Natural Environment: Where Does Special Instruction Take Place?
Where do you work? Where do you do your Special Instruction? I get asked that quite often. We know the law says that the natural environment is where services are required to take place. But what is natural environment?
Federal Regulations of IDEA say:
“Early intervention services must be provided in natural environments, including the home and community settings in which children without disabilities participate, to the maximum extent that is appropriate.” (Sec. 303.12) “[Natural environments are] those settings that are natural or normal for the child’s age peers who have no disabilities.” (Sec. 303.18)
From Pacer.org, an organization that supports families and educators of children with disabilities:
“What is a natural environment? A natural environment is any place your child and family live, learn, and play. It includes:
Settings, such as your home, backyard, or place of work. Settings also include places such as a child-care site, relative’s home, park, grocery store, or library.
Materials, which can be anything found in your child’s physical environment— toys, rocks, books, swings, grass, spoons, a high chair, or a favorite wagon.
People, such as parents, siblings, relatives, friends, neighbors, teachers, or anyone else with whom your child might interact.
Activities that incorporate the interests and routines of your child and family. These might be daily activities such as eating, bathing, and dressing; recreation such as playing, reading, walking, camping, swimming, and going to the playground; and community participation such as going to worship, celebrating holidays, taking part in cultural practices, going to the grocery store, and riding in different forms of transportation.”
Where does Special Instruction Take Place? The simple answer is that Special Instruction takes place in natural environments, which vary from child to child.
Where are the natural environments in my experiences as a Special Instructor?
In my experiences special instruction takes place in the home most of the time…or childcare, grandparents’ house or an auntie’s house. Where ever it is the child spends a large portion of her day: that is where her natural environment is. As you can tell from the above quote from pacer.org, natural environment includes much more than setting. For today, I am talking about setting.
Natural Environment: Home Based Special Instruction
Home is the most common environment. Parents and I schedule my visits around the work schedules of both parents, or one parent stays home to take care of the child(ren) and can be available at a regular time and day each week.
When I go to the home, I get a real glimpse into what a normal life is like for the child I am able to see what their home is like. Because I’m in their home, what I see is them being real. In my interactions, I can use their toys and see what furniture we have to work with, etc.
- Another benefit is that I have noticed the relationship seems to grow better. I experience their authentic selves more as a family. All of these things are probably because they are “letting me in.” Letting me into their home and to their lives.
- Sometimes it can be icky. Not everyone has the same living standards or opinions as I do about bugs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Just something to consider.
- Sometimes it can be scary. There may be things going on in that home that are not legal. Or safe. Remember, even criminals have children with disabilities and love their babies.
- Sometimes schedules can be tricky to work out, especially if both parents work or if their schedules vary week to week. This can make service less consistent.
- Often times in rural settings, the children on my caseload live far away from each other and from me. I’m driving 20-30 minutes between each home visit. I’m not going to lie. That makes it harder.
Natural Environment: Special Instruction in Child Care Settings
This is the second most common on my caseload. Childcare means different things to different families. In families with a deep extended family support system, grandparents or aunts and uncles take care of young children. I have mixed results in cooperation in those environments because the belief in the need for early intervention varies from one family member to another.
Some children go to a family friend’s home and it is just an informal childcare arrangement. In my experience these childcare providers tend to view themselves as just babysitting and don’t really want the intrusion (of me) into their homes. Sometimes it is this caregiver that is more invested in this baby’s intervention than anyone else in her life. Coaching with this caregiver is worth its weight in gold in those circumstances.
Formal Childcare Center
Many times children go to a state-licensed commercial childcare center. A center with classrooms, teachers, teacher assistance, staff, schedules, bells and whistles— or none of those things. Just like cooperation between family members varies from one family member to the next, childcare center cooperation varies from one center to the next.
In general a high quality child care center wants to help their babies. A high quality child care center is up to date with best practices and how early intervention works, and they are willing to cooperate. I am pretty familiar with childcare center requirements in my state as well as NAEYC, ITERS and ECERS and Quality Star. As a former childcare teacher working hard to appease all of those programs, I identify with the plight of the child care teacher. I enjoy working to support them with a child when they have questions.
- If the child does spend most of her waking hours in their child care arrangement, this is inevitably the environment you need to be in to be effective.
- Good childcare usually equals good relationship to Early Intervention.
- Even though the parents have enrolled their child in Early Intervention and have requested services to take place, there may not be “buy in” from these caregivers.
- Child care centers have limited times when you can go where they don’t resent your presence. They don’t want you there during lunch or breakfast because they are too busy serving and cleaning up.
- They don’t want you there during nap, obviously. The primary teacher’s shift is usually over at 3 or so which is right after nap. It is hard to catch your window of opportunity with a child that goes to a traditional child care center. Hard, but not impossible.
- Poor quality child care MAY equal poor quality relationships with early intervention. Every situation is different. Tread lightly.
Natural Environment: UNUSUAL PLACES For Special Instruction
- Waiting room of the health department: once or twice I agreed to meet the family in the Health department while they were waiting for their shots or WIC appointment. These children had homes of CHAOTIC schedules. Family members juggling to work and make doctor appointments and take care of older children’s activities. I knew if I didn’t at least meet this family where they were, both literally and figuratively, I would lose them. We were able to keep the relationship going and meet in the home in the future.
- Front porch: This example was a very sketchy situation. I was naive. Looking back, I am still not sure how I should have handled it. I was never invited inside past the front door. The living room was always dark and I could see there was always someone napping on the couch. It just became normal that we would sit on the front porch swing with the baby in arms and talk about his development and upcoming doctor appointments while playing peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake. Periodically, once or twice during every weekly session, a car would pull up, honk, someone would walk out of the garage and give the person in the car something, then the car drove away. I eventually lost contact with that family.
- Remember, even criminals love their babies.
- Dollar General: One time we had a PT for a consult only for that day and the grandmother had completely forgotten about our visit. She had “gone to town” with the baby. She wouldn’t be home until after our availability. So…we agreed to meet her at Dollar General while she picked up her groceries.
- While she shopped, we assessed his muscle tone to determine if the PT needed to come back or if this was her only needed visit. Turns out his tone was fine, he just needed to wear supportive shoes. But if we had not agreed to meet in Dollar General we would have been waiting over a month to make that determination because of the chaos of scheduling with an in demand specialist.
- Local park: Let me just start by reminding you of a few things. Some homes are hot in the summer. Homes can be “buggy.” Sometimes a family has a daddy that works the night shift and doesn’t want us being loud. SO…. to the park!
- I have met many, many of my little friends this way. I can come up with a way to teach almost anything in a playground given enough motivation. Bugs, cranky daddies and lack of air conditioning in August are plenty of motivation.
Fast Food Playground
- McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A: same as park except you don’t get rained out. Plus there are almost always same age peers there. And you can bribe with french fries.
Family Owned Business
- Back of a store: Sometimes mamas and daddies own a small business, and you do what you gotta do. Even if that means sitting on the floor getting flour on your butt.
- Vacation Bible School nursery: YES! This was fun. I feel like I opened up some minds that day. Children are supposed to talk!
PROS: obviously you are working together to find a solution. YAY teamwork!
Sometimes these unusual settings for special instruction are not a true natural environment but rather made for the convenience of the adults in this child’s life. I admit I have been guilty of suggesting the park because I wanted to get out of a stinky house. Not necessarily because it was the “best” for the child. Parents may do the same.
Meeting Families Where They Are
Natural environment ideally is not an “oops we forgot you were coming, let’s meet at the Dollar General,” situation, but it can be. Ideally parents and caregivers have bought into the importance of the service and make it a priority in their child’s life.
Sometimes this buy in happens immediately when the relationship between Special Instructor (or other early intervention team member) and parent is strong and awesome from day one. Often times this relationship is delicate, and needs to be strengthened over time with understanding.
One way to show understanding is to be flexible with your home visit expectations. If you show that you are willing to meet them at Dollar General or the waiting room of the doctor or the back of a store, you are showing that you are committed to meeting them where they are. Literally.