would create a positive learning environment for your child. Check your local installation for youth sports policies on inclusion and how your child can be supported.
There are some major benefits of inclusion in recreational youth sports, both for the child with special needs and for “typically developing” children.
Modeling by other children: Learning by observing can be powerful. Seeing a player on their team keep trying and sticking with a skill they are developing can be motivating for another child to push through uncomfortable feelings and try new things.
Learning about differences: Whether a child has a diagnosed condition or not, ability range is going to vary on each team. Inclusion offers the opportunity for the players to be flexible, adjust, and incorporate creativity in finding each other’s strengths.
Teamwork: Counting on another person or being nervous to disappoint can be anxiety producing for many children. Working as a team allows a child with special needs to feel included and an important part of the team as a unit.
Following directions: Being redirected by a coach can reinforce positive behaviors, especially when all the players are expected to follow the basic safety rules.
Development of motor skills: Being part of a sports team can help develop motor skills that your child would not ordinarily be working on; including stretching, movement, flexibility, and stamina.
As a parent, it might be hard to watch your child be instructed by a coach, especially if your child seems lost or is being redirected more than other children. Here are some ways to assist your child in having a fun and successful season.
Inform the coach: One of the most important things is to talk to the coach prior to the first practice about your child’s needs. Maybe they have asthma and are not able to participate in the amount or speed of running drills, are distracted easily and only stay on task if they are kept busy, or sensory issues make it uncomfortable to be touched by
other kids or coaches. If the coach is unaware, they might view the child’s actions as defiance or have unrealistic expectations about their performance. It might feel that you are “calling out” your child’s weaknesses to the coach, but in disclosing your child’s preferences, you are preventing situations that could adversely affect their sports experience.
Inform the coach about your child’s strengths as well; as an example: are they better with smaller groups, shorter drills, or 1-2 step directions. Talk about strategies that will assist the coach and your child during practices and games. This might include redirection techniques, what to do if your child is being disruptive after multiple redirections, incentives for positive behavior, and previous successes.
Let the coach coach: Coaches are not mental health professionals, nor are they meant to be. However, they are there to teach your child in an age and developmentally appropriate way. You might feel that you should be redirecting your child’s behavior during practice or the game, but unless the coach asks you to step in, allow the coach to do their job. Interfering with instruction can decrease the effectiveness of the coaches requests to the child and impact overall skill progress.
Acknowledge progress: In youth sports, player’s abilities are variable at the beginning of the season. Look for progress in skills during the season and provide positive feedback to your child when you see improvement during practice or a game; whether it be ball handling, stamina, speed, teamwork, focus and attention, perseverance, or effort.
When coaching children, you are not just developing their sports technique. You are building on their social and emotional development, too. Children come to sports with a variety of ability levels; in motor, attention, and emotional skills. Here are some tips in creating an inclusive environment for all players on your team.
Listen to the parents: When a parent approaches you to discuss strategies that will be helpful for their child, listen. They are telling you so that you have an appropriate plan to implement if and when needed. If you are being challenged by a situation, use the player’s parents as ally in collaborating on an approach that will allow the player to have a fun and successful season.
Expectations: Every child will be starting the season at different skill levels; however it might take more practice or direction for players with special needs to understand or develop the skills they are being taught. Be flexible and adaptable in coaching strategies; for example: you might need to have the child shadow you or another child in order to understand positioning.
Boundaries: Safety is the basis of youth sports. Firm boundaries about acceptable and unacceptable behavior of all players is important to discuss with the families and players. Consequences of unsafe behavior for all children should be clear and enforced throughout the season.
Model appropriate behavior: Include all players in every aspect of the sport; participation in drills, position, and fair and appropriate playing time. Encouraging players to do their best and acknowledging teamwork will promote fair play for other players and parents.
Demonstrate rather than verbal instructions: This can assist every child with understanding the drill or skill being taught in a more clear way. Being able to visualize what is being asked or following multiple steps of a drill can be challenging for many children.
Consistent routine: Be organized and consistent with practice and warmup routines. This means having a clear beginning, middle and end for practices, so that players can anticipate what is coming next which will make transitions smoother. Water breaks are great to use a transitional tool for children who may have difficulty switching gears from one drill to another.
Play to child’s strengths: As with coaching any child, working with their strengths is beneficial in developing positive self-esteem and promoting perseverance when learning a new skill. You might find it helpful to pair a stronger skilled child with a developing player to create a mentor type relationship which in turn creates a stronger team unit.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Woodworth is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Vista, CA. She has worked in the mental health field for seven years. Her husband is retired from the Marine Corps and she has three children ages six, eight, and ten.