Feature Article - January 2005
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Success in Therapeutic Recreation

Developing programs that will grow

By Kelli Anderson


Once through the doors, knowing what should be done to help each person with special needs—most often children—is a one-by-one assessment. Will they need staff assistance? Special incentives? Attention to sensory needs? Physical adaptations? Modifications in teaching technique? A carefully matched companion?

Unfortunately, there is no cookbook answer.

"You have to look at each unique child, the program itself and the other kids," says Robyn Miller, inclusion manager at the NSSRA. "There are so many factors. Sometimes they need no support for a particular program. You want to go with the least restrictive environment."

Assessments should include communication with family, physicians and other service providers as well as on-site observations to get as complete a picture as possible to understand the range of needs. Miller explains that sometimes all that is needed is a trained staff equipped with a behavior modification plan consisting of consequences and rewards. Who doesn't remember jumping through hoops to earn a sticker, for example?

Or, for many children, it's just a challenge to hold it all together for a six- to seven-hour day, and providing gross motor play before a class or circle time can make all the difference in their ability to concentrate and participate later. Little things can get great results, but almost every plan is a tweak-as-you-go process of evaluation and modification to get just the right fit for each person.

That Perfect Match

Nothing is foolproof, which is why it helps to have a plan. Just ask Robyn Miller, inclusion manager at the Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association in Northbrook, Ill. This past summer, Miller's full- and part-time staff oversaw 390 placements, and among them was one placement that stood out.

"There's always one or two that challenge you," Miller recalls. "One particular child came in, and this was his first inclusion experience, and we tried to assess his needs. From the very beginning, we knew he needed support—what kind of staff was really the question. You have to ask, male or female? Experienced? A laid-back personality or concrete? We needed a personality match."

It's not as easy as it may seem.

"With challenging behavior issues, you have to have a strong match, which is hard to do during interviewing," Miller says. "You do a quick match after reference checks and try a first placement. So we went with a guy who was highly recommended and experienced in the school system. It all sounded great, but we read the personality wrong."

What you think will work simply may not.

"It was the child we misread, and it was difficult to make it fit," Miller says. "We wanted to make it work, and it just didn't. We struggled and finally removed him for a great—and I mean great—companion, but he ends up getting sick, and this child doesn't deal with transition well. In the end we found the right personality match, a qualified staff member. It was a matter of looking at what we had and, thankfully, it turned out great. The child was happy and ended up with a positive experience. It was our process that told us where the problem was."

Here's the kind of roadmap that park districts in Miller's area follow to achieve their inclusion success stories:

1. Clients register for the park district or recreation department program of their choice.

2. Clients mark the appropriate "SPECIAL ACCOMMODATIONS" section of the registration form.

3. The inclusion support team is contacted by the park district or recreation department to discuss the type of inclusion support needed to accommodate the client.

4. The client starts the program with the inclusion support(s) in place.

5. A member of inclusion support team periodically observes the program to provide support and answer questions.

6. Communication between the inclusion support team, the recreation staff, the individuals and/or family is continued throughout the cooperative inclusion process.