Ask a Storytime Ninja: Adapt for Special Needs

This week’s Ask a Storytime Ninja is all about ways to make storytime accessible for all capabilities. This month’s featured ninjas have a lot of great information to share so read on!


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How do you make adaptations for special needs children that attend your regular storytime? What kinds of changes do you make? I have encountered this in a couple of different scenarios recently: a 14 month old that was born 3 months early (11 months adjusted age) and has a variety of developmental delays at our toddler storytime for one and two year olds and a 5 1/2 year old older sibling with a variety of cognitive and motor delays that attends my toddler storytime in the summer when not at preschool. I want to make storytime a good experience for these children as well as those that are typically developing and encourage these parents to keep attending the library.





From Sue:

How wonderful you are considering the individual needs of your patrons!  My answer would change depending on the specifics of the situation.  In the toddler years, there is nothing wrong with coaching the parents to do a gross motor activity WITH their child.  A simple dance with scarves or shakers with the parent modeling would work wonders.  Like a workout coach, you can show parents how to modify the same finger play (for example Itsy Bitsy Spider) using fingers and using whole arms, demonstrating the fine motor and gross motor skills. You won’t look like you are tailoring to one child, but to the whole group depending on the individual needs.


For the older child coming to a younger story time, that would depend on the needs of the child.  Is he participating now and/or is he disruptive otherwise?  I had one older boy that was very disruptive but sat perfectly still when I did a felt story.  I learned he was fascinated by them and sat intently until after story time so he could play with the sets.  After I caught on, I made sure to have an extra set ready in case he came that day.  Another child completely changed when I threw in a transition song.  He recognized the tune and wanted to join in.  When I worked with special education children, I understood quickly that blanket answers never worked.   Maybe the mom can help you determine what the child really latches onto.




From Lisa:

Every child is different and learns in a different way.  Many of us hit these different ways of learning as we plan our various programs, from pairing a book and a flannelboard to choosing songs where the words match the actions.  Here are some things you can try if you would like to adapt your programs for special needs:

  • Be mindful of sound as some kids are especially sensitive to noise.  If you use CDs, try to choose songs with a simpler flowing melody (ABC song), rather than those that can be loud and energetic.  If you do action songs, I tend to use ones with larger gross motor actions, such as Johnny Works with One Hammer.
  • Share your plan.  The unknown can be scary and almost all kids appreciate knowing what will happen when.  With a sensory program, I will use Boardmaker to make a posted schedule.  When I have a group that is especially squirrelly, I will bring out the schedule also.  It helps them to focus on what we are doing and see when their favorite part is going to occur.
  • What kind of room are you in for story time?  Is there a defined space for where the story time will take place?  I used to run our programs in a large meeting room that seated 100 and the first time I tried story time in there the kids ran laps around the room.  To make the room work for story time, we purchased a large carpet with alphabet and number squares.  It gave all the kids a boundary.  For those children on the autism spectrum, they knew that they sat on a particular square.  They needed a place that was their place.
  • Allow for movement and noise.  I know that as kids get older, we try to get them to sit on the floor and pay attention.  Many children with special needs will not sit still, whether they rock back and forth or fidget with their hands.  They may also make noises.  As long as it isn’t too disruptive, let them do it.  They are still paying attention to the story.
  • Add props!  This is the time to experiment with different ways to tell a story or sing a song, from stick puppets to scarves.


If you have concerns about meeting a certain segment’s needs, then definitely talk to the parents.  I normally phrase it as “Is there something that I can do to make this a more enjoyable experience for your child?”  Parents are great resources and many of them will gladly talk to you about what the library is doing or how you can make their experience better.




From Anna Francesca:

I love what my colleagues said about asking parents or caregivers what the kids who come with them can do.  They know best.  To that, I add:


I think that having a variety of types of activities helps children of all types and levels. No matter if participants are differently-abled than their peers, the opportunity to move and to touch things can be hugely important in making storytime a positive experience and one in which they learn. For kids with motor delays, letting them hold items with their parents or caregivers still allows them the opportunity for touch without it being overwhelming. This can be a fantastic chance to bond, too.


Bean bag or scarf play can be very helpful. I love basic musical instruments like shakers, too. Be sure with any little ones that the objects they hold have no pieces that could break-off and fit through a paper towel tube since those are choking hazards. If you can incorporate simple movements and/or music, that is great. It is amazing how some people who find traditional learning uncomfortable will open up when they get to hear rhythms in music.




From Bryce:

Speaking as someone who has grown up with a disability, I know that a lot of times when I was younger I just wanted to do what everyone else was doing. And it didn’t matter that the way I was doing it was slightly different because of my cerebral palsy; I was participating and I felt like I was part of the group. I remember the times when I was given something different to do, and was the only one doing that activity– OR, when someone didn’t notice my disability at first and then acted REALLY WEIRD when they found out. Those were not the most pleasant experiences!


I understand that librarians are extremely empathetic beings, and if you see someone struggling it’s natural to want to help them. And from the looks of it, you are– having an older child in a group with accepting children at his/her cognitive level is great, and the 14-month-old will pick up things every storytime whether or not he/she is fully participating. If motor skills are difficult for these children, you can switch up finger plays with larger movement songs like Row Your Boat or the Elevator Song so everyone can participate. In fact, when I was going to substitute for Brooke’s Toddler Storytime last month, no finger plays were on the menu– My Itsy-Bitsy Spider is a one-sided broke joke! It doesn’t even travel anywhere. I feel like including a video so you can see how awful it is. BUT, when I was little, I learned that finger play too, and I looked all weird for the short duration of that rhyme. But Row Your Boat? I owned that, dude.


If a child IS having a visibly difficult time (crying, screaming, etc), trust that their parent or caregiver will know what they need. If you think they have a particularly bad experience one time, I would definitely approach the family afterward and ask if there’s anything you can do to make next time go more smoothly (Sue’s ideas are great!). They may just decide storytime is not for them, and that’s all right– a lot of kids visit the library and check out books to read at home. Not attending storytime doesn’t mean they’re not attending the library.


If you’re looking to create a special needs storytime, this ALSC blog series is a great place to start.


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