Going Places: Improving Participation in Community Activities
Improving Participation in Community Activities
Children with disabilities and their families often become somewhat socially isolated, picking and choosing the places they go, people they see, and things they do. This may be because community outings tend to be unpredictable and some outings (e.g., trips to the doctor) may be associated with unpleasant experiences, leading to anxiety and avoidance. Over time, this narrowing in participation in inclusive activities can lead to boredom, frustration, and even resentment. This article will describe strategies to help children explore and experience a wider array of community activities, thereby creating greater fulfillment in life.
Steps for Community Participation
Identify places and activities. It is important to select community activities thoughtfully. The goals are enjoyment and participation for everyone. Therefore, choose activities both the children and parents will find to be fun, engaging, and not-too-challenging whenever possible. It is also important to determine the best times or dates (e.g., when the environment is less crowded, child is likely to be well-rested) to go.
Determine expectations. Before embarking on the outing, figure out what exactly occurs and how people tend to behave in order to participate in the activity. Set goals based on your child’s current abilities (e.g., sit quietly and observe for 15 minutes, participate by selecting 5 items). Start small if necessary to increase the likelihood of success.
Prepare your child*. Explain the activity to your child, answering the following questions: Where are we going? Who will be there? What will we be doing and/or what will be going on? What can the child do if he feels uncomfortable (e.g., say or sign “stop”)? How you will help him be successful? It may be helpful to role play or use pictures to illustrate.
Support participation. When you go on the outing, assess the circumstances to determine if additional guidance or adjustments to your plan are necessary. Prompt your child to participate according to your goals, and also to communicate if he needs more support.
Exit on a positive note. If your child participates successfully and meets the goal you have established, praise him and leave. If he communicates discomfort appropriately and you are unable to change the circumstances to meet his needs, thank your child for expressing his needs and allow him to exit.
Reward community participation. Although the activities you choose may be fun, participation in unpredictable or complicated activities may be challenging for your child. Therefore, reward successful outings to new circumstances with activities or items your child likes (e.g., video game or special snack when he returns home).
Increase expectations over time. Gradually demand more of your child (e.g., to stay longer, participate more fully) and reduce the support you provide. Part of this is flexibility training – learning to respond to unanticipated circumstances and be a little adventurous.
Jack and Elaine in the Community
Jack wanted to have friends and participate in his community, but was rarely successful in social groups – often demanding to leave after only a few minutes. His support providers helped Jack choose a new activity, Geocaching (i.e., treasure hunting using a GPS), that would he would find entertaining. They practiced at home and role played how to initiate conversations and then began supporting him through smaller events. As Jack learned to participate independently, they faded their support. Jack has now been to over 100 meet-ups and has developed friends among the geocachers.
Elaine’s mother wanted to her to participate in grocery shopping, but Elaine commonly had melt-downs in the store. With the help of her behavior analyst, Elaine’s mother figured out that Elaine was getting upset because of the number and variety of desirable items present that she could not have. Therefore, they started learning to shop by going to department stores (i.e., clothes were not as enticing to Elaine). Once she learned to shop, they shifted to convenience stores and then the grocery store. Elaine was rewarded for her participation with small treats available at the register.
Conclusion: Dos & Don’ts
In conclusion, participation in community activities can be successful and contribute significantly to children’s and families’ quality of life with sufficient support. Here are some dos and don’ts to make the outings as positive as possible:
Meme Hieneman, has a Ph.D. in Special Education and is nationally certified as a behavior analyst. She has published a variety of articles, chapters, and books including “Parenting with Positive Behavior Support: A Practical Guide to Resolving Your Child’s Difficult Behavior.” In her professional career, Meme has worked with children with severe behavior problems for more than 20 years.
For more traveling tips & links
- Traveling Tips for Parents of Children with Special Needs
- 7 Perks to Traveling with Your Special Needs Child
- Encourage Traveling for All Without Limits
- Traveling with Special Dietary Need
- Tech Travel Tips for Summer
- Free Access Pass to America the Beautiful
- Kids with Special Needs and Family Travel
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- More than a Diaper Bag: Practical Tips for Car Travel with a Special Needs Baby
- 10 Things Every Parent of a Special Needs Child Should Have Before Traveling
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This post originally appeared on our March/April 2014 Magazine