Emma's story

I have been looking after Ellen, who has Downs syndrome, for around 15 months. This is the first time I have had a child with additional needs in my setting and it has been a fascinating learning curve for me as a practitioner.

Ellen faces a number of challenges from her condition that I need to be mindful of. She has high physical needs with a high risk of aspiration so I need to be constantly vigilant about what she puts into her mouth. As she is at the stage where she explores everything orally at the moment, this can be quite a challenge! She has low muscle tone and gets tired easily, so I’ve adapted some of my routines to ensure she gets the most out of the setting.

Making adaptations

In a way Covid has helped as we have mostly stayed at home and in the garden so risk assessment is pretty straightforward. I have made adaptations to my setting, including introducing a sensory play area, which all the children enjoy.

In terms of her development challenges, Ellen has a short-term memory and finds concentrating on activities for long periods difficult. We’ve been using Makaton together which really helps and I adapt activities so that she and other children can enjoy them equally.

Ellen attends my setting for two days a week and sometimes she will go for home for lunch as she gets tired. On the days she is with me, I have two additional children under two, so being super organised is vital. I find if I have the whole morning planned with all the activities set up before the children arrive, I can stay focused for all the children. 

Inclusive practice

Developing an inclusive practice is really important for me. Talking to Ellen’s parents, we were keen not to exclude her from anything – I set up the activities so that all the children can have a go and Ellen always responds with enthusiasm. I just need to be mindful that she doesn’t have the same attention span as the others, so I have other things I can show her, or she will just have some time in the quiet area while the others complete the activity.

We need to be careful about what Ellen eats because of her challenges with swallowing, but both in order to make it easier for me and to ensure that we are all included in the same lunchtime experience, we all have the same menu. On the days that Ellen is with us it can be things like soup and bread that we dip in – we can turn this into a fun activity with rhymes and stories.

Working with others

We’ve been lucky to have had lots of support from the local authority. Ellen quickly got an EHCP in place and she uses her two year funding with me. I also have therapists coming in regularly to the setting and working with her on specific things. 

As early years practitioners, we are constantly thinking about how we support our children to go onto their next step.  For Ellen it’s planning carefully how we develop her physical and developmental skills to help her transition to a school-based setting. She’s only 15 months, but that planning starts now. Helping her develop her attention span and building her muscle strength are both areas I’m focusing on at the moment.

Her parents are really phenomenal and have done so much with her at home - her language in particular is coming on in leaps and bounds. We work together on this so I can reinforce and develop what she is enjoying at home. She knows her letters and numbers and is passionate about mark making. In fact, she will turn everything into a mark making activity and that has been so inspiring to see.

The other day we were working with flour and she turned it onto the floor and started making snow angels and patterns using her body. For her, the floor is a canvas and seeing how she responds so creatively has really helped me grow as a practitioner. They say it’s important to see the world through a child’s eyes, but working with Ellen has really helped me to see things afresh. By getting down on the floor and explore it with her I can really respond to what she is experiencing.

Support and training

Working with Ellen has sparked my interest in finding out more about SEND in the early years. The child development team at the local authority has been really supportive and before taking Ellen on I received some great advice and tips from one of the support workers who had personal experience of caring for a child with additional needs. I’ve followed some training modules for SEND, but there’s nothing like talking through things and getting personalised support. Working with Ellen has opened my eyes in so many ways and I’m definitely keen to develop my skills further through training in the future.

It has been so inspiring to see just how much Ellen has developed since she has been with me. She genuinely seems happy here, and is making friendships with the other children. By working closely with the family and involving the additional support available through the local authority, I’ve seen Ellen make such incredible progress. When I was first approached by Ellen’s mum at a playgroup to ask if I was interested in looking after her I admit to feeling reticent as I hadn’t experience of working with children with SEND. But working with Ellen has opened my eyes in new ways and I haven’t looked back since.