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    • Teach staff the importance of adapting the environment to meet the needs of children with dis/abilities and teach staff strategies for doing so.
    • Model strategies for working with children with dis/abilities.
    • Observe and provide feedback on how the environment can support children with dis/abilities.




    Staff members do not always feel qualified to support a child with dis/abilities. You can help them identify successful strategies and build confidence working with all learners. There are several steps you can follow:

    1. Help staff collect information and identify the child's needs. You can observe in the classroom or program. Focus on how the child interacts with materials, adults, and peers. Help staff members notice the child's strengths and potential barriers. Talk with families about a child's prior experiences.
    2. Brainstorm strategies. Make sure you and staff members are familiar with a child's Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). Use the information you 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. Provide feedback, model strategies, and discuss implementation.
    4. Evaluate how the strategies are working and make changes.

    Children are children, no matter what their level of dis/abilities. 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 dis/abilities. 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 dis/ability, 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.


    Start the process by having an information-sharing meeting to learn about the child. Model inclusiveness and problem solving by asking questions. Here are 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, 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?

    After speaking with your staff member, you will want to observe the child in various environments to provide another perspective on how the child is currently navigating the environment and what supports, adaptations or equipment might be helpful. See the “observe” section below for more information.

    In addition to observation, if the child has an IEP or an IFSP you can model using this information as a resource. These documents often outline specific supports, modifications, or equipment that will help the child be successful. Even if the child does not have a formally identified dis/ability, disorder, or need, you can model looking up resources relevant to the child’s exhibited behaviors. Often by searching high-quality resources you can find out about modifications to the environment that have worked well for other children with the same need or challenges. These can offer staff a starting point of ideas to try. However, be careful to emphasize that not all children with the same needs or challenges will react or behave in the same way; the supports and adaptations that work well for one child may not work the same for all. See the Learn section attachment for some examples of environmental supports, adaptive equipment and materials for children with dis/abilities.

    There are a host of wonderful resources available to help programs best support all children, including those with dis/abilities. The Kids Included Together (KIT) program ( offers a variety of environment-related ideas to support young children and youth with different needs (e.g., 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). These resources from the Council for Exceptional Children Division for Early Childhood provide practical, real-world ways to help children succeed in their environments.

    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 role-play with staff members 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 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 to implement and then set a time when you will report back how things are working.


    After the meeting, spend some time carefully observing the child. It is best to be transparent about when, what, and how you will observe. Let the staff members know what time you will visit, how long you will stay, and how often you think you will come back to observe the child. Make clear that you are observing the child interacting with his or her environment; this observation is not a performance evaluation or classroom inspection. Your goal is to help the staff members and the child. Talk with the staff members about whether you will be sitting back and taking notes, working with the child, or trying out ideas. Let the staff members see any observation tools you choose to use.

    When you conduct observations, make sure you allow plenty of time to see the child in a variety of settings. You want to 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 you develop a plan with the staff members. Watch this video from a school-age program. What adaptations to the physical environment could help the child play similarly to her peers?

    Adapting the Learning Environment


    After observing the child, it is time to get back together with the staff members. Debrief together. Work together to find patterns. You can use the matrix in the Apply section to help summarize what you have learned from the meeting and observations.

    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 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. 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:

    Action Plan

    Goal: Britt will participate in at least two activities per programming day (besides computer and snack). Britt will move between activities without crying.

    Action StepsPerson ResponsibleTimeline

    Create a choice board for Britt. List the options available at the program. Use pictures and words.

    Pam (coach)

    by Monday Nov. 18th

    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

    Modelweek 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. As a trainer or coach, you may be responsible for finding materials, locating resources, or modeling a strategy with the child.

    Conduct regular observations and meet 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 confirming that staff members are regularly updating children’s families.



    Use the Adapting the Environment activity to brainstorm ways you could support staff members as you watch the following video highlighting a variety of clips from one program. When you are finished, compare your answers with the suggested responses. 

    Activity: Adapting the Learning Environment

    Brainstorm ways you would support staff members in this program.



    Use the following tools to help you design and deliver environmental supports for children. Use the Child and Youth Observation Matrix and Action Planning Form to observe specific children and support staff to design and deliver environmental supports for children. Use the Adapting the Learning Environment Best Practice Checklist as a focused observation tool to support staff that have completed the Learning Environments course but may need additional support or follow up on creating learning environments that support all children. This checklist provides an easy way to follow up on goals set around this topic and also provides specific feedback to staff members about what you observed. 


    Environmental supportA 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 adaptationA change to the papers, books, props, or other items children typically use during the programming day
    Special EquipmentAn item that is used to help a specific child access part or all of the environment. Examples include seats with special cushions, adapted computer keyboards, switch-operated toys, etc.




    True or false? You should never let staff members know what time or how long you will observe a child with dis/abilities.


    Finish this statement: One way to write an action plan is to include…


    Which of the following is probably not the best place to find resources you could suggest to a team who are serving a child with autism?

    References & Resources

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

    Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center. (2020).  Special Quest: Early Childhood Inclusion Materials. Washington, D.C.: Head Start. Retrieved from

    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 Retrieved from

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

    National Center on Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved 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.

    Snow, K. Disability is Natural. San Antonio: BraveHeart Press. Retrieved from