Accessing After-school Activities: The Benefits for Students with Special Needs

Let’s face it. As parents, we all want what is best for our children.

Some of the best learning experiences for children come in the form of after-school activities. Therefore, it’s critical that parents of children with special needs try to find programs and activities for their children to join.

Activities Essential, not Just “Extra”

Non-academic, after-school activities were once referred to as extra-curricular programs. Today, however, the prefix “extra” has been dropped, and instead the term “co-curricular” is used. This is a direct reflection on the notion that after-school activities such as music and sports are not merely extras any more – they are in fact essential aspects in the development of young people.

Research consistently points to the notion that success in life is greatly enhanced by a child’s sense of belonging. To help foster that sense of belonging, involvement in co-curricular activities is one of the key aspects for parents to consider. The groundbreaking work of the Search Institute ( has found that the “constructive use of time,” where young people spend time in creative activities such as music, theater or other arts as well as in youth programs such as sports, clubs or other organizations at school, is clearly one critical method for fostering asset building in children.

Access for All

A requirement of special education law is that all students must have access to co-curricular activities. That said, access is a term that must be closely examined. For example, a student with severe physical disabilities who struggles with basic movement is certainly not a candidate for sports that include extensive running. Likewise, youngsters with severe processing and speech issues would not be able to be part of a speech or debate team.

When determining what activities to consider, parents should seek input from two key sources. The most obvious source is the educators who work directly with your child. Their knowledge of your son or daughter and their understanding of the respective activities available can help you with appropriate recommendations. At the same time, do not fail to solicit information from the most important person of all: your child. In what types of activities does your child desire to participate?

To ensure that the experience is valuable, try following some of the concepts set forth by special education teacher Melodie Bitter of the Lorne Street School in Los Angeles. First, recognize that the co-curricular activity will likely be under the direction of a non-special education teacher or non-special education trained adult. It is essential that the coach or activity moderator be fully informed of a child’s abilities and needs. In addition, activity leaders will likely need help understanding the various strategies to be used. They will also need to be informed of the assistive and adaptive technologies and other services that are available for a student with special needs. Perhaps most importantly, the special education teacher must assure the leader of the activity that the child can indeed meet the expectations of the activity.

It is very important that parents work with the special education teacher to prepare the student for the expectations of a respective activity, especially the behavior aspects. A child with special needs also must recognize that he or she is responsible for the activity because there are other students depending on him or her. Children must practice their instruments or sports, memorize their lines and learn their roles for the play they’re in by the specified time, etc.

Assistance Comes in Many Forms

When considering after school programs and activities, parents also need to consider any assistance needs their child may have. Today, when it comes to music and drama, students may use a wide variety of assistive technology. For playing music, a child with a visual impairment may be helped by scanning the music and then converting it with a Braille music translator. A student with a physical disability can find many musical instruments that have been modified in a wide variety of ways. In drama, students can learn their respective lines through the use of audiotapes or can even use screen readers if necessary. The National Center for Technology Innovation (, funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, is a great resource for learning more about the various available technologies.

But there is also the old-fashioned assistance that works wonders. For example, personal guides can help a child who is visually impaired participate in running or ski races. Sign language experts can help a child who is deaf communicate with his or her coach. A volunteer can assist a student who uses a wheelchair by moving the wheelchair while the student plays his or her musical instrument as they participate in marching band. Parents, too, can be part of this personal guiding.

It’s All About Participation

Remember, a student’s interests should form the basis for selecting co-curricular activities. With the proper support and guidance, students with special needs may participate in a wide variety of activities.

Parents should be sure to monitor their child’s progress in the activity and keep in contact with the leader of the activity in the same manner they would be in touch with their child’s educators. Participation in co-curricular activities is a key to creating a greater sense of belonging for students and to developing those very assets that lead to greater success in school and life.

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