I’ve had three requests for an overview of our co-op in the last week.
I’m going to give an outline of what worked for us.
It’s important to understand why you would make certain choices for the group so that you can adjust those choices if they don’t work. It’s also important to mention that what worked for us will not automatically work for a different group of parents and children.
1) Pick a location that doesn’t mind loud, rambunctious, and sometimes disorderly children.
It’s hard for neurotypical children to be quiet and never goof off –even more so for special needs kids.
If the location has hand made and vintage items on display that’s probably not a great location. In one location, I was constantly protecting breakable and irreplaceable items from small children.
If you’re going to get chided by the neighbors or office spaces around you for having playing or giggling children, it’s not a good fit.
We attended a gym activity for a while where the offices down the hall from the gym (they owned the business and allowed use of the gym space) would regularly ask us to quiet down. They knowingly allowed use of the space for a grade school and middle school gym time but got upset when the grade schoolers made any noise in the gym. That’s not a good fit. It was unreasonable to ask our kids to play games like red rover, simon says, dodgeball, and basketball in silence. If they weren’t going to be active, it defeated the point of renting the gym space.
2. Have clear, concise rules and display and review them.
Clear rules are necessary for special needs kids. They need to be reminded at least at the beginning of each co-op.
Make sure the rules are doable. For example, don’t have a “sit still” rule if you gave a bunch of ADHD kids.
Include a be nice rule. My rule was to treat other people and their property with respect. This includes no bullying which is important because special needs kids can be the victim or the aggressor in the bullying scenario.
I taped rules on the walls in various locations around our building. Out of bounds areas were clearly marked. There was a sign on the exterior door saying “No children outside without an adult” (because of a busy road nearby). These signs serve as reminders for forgetful children.
Do not expect them to remember without being reminded.
3. Have age inclusive activities.
ADHD kids are often intellectually above their peers while emotionally below them. The same can be true for autistic children.
So putting them in an age defined group often results in social rejection. Social rejection is devastating.
If you have a mixed age group then the children can gravitate to whoever they’re most comfortable with.
If the 12 year old boy with autism still likes Curious George, he can hang out with the 6 year old and visit about it. Then, when he wants to talk about competitive chess, he can go talk to the 15 year old.
This is actually very healthy social interaction because he’s learning to interact with people of multiple ages. My definition of socialization is the ability to interact with people of diverse ages and diverse beliefs in a healthy way.
It also allows moms with multiple kids who all have special needs to keep their kids together (all in one place where she can observe and oversee all of them).
4. Require parental involvement.
Even if you are trained to deal with special needs kids, the needs of every individual child vary to the point that many kids all together would be overwhelming.
Our events were never drop off events.
The parents were expected to come and be part of the group.
This allowed them to monitor the individual behavior of their children and step in when needed. A parent is going to recognize the signs of an autistic meltdown or sensory overload in their child a long time before you do and can intervene before the situation hits critical mass.
5. Don’t have mandatory teaching.
I did expect parental involvement. I did not, however, expect every parent to teach. I took volunteers and never had a lack of volunteers to teach.
This left the moms with 2 or 3 special needs kids –or even one high maintenance kid– free to watch her charge and not have to be in change of the group.
6. Have low academic standards for the group.
If you want to win a very rigorous competition, this is not the group for it.
Many of these kids will not handle that level of stress well. The moms will end up doing most of the work because the kids are unable to do what’s “normal” for their age.
We did no-homework classes. Some of the classes were academic (like Hebrew for kids) but they were very low demand. This was necessary to not overwhelm. We tried to do classes that all ages could enjoy.
Ideas include: science experiments, crochet, pottery, sign language, reading club, PE, introduction to a language (like Hebrews class).
There was no way that I could have coordinated a rigorous math or grammar class that was for a specific grade and finished it in one school year. That’s just too demanding.
We tried one co-op where the group was participating in an national competition. For kids (mostly boys) between the ages of 8 and 12, there were lectures where the children were expected to sit still, listen, and take notes; then they were expected to come up with ideas, make presentations, and even design webpages.
The mom in charge did not understand why I thought this was unreasonable. She had girls and no special needs kids.
They actually won one of the prizes in the competition. Good for them! But it was not a good fit for my family.
7. Allow babies and toddlers.
Many homeschool moms who get involved with co-ops have to go hire babysitters so that they can teach and participate.
Homeschooling is a lifestyle. It’s a family sport. So let the moms bring their little kids.
Have a space where they can take a very fussy baby but allow happy baby and little kid noises in the classes.
This is part of being age-inclusive.
I’ve seen a mom with a sleeping infant strapped on her chest, holding hands with her giggling sensory preschooler, working on sign language worksheets with her autistic grade schooler.
It’s a different way of thinking from the public schools, but it’s been done this way for generations.
8. Encourage parents to bring food.
We were part of a co-op that had a no food rule. It was actually the church’s (the location’s) rules, but it was very hard for little kids to be in the classes for hours and not have a snack.
Many special needs kids are very affected by blood sugar issues. Allowing food and snack time can stave off a meltdown.
Make sure to have a rule about no sharing food because special needs kids are more likely to have food sensitivities like gluten, food dyes, and sugar.
9. Have a quiet room.
Special needs kids get overwhelmed. Anticipate that. Sometimes they need a break away from everyone else to calm down.
We had an assigned quiet room. In that room you had to be quiet. You could play a video game, read a book, or listen to an Ipod, but you couldn’t go in there and goof off with friends.
This room was set aside specifically for kids who have Sensory Processing Disorder or other similar disorders.
I think this was one of the things that helped the co-op the most.
9. Keep the meeting times short.
We started at 10 AM and went to 4 PM, and honestly that was just too long for most of the kids. By 1 PM or 2 PM some of them were getting overwhelmed –even some of the high schoolers.
I would recommend a maximum of two hours of classes or activities. You could do longer if you’re doing games and lunch.
Right now, my family is hosting a noon to 4pm lunch and game time at a local church. We play video games and board games in the youth room. Even the four hours is sometimes too much, but less than that and the teens can’t finish their board games.
10. Don’t meet every week.
Every week is quite possibly too often for special needs kids (and special needs moms).
You’ll have to see based on the group you have, but the moms in my group thanked me for not doing a weekly co-op.
We got together one time a month when we were doing the co-op, and now we get together one time a month for game time.
11. Keep the co-op low stress and low demand.
Realize that special needs kids probably have special needs parents.
Odds are that if your child has ADHD, either you or your husband have ADHD as well.
This is not true in every case of course, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Parents get overwhelmed with loud noises, stressed out, confused over social expectations, and many of the same things their kids deal with but hopefully with better coping skills.
Anticipate that and treat people with grace.
12. Allow people to come and go as needed –no questions asked.
If you have a child who is having a sensory meltdown, you know the looks.
When your child is interrupting and making a scene, often times people act like it’s your fault and make an already stressful situation more stressful.
That’s what we tried to avoid.
We addressed this issue straight on.
We knew some kids would end up struggling. That’s okay.
These kids need patience and love not harshness.
So, knowing that our kids have good days and bad days, I made a rule that you could come and go when it was necessary.
If your child is having a bad day, come late.
We get it.
If they’re not dealing with people very well that day, leave if you need to and go home.
We live with this, too.
I actually had a mother cry when her child had a meltdown and everyone acted cool about it, like her child was normal and accepted.
That’s what these kids need: a loving, accepting, and emotionally safe environment.
13. Ask for extra volunteer help.
Older brothers and sisters, dads, and grandmas are all great ideas for extra helpers.
What is most important is that these people understand what it means to have a special needs child.
Someone who thinks autism is caused by bad parenting would not be a good fit.
My mother, my older friend, and my other friend’s husband all helped. Sometimes all they did was observe for behavior that needed addressed and motion to the parent who might have been distracted with another kid.
Don’t underestimate the value of older teens helping with younger kids.
These teens are likely going to have kids one day. They can pick up a sippy cup that fell on the floor or play peekaboo with a fussy baby during lunch time. They can sit in a chair next to a preschooler and help them color and retrieve the crayons that fall on the floor.
They might be able to do more depending on their maturity.
This is life training.
This is apprenticing that teen in adult behavior.
It’s an invaluable part of their education.
One thing I haven’t mentioned was how invaluable Facebook was in gathering the moms and organizing the activities. Every last special needs family in our group was a result of Facebook interaction. I used Facebook to schedule all our co-op days and field trips. We had a closed group for this purpose.
The main reason my co-op isn’t still going is my health. Mid-year last year I started hemorrhaging, and it was kind of serious. I couldn’t keep up with the level of organization necessary to lead.
Since there wasn’t anyone else who was able to step up and lead the co-op, we minimized stress by changing locations (closer to my house) and only doing a game time.
If I’m having a really bad day, I lay or sit on one of the couches in the youth room and visit with the other moms while the kids play games.
Pretty low key.
As always, you have to figure out what works for your group in any given situation.
This is just what worked for us.
We need a lot more special needs friendly co-ops out there!
I couldn’t find one, so I started my own.
I hope this post was insightful.