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The Environment: Meeting the Needs of All Learners - Helping Staff Adapt the Learning Environment

Your job is to make sure staff members can meet the needs of all the children in their care, including children with identified special needs. This lesson will focus on ensuring the learning environment is adapted so all children can participate fully.

  • Create an atmosphere of belonging. Ensure that staff members know the importance of adapting the environment to meet the needs of all children and families.
  • Model strategies for working with all families and children.
  • Provide resources so trainers, coaches, and staff can ensure that the environment supports all children.



As human beings, our need to belong is part of who we are. Our relationships with others help define us as individuals. From our earliest moments of life, we seek out others to protect, nurture and teach us. When we have positive attachment experiences in our early years, we develop into secure, trusting and confident individuals who can handle the ups and downs of life in our later years. When we don’t have positive attachment experiences, all is not lost. There are still opportunities to right the course. As a manager, that’s one of the most incredible aspects of your work: You can right the course for adults, children, and youth through your leadership. You support children, youth, and staff by creating an environment where everyone feels they belong.

Everyone is Welcome

How people are treated when they first come into your program sets the stage for how relationships will develop over time. Though a personalized greeting is so simple, it’s often overlooked. Having a person in the front lobby who is pleasant and greets people by name can start the day off on a positive note, and right a day that has not begun so great. Train all your staff members to do the same. No one should enter or leave a classroom without being addressed personally.

New families and new staff need to be systematically oriented to your program. One way is to take them on an in-depth tour of the program that includes spending time with not only classroom staff, but also key personnel. For example, have new families spend time with meal-preparation staff, administrative staff, and support staff. Hearing these staff members talk about their roles lays the foundation for a meaningful relationship between families and the program. Post signs showing frequently used areas, such as adult bathrooms; shared spaces, such as a lending library; and places to keep children’s personal items, such as cubbies. Display pictures of staff members that include short bios about who they are, what they like, and their roles at the program. Refer to your service’s orientation requirements and guidelines.

Everyone is Valued

Although it may be easy to talk theoretically about valuing diversity, it’s another thing to demonstrate it in your program. Diversity refers to more than ethnicity and culture—it includes religious beliefs, sexual orientation, ability status, and even child-rearing practices. Diversity broadens our world view. Ask families and staff to share their favorite recipes and then have those recipes on lunch menus. Display photographs of families throughout the program. Include items that reflect the families and staff not only in classrooms but in common areas. These are small gestures that can make a big difference. When someone walks into your program, can they tell who “lives there” and what they are like?

Environments are typically different for older and younger children. For example, bathrooms for younger children are often open and inside the classroom itself, whereas school-age children and youth typically use more private bathroom settings. The level of privacy, or lack thereof, could be uncomfortable for different children and families, who may have strict beliefs about privacy or feel the need for strong bathroom supervision. It will be important to work with your staff, trainers and coaches to respectfully meet these diverse beliefs. You must model the capacity to adapt spaces or practices in ways that still allow you to meet program standards while also respecting the wishes of families. For example, could a preschool child use the bathroom individually to offer more privacy? Or could some sheer fabric be added to open bathroom areas to create the feeling of more privacy?

Your program should be accessible to individuals with or without disabilities. The environment must be kept free of clutter, and the placement of furniture must be evaluated for children or adults who have impaired sight or need extra space in hallways to use a wheel chair, walker, or cane. Modifications and adaptations to the environment are ongoing processes based on the needs of the families and children you serve.

Staff members may not always feel qualified to support children with special needs. You can help them identify successful strategies and build confidence working with all learners. There are several steps you can follow:

  1. Ensure that your trainers or coaches are well versed in how the physical environment, schedules, and routines can be adapted or modified to help children with special needs. They should know how to help staff collect information and identify an individual child’s needs by observing the child in his or her classroom or program. Trainers or coaches should focus on how the child interacts with materials, adults, and peers, and how to help staff members notice the child’s strengths and potential barriers. You, trainers or coaches, and staff members should talk with families about a child’s prior experiences.
  2. As needed, brainstorm strategies with your trainers, coaches and staff. Make sure you and staff members are familiar with a child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). Use the information trainers or coaches collected to identify times when the child needs support in your program. Use the child’s strengths. Help staff think of ways to meet the child’s needs.
  3. Put strategies in place. Support staff as they try new ideas. Although your trainers and coaches will mainly be responsible for providing feedback, modeling strategies, and discussing implementation with staff, you can show your support by:
    1. Securing any needed materials (e.g., fidget toys for a cool-down area)
    2. Ensuring that necessary adaptations to the physical environment are made (e.g., building or remodeling climbing structures so they have wide ramps to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs)
    3. Acknowledging the staff’s efforts when you are out walking through your program

Watch this video to hear about the importance of inclusion.

Creating Inclusive Environments: Supporting All Learners

Examples of inclusive environments and managers reflections on fostering inclusive environments.

Children are children, no matter what their level of special needs. Each child is different. You must teach staff members to focus on ways the environment can support learning for each individual child. This benefits all children, not just those with identified special needs. It is also important to help staff members know that children without IEPs or IFSPs need support, too. A child may not have an identified disability, but he or she may still struggle with understanding the learning environment. A child may need more intellectual challenges than the current environment provides. Staff members must know how to recognize when the learning environment is not meeting children’s needs. They can then use the process described above to find solutions and try them out. As a manager, you can offer professional development and resources in your professional library (see Lesson Two) that are geared toward helping children with specific challenges in the environment so staff are aware of the various ways they can adapt to best meet the needs of all children or youth. See the Learn section attachment for some examples of environmental supports, adaptive equipment and materials for children with special needs.

There are a host of wonderful resources available to help programs best support all children, including those with special needs. The Kids Included Together (KIT) program ( offers a variety of environment-related ideas to support young children and youth with different needs, including social and behavioral needs, autism spectrum disorders, and developmental disabilities. You can also consider Building Blocks (Sandall & Schwartz, 2008) or Cara’s Kit (Milbourne & Campbell, 2007; see These resources from the Council for Exceptional Children Division for Early Childhood provide practical, real world ways to help children succeed in their environments.


The trainers or coaches in your program will most often be the ones directly responsible for modeling inclusiveness for staff. But you may occasionally, especially with children facing more significant needs, need to be a sounding board for trainer or coaches or perhaps participate in part of their planning with staff. You can model inclusiveness and problem solving by asking questions. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What have you tried already?
  • What worked? Why do you think it worked? What made that strategy work?
  • What didn’t work? Why not? What about this strategy made it fail?
  • What does the child like? What are his or her favorite times of day? Favorite songs, books, activities, people?
  • What does the child dislike? What activities, people, and places does she or he avoid?
  • What are your biggest concerns for this child?
  • What one change do you think would make the biggest difference for this child?

Also, model working with the child’s family to gather information and collaborate on next steps. You can ask staff members to observe your conversations with families, or even role play with them so they feel prepared to have conversations directly with families. Model communication with families, by asking questions such as:

  • What supports or strategies seem to help your child at home?
  • What spaces at home does your child seem to work or play best in? What spaces does he or she most enjoy?
  • What spaces at home does your child seem to dislike? Are there any spaces that seem difficult for your child to navigate or work successfully in?
  • Are there particular triggers or challenges we should be aware of? When or where do you notice your child seems to struggle the most?
  • If your child is using any adaptive equipment (braces, walker, communication device), would you be willing to come to our classroom or program and talk to the children about it?

You can also model sharing what you and other staff members have observed in your program, your research, and what your initial plans are. When modeling, make sure you highlight for families the parts of the environment that the child seems to enjoy or work well in, as well as the areas where he or she is currently struggling. Share with them the ways you have worked together as a staff to draft a plan, but also invite families to share their ideas and suggestions. Confirm that they are comfortable with the environmental modifications you wish implement and then set a time when you or another member of your staff will report back how things are working.


After meeting with staff and hearing their ideas, concerns and experiences, your trainers or coaches will need to spend some time carefully observing the child. It is best to be transparent about when, what, and how trainers or coaches will observe. Make sure such observations are about observing the child interacting with his or her environment and that the observations do not double as performance evaluations or classroom inspections. Ensure that when observations are conducted, there is plenty of time to see the child in a variety of settings. Trainers and coaches should see:

  • Settings in which the child is always successful
  • Settings or activities the child likes
  • Settings or activities in which the child struggles
  • Settings or activities the child dislikes

All of this information will help your staff members. You, trainers, or coaches in your program can use the matrix in the Apply section to help summarize what all you have learned from your meetings with staff, from the child’s family, and through observations. As a manager, you may wish to review these matrices to make sure the needs of all children are being adequately addressed or be part of the conversations between trainers, coaches and staff when there is a significant challenge or need that is impacting other children and families (e.g., a preschooler with a significant pattern of biting), or when the requested modifications may involve a large financial investment (e.g., facility improvements to adjust the width of doors).

If you use the matrix, look at the “Always Successful” and “Likes” cells. What are the characteristics of these activities and environments? Write those down together. Some examples might include: sitting close to peers, there are predictable steps, there are things for her or him to hold. Next, look at the “Rarely Successful” and “Dislikes” cells. What are the characteristics of those activities? Write those down. Some examples might include: room is loud, children moving around her or him. Finally, think about how you could use what you know from the “Successful” and “Likes” cells to adapt the “Unsuccessful” and “Dislikes” cells. See the sample completed matrix for a child in an after-school program in Attachment 1.

Use the action-planning tool in the Apply section to help the team decide how to put their ideas in action. Action planning is an important, and often forgotten, strategy. It does not need to be formal or complicated. Here’s a sample of another way to write an action plan:

GoalAction StepsPerson ResponsibleTimeline
Britt will participate in at least two activities per programming day (besides computer and snack). Britt will move between activities without crying.Create a choice board for Britt. List the options available at the program. Use pictures and words.Pam (coach)by Monday Nov 18
Create a schedule or planner that lets Britt pull pictures/words from the choice board and create her own plan.Pam will bring in planner/schedule. Pam will model how to use it on first day.Model week of 11/18; Dylan starts using with Britt that week
Start a peer buddy program. Identify 3 of Britt's friends at the program who will agree to participate. Teach them to help Britt make her plan and then stick with her for at least one transition.Dylan (staff) will ask Britt who her friends are and talk to them about program.Start week of 11/28

Once the plan is written, do your part to help the team make the changes they planned. Although the trainer or coach may be the personal primarily responsible for finding materials, locating resources, or modeling a strategy with the child, assure you have done what you need to from a managerial standpoint. Do you need to purchase another resource manual or kit? Do you need to work with your program’s facility manager to develop a plan to modify the physical facility?

Follow up with the team to make sure problems are being solved. Be sure to celebrate successes! Also, remember to make sure there is constant communication with the child’s family, either by helping to facilitate conversations with the family, or by making sure staff members are updating children’s families regularly.


Watch this video from a school-age program. What adaptations to the physical environment could help the child play similarly to her peers? Reflect on the questions posed in the video. What would you do as manager if you witnessed this occurrence? Discuss your ideas with a trusted colleague.

Management: Adapting the Learning Environment

Brainstorm ways you would support staff members in this program


Download and print these tools to help you or your trainers or coaches design and deliver environmental supports for children.


Environmental support:
A change to the physical setting a child participates in that provides extra support; this can be a new addition to the setting (a schedule, boundary markers)
Material adaptation:
A change to the papers, books, props, or other items children typically use during the programming day
Special Equipment:
An item that is used to help a specific child access part or all of the environment, including seats with special cushions, adapted computer keyboards, switch-operated toys, etc.


True or false? Diversity refers to ethnicity and culture.
Finish this statement: You can model inclusiveness and problem solving to your staff by asking…
A preschool staff member is concerned about four-year-old Daniel. You have met with her to discuss her concerns. What is your next step?
References & Resources

BraveHeart Press. Disability is Natural. Retrieved from

Center for Applied Special Technology. (2011). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines Version 2.0. Wakefield, MA.

Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (2021).  Special Quest: Early Childhood Inclusion Materials. Washington, D.C.: Head Start.

Grisham-Brown, J., Hemmeter, M. L., & Pretti-Frontczak, K. (2005). Blended Practices for Teaching Young Children in Inclusive Settings. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.

Head Start Center for Inclusion Retrieved from

Kids Included Together.

Milbourne, S., & Campbell, P. (2007). Cara’s Kit (consultant’s version): Creating adaptive routines and activities. Missoula, MT: Division for Early Childhood.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (NAEYC, 2018). NAEYC Early Learning Accreditation Standards and Assessment Items. Retrieved from

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. Retreived from

National Inclusion Project. Let’s ALL Play: Inclusion in Recreation Programs. Retrieved from

Sandall, S. R., & Schwartz, I. S. (2008). Building Blocks for Teaching Preschoolers with Special Needs. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Co.