As a childcare student I'd had no experience of working with disabled children, but it was during my first year of studying my Level 3 BTEC in Children’s Play, Learning and Development that I first got this opportunity. I started working with Elsa Maria, an 8 year old girl with cerebral palsy every morning during the weekends and school holidays; and it was the start of a wonderful journey.
When I first started working with Elsa Maria, I was supported by a professional physiotherapist to run her physiotherapy sessions. At first I was nervous, this was the first time I had worked with a child who had a disability. I wasn't sure how I would handle things like transfers, toileting and knowing which equipment to use. However, once I had sat in on session I realised how much I enjoyed seeing Elsa Maria light up when she had done something correctly. During our first few sessions I liked seeing how other people motivated her to do exercises while I thought up my own ways to make her learning enjoyable. From the first session, working with Elsa Maria was a pleasure; I have realised just how rewarding this job can be. As soon as I praise her she gives me the biggest smile and always wants a high five that it developed into our own handshake!
Would I be able to work in a 1:1 setting?
Around May, Elsa Maria’s mother, Claudi, first asked me to consider working as Elsa Maria’s 1:1 on two activity days at at nearby activity centre. To be honest, I felt really alarmed and nearly turned down the opportunity. There were many reasons for my reluctance - mainly I didn’t feel I had the skills to be able to handle the child, the activities or the responsibility on my own. For these reasons, I was worried that my inhibitions might cause Elsa Maria to miss out and that she would be better off with someone who was more experienced, enthusiastic and confident than me.
However, Claudi and my mum encouraged me to give it a try, so I shadowed Claudi and Elsa Maria on a day outside of the house. I went to an athletics day with Elsa Maria and her family to see what I would need to do, including how to toilet her in a public place without the equipment I was used to. This made me feel a lot better about being out of the house with her, and I saw that mealtimes would not be a problem for me either.
This built my confidence further, and I accepted the opportunity to do a ‘warm up’ day. It involved me being Elsa Maria’s 1:1 at a Lion King creative day, which included arts, crafts, singing etc. This is an area I've got a bit more experience in from my childcare work and it was also closer to some of the work I’d already done supporting Elsa Maria with her homework.
As the day approached I got more and more nervous about things like asking for help if I needed to and, most importantly, making sure Elsa Maria had a great day and enjoyed herself. When we first got there Claudi introduced me to some of the people running and working at the session and helped set Elsa Maria up on the first activity. Immediately, as I got introduced to the other adults there, they made me feel better about asking for help or asking if I was unsure about anything.
I had never been in a room of children with additional needs so I was apprehensive, worrying that I wouldn’t know how to react to situations, or how Elsa Maria would react to anything that might arise. However, after we did some group games and songs I realised that actually I had nothing to worry about.
The whole day was easier than I had anticipated and it certainly was less scary than I had imagined it to be! I ended up really enjoying the day and Elsa Maria was confident with showing me how things should be done. For instance, when putting her into her walker at lunch she informed me how she would usually be put in it. I think the most surprising part of the day for me was when on the way home, Claudi asked her who her favourite adult of the day was and Elsa Maria replied with my name - out of all the adults she had interacted with! This gave me the reassurance that she had fun and that I must have been looking after her well.
After meeting the other carers, I began to focus on how the activity centre day would be set out and the facilities that were available. We were expected to do rock climbing and high ropes - something that I had never done with, or without a child in my care.
On the first activity we went on a walk and did den-building. I was confident on the walk that she was enjoying herself and let her explore for herself as she didn’t really need my support. When it came to den building, the other carers and I together helped Elsa Maria build a den. The support from the other carers in the first activity put me at ease instantly.
On the second day there was rock climbing. Elsa Maria originally decided she did not want to do it, but once she had seen the harness she felt a lot better about having a go. My experience with the physiotherapy allowed me to gauge how much she can do herself, making lifts easier for me as I knew what to say. I feel it also helped her, as she knew me and we already had a bond, so a certain level of trust was there.
It was a lovely thing to see Elsa Maria in a different environment, interacting with other children and adults and enjoying herself. I feel that these activity days brought Elsa Maria and me closer as it built up the level of trust and understanding between us. She helped me during the days, telling me if she was too hot or too cold, and even how some of the equipment I was less familiar with worked. She helped me drive ‘Jack’, her power-chair, as we would joke about how badly I was at driving him!
I surprised myself at how comfortable I was at being in sole charge of Elsa Maria during the days out and how well I handled them. I grew in confidence once I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, something that I ask of Elsa Maria all the time! I feel I will always look back on these days with a positive feeling because I had followed the best advice I have ever heard: ‘follow your fear’.
I had started off terrified of being Elsa Maria’s sole carer and now I am both competent and confidence as her carer. I grew in self-belief as well as in ability as I came to realise I can handle new situations. I have learnt so much about working with children with disabilities or additional needs. In retrospect rising to the challenges of those days out was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, and working with Elsa Maria continues to be a very rewarding job. I would highly recommend that all childcare professionals follow their fears and gain some experience working with children with additional needs; it’s invaluable.