Tier 2: Fostering Feelings of Safety

A young toddler who is deafblind reaches out to touch his mom's face while dad holds him.
A young toddler who is deafblind reaches out to touch his mom’s face while dad holds him.

Making a plan to help the child feel safe and secure in the classroom environment is the first and most important element in supporting the child’s social and emotional growth. Healthy social and emotional development is the foundation of all learning and should not be overlooked. Creating a positive and responsive relationship between teacher and child is central to the child’s sense of connection, but it takes time, attention, and effort. The following strategies can help a child build a stronger sense of connection to educational staff and others.

Spend time with the child and observe their movements

Take time to be with the child and get to know him or her as an individual. Observe the often subtle cues that can provide insight into personal interests and thoughts.  Where are the child’s hands?  Where is his gaze? What sounds does she enjoy listening to? Is he interested in vibration, a specific texture, or physical properties of an object? What types of objects, movements, sights, sounds, smells, or people naturally draw the child’s attention? Create an “appetite/aversion” list making notes about the things that elicit a child’s positive responses in one column and those that elicit negative responses in another. This will allow you to design instruction to include highly motivating materials and activities and reduce the occurrence of aversive materials and activities.  

Be in close proximity with the child

Some children may need an adult or peers to be in direct physical contact through most activities, perhaps sitting on the floor with your leg touching their leg or your arms touching their arms.  Others may not, at least initially. It is important not to force any physical contact, and it may take quite a while for a child with sensory loss and other significant challenges to trust you. Get as close as the child will allow, and overtime, as trust builds, chances are the child will allow more direct physical contact.  Initially some children may “come in close and then run away”. They may have to summon their courage to connect, and then take a little break from you. This is about self-regulation. Don’t chase after them unless they are in danger.  Give them time to step away and return on their own.

Follow the child’s lead

 Make time daily to offer objects or actions of interest to the child, and draw the child’s attention to you and the world around him.  These objects or actions of interest can be actual objects, music from a device or musical instrument, interesting vocalizations, touch, and/or movements of your body. Observe what the child does with your offering, and follow the child’s lead by imitating him or her. Depending on the child’s ability to access your responses through vision or hearing, do this in near proximity to the child’s body to ensure the child is aware of what you are doing.  By following the child’s lead, you let the child know that you are aware of what he is doing and that you can do that, too.

Mark your entries and exits from the child’s world with greeting and parting rituals

If you are unaware of someone entering into your space or departing from your space, the world is a bit scary. Think about things and people coming at you from out of nowhere; it would distress you as well. When entering into an interaction with a child, it is good to establish greeting and parting rituals. These can be as simple as sharing a ring on your hand, a particular touch such as a “high five”, or waving hello and good-bye. This lets the child know that you are there, ready to engage with him, or that you have to leave for a time.

Acknowledge the child’s emotions and share yours

The root of all language development is in our emotional experiences. Think of a newborn who cries when in distress or discomfort. When the parent responds with soothing caresses or gentle pats, the child knows that his or her distress is recognized and someone is offering help. The same is true when the child experiences joy or wonder at some experience. Mirroring his or her emotions helps nourish your connection and helps the child learn about emotions and self-regulation. 

As the child gains communication skills, naming and talking about emotions and feelings can help reduce the child’s anxiety and stress. Parents and others need to help children regulate their emotions until they learn how to regulate them on their own. When comforting the child, you might sign or say the word for the feeling they seem to exhibit such as “angry”, “frightened”, “sad”, and “excited”.

Establish turn-taking routines

Observe the child and wait for her to make a movement or sound. After you imitate the child’s action or sound, then pause for a moment. Repeat this process over and over. First, the child takes a turn, and then the adult responds by imitating the child. This serve and return response is the basis for all conversation. The child will begin to recognize that you are interested in what she is doing and thinking. This creates a connection between you and the child.