Supporting Competence in a Child With Special Needs: One Child’s Story

Can the development of a child with special needs be supported in an infant/toddler child care setting? Carol Pinto reflects on her experience as an ongoing consultant at the South Bay Infant Center in Redondo Beach, California. She interviewed staff and reviewed the written records of Molly, a child with special needs who was mainstreamed there. Carol also observed Molly at the Center and spoke with her mother and physical therapist. Molly entered the Center at 12 months of age. She was considered at risk because of her birth weight, low weight for her age, low muscle tone, pervasive development delays, and failure to thrive. She was afraid of people, adults as well as children. Since she seemed to be more at ease with the youngest babies and more on their developmental level, she was placed with them. It seemed that in this safe setting, she would be freer to practice self-initiated activities than she would have been had she found herself contending with the exuberant behavior of other one-year-olds.

The South Bay Infant Center was established as a demonstration infant center for Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) by early childhood educator and RIE Associate Ruth Money. It was the first child care center to receive RIE certification. This small, homelike setting offered care to 12 children ranging in age from approximately three months to 27 months. Groupings of four children each were based on development levels. With a staff ratio of four children to each primary caregiver, the small group size allowed the children to get to know each other well and carefully selected caregivers to be sensitive observers. Molly’s environment, then, would be calm, not overly stimulating. There would be no restrictive devices, such as walkers, swings, or bouncers, to prevent her from moving freely. In the presence of a caring adult who knew her well, the director and staff hoped that, given time and space, Molly would grow to sense her own needs and to communicate them clearly to her caregivers. Her caregivers would provide intimate, stable, ongoing relationships that would become the basis for Molly’s emotional security.

Strongly influenced by the work of Dr. Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber, the Center ensured that caregivers received training in RIE’s Educaring Approach. An excerpt from the Center’s brochure stated:

Respect is the guideline of RIE’s philosophy. The Educarer shows respect by treating each infant as an active participant rather than a passive recipient in all interactions. RIE seeks to attain a balance between stimulation and independent exploration by the infant. Only a child who receives undivided attention from his/her Educarer during all routine care-giving activities will be free and interested to explore his/her environment without needing too much intervention from the Educarer. The Educarer needs to understand that each infant needs both concentrated attention while being cared for and time to explore alone. (Money, 1989)

The importance of seeing all infants as self-learners was reinforced by the work of Zeitlin, Williamson, and Szczepanski (1988). Using an instrument called the Early Coping Inventory, the researchers studied the coping behavior of infants with special needs and those who were developing typically. Their study assessed behaviors that enabled children to deal competently with the challenges and frustrations of daily life and found: The greatest difference between the two groups was in their adaptive use of self-initiated coping strategies. The coping strategies of special needs children tended to be less autonomous and self-generated. They were not as able to change behavior when necessary to solve a problem or to achieve a goal, to enter new situations easily or cautiously as the occasion demanded and to balance independent behavior with necessary dependence on adults. (Zeitlin et al., 1988)

When asked to share how Molly’s competence and confidence were being fostered at the South Bay Infant Center, her caregivers offered a number of vignettes. One spoke about the way Molly had solved a particular problem. The area for the four youngest infants opened onto a deck. It seemed, to her caregiver, that Molly was attracted by the natural stimulation of the sun, trees, breezes, and open air, as she spent a lot of time looking outside. One day, to the caregiver’s surprise, Molly, who was not yet able to creep or crawl, figured out a way to get herself outside by rolling down a ramp! Soon the other three infants in her group were sharing in this same exploration. This was particularly meaningful because the rolling Molly did was movement in a context—movement tied to something she chose to do because she was interested in doing it. It was a way for her to gain some control over her environment and to organize her movement around a purpose.

Molly’s therapist saw her twice weekly, once at home and once at the Center. At the Center, the therapist modeled her interventions with Molly while the caregivers were present. She asked the staff to position Molly and to motivate her through external rewards. She doubted that Molly would achieve optimal development without these interventions. In turn, the staff encouraged the therapist to observe how Molly was progressing on her own, and, over time, she came to acknowledge Molly’s growing competence.

Molly’s competence was also fostered during caregiving routines, such as feeding and diapering, which were regarded as times for leisurely, intimate, uninterrupted attention from one of two primary caregivers. Children’s active cooperation was always encouraged. Molly, after some time, began to give cues to her primary caregiver that she might he ready to welcome the introduction of a cup. She was interested and became comfortable drinking from it at times, although she still drank more from her bottle. However, one day Molly’s interest in cup drinking stopped abruptly. The caregiver, respecting her desires, did not try to entice her. When the therapist next appeared at the Center, she remarked that she and Molly had been “working” on using the cup. Molly’s caregiver believed that Molly’s refusal to continue using the cup was based on this pressure, however subtle and well-intended, to achieve a behavioral objective. Perhaps, Molly’s resistance to an externally imposed objective might even be seen as a sign of self-respect.

As Molly’s competence grew, she became much more mobile than the other infants in her group. Plans were made to have her join her age-mates. This phasing in was done gradually over a period of two and a half months. At first, Molly visited the other infants’ room while they were napping. This gave her a chance to become comfortable in the new space and with the older children’s caregivers. Later, she spent time in the room with one, then two, and finally all three older children. In the beginning, the visits were short, gradually increasing in length as Molly and the other infants became comfortable with each other. As Molly continued to progress in the new setting, the guiding principles for staff remained the same: they continued to observe, interact sensitively, and follow Molly’s lead.

In the older children’s room, Molly developed a sense of self-protection, something that she hadn’t needed with the younger children. She chose to spend most of her time with Paula, a gentle child of her own height, and gave a wide berth to the others, whose play was more boisterous. The small group size allowed her to know what to expect from each child.

Molly also didn’t like to play outside with the others. So she chose to stay inside and play while they ran, climbed, stumbled, and played in the dirt and rode wheel toys. She would watch the others through the window, frequently making eye contact with her caregiver, who was outside. Molly’s caregiver wanted her to feel safe, and she trusted Molly to know whether or when she wanted to come outside and allowed her to take her time deciding. After a while, Molly began to watch from the doorway. Later she ventured outside a few inches, then a few feet, until she felt at ease playing anywhere in the yard. Molly’s decision-making skills were reinforced by her caregiver’s patience, calm acceptance, and trust. Sometime later, tactilely sensitive Molly happily chose to play on grass, in dirt, and with the leaves. Her caregiver expressed her deep satisfaction—affirmation of trusting the process—and her great joy for Molly.

As her confidence grew, Molly’s caregivers continued to write detailed observations. In one of them, the Center director described a 20-minute period during which Molly’s persistence and pleasure in self-initiated gross motor activity allowed her to overcome many obstacles. She needed no adult to motivate or reinforce her efforts. Her joy in the activity was reinforcement enough!

Molly’s competence in realistically assessing her environment and in making judgments based on those assessments was demonstrated one day when no other children were present in her group. With no one there to inhibit her, she took more risks, played with more objects, and used gross motor equipment more confidently than she had ever done before. She also used so many new words that her caregiver made a list of them. She loved the tricycle and rocking horse but would usually approach them only while the other children were napping. On this day she figured out how to steady both, get on, balance, ride them, and get down all by herself. When her caregivers were putting the equipment away to get ready for a potluck that evening, Molly, without being asked, decided to help, demonstrating skills that were cooperative as well as independent. At the Center children were not allowed to climb on the table where they ate. Molly had never tested the rule, but on this day, she stood proudly on the table with a big smile on her face, pushing back the boundaries and demonstrating her autonomy.

That night, staff, parents, and children gathered for the potluck. Molly wanted to get to the flowerbed, across the room, but this presented a problem. To reach her goal, Molly, who had previously been afraid of people, would have to navigate through the crowd. In a room full of adults and children, she crawled under a table and over a chair to get to where she wanted to go. Her caregiver was delighted. Molly felt relaxed enough in a social setting to pursue her own interest and solve her own problem. When asked what she thought had helped Molly, her caregiver replied, “I enjoyed Molly and I guess my enjoyment encouraged her.”

This sense of acceptance and appreciation can be lacking in early childhood programs especially when teachers feel a need to get children to perform and so have no time to simply take joy in who the children are—and the children have little time to explore, initiate, and learn from making choices.

All children need lots of time to listen to their bodies, sense their likes and dislikes, and figure out their relationship with others. Children with special needs require even more time. At the South Bay Infant Center each child was seen as unique. While there, Molly was given enough time, space, and respect to become comfortable with herself and others, and to experience life as an active, confident, self-directed learner.

Carol Pinto, RIE Associate

Published in Educaring, 22(2), Spring 2001.


Money, R. (1989). The South Bay Infant Center [Brochure]. Redondo Beach, CA: South Bay Infant Center.

Zeitlin, S., Williamson, G. G., & Szczepanski, M. (1988). Early Coping Inventory. Bensonville, IL: Scholastic Testing Service.

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