Dr. Sarah Vanover | Speaking Out for Special Needs Children

November 15, 2023

Dr. Sarah Vanover shows her deep commitment to inclusion as an advocate and author in the early learning field. “I work to make sure everyone understands the importance of high-quality child care,” she says, “in my current role as policy and research director for Kentucky Youth Advocates,” a nonprofit that serves as an independent voice for the state’s young children. It’s a position that gives her more freedom to push for policies she believes in than her prior role as director for the Division of Child Care in Kentucky, where she worked for four years. “I now can campaign more for the needs of child care providers,” she explains, “and work more at the national level on major issues in my field.” And she has also explored them in eight books, including America’s Child Care Crisis, Addressing Anxiety in Young Learners and most recently Including All Children: Transitioning to an Inclusive Early Learning Program.

Her latest book comes from a personal space, as Dr. Vanover reveals. “I am the mother of a ten-year-old boy with autism and finding supportive learning settings for him has been hard,” she says. And Dr. Vanover is far from alone in the struggles she has faced to find quality early learning for her son. “Special needs children often exhibit challenging behaviors that teachers aren’t prepared to handle,” she says. “In general, people open child care programs without giving enough thought to policies and training that would equip teachers to serve special needs children. As a result, programs expel or suspend special needs children at alarming rates or make it hard for them to advance.”

Granted, the decision to expel the children doesn’t reflect ill will, Dr. Vanover is careful to add. “Often, child care programs don’t even know that the way they’ve set up their classrooms is not conducive to children who have disabilities or special needs. Program directors may think the program is inclusive, but they don’t train their staff on how to work with special needs children. So, the teachers can get overwhelmed when they find themselves in a class with a child like this. Then the director must make a hard decision: they can either risk losing a good teacher or expel the child.”

In general, they do it gently, Dr. Vanover explains. “What happens is what we call a soft expulsion. The director will call the family in and say that your child’s needs are so great we can’t serve them. We’ll give you a week to find someplace else to send them.” And that isn’t easy, Dr. Vanover knows from the current situation in Kentucky. “I live in Lexington, which is our second-largest city, and we have only three or four programs that advertise themselves as inclusive settings,” she says. “The result is that working parents with special needs kids often find themselves without the child care they need.” So, Dr. Vanover’s goal in writing her latest book is to help parents by helping child care directors and teachers.

A 25-year-long career in the early learning field has given Dr. Vanover a broad grasp of the work these ECE professionals do. She has worked as a teacher, center director, trainer and college professor who taught courses leading to the Child Development Associate® (CDA) Credential™. Along the way, she took classes in special ed and worked in the special ed field. Still, all this broad experience didn’t prepare her for the reality of having a child with special needs. “I taught for years before I became a parent,” Dr. Vanover recalls. “As a young teacher, I thought I knew everything and was educating my parents. But after becoming a parent myself, I realized I knew very little. My son, James, has given me a run for my money and taught me things about autism every day,” especially the importance of not lumping all children with autism together. “If you have met one child with autism,” she says, “you have only met one child with the condition. Every case is different.”

That makes it crucial for parents to work closely with their child’s teachers, as Dr. Vanover did when James was very young. “I had to spend a lot of time partnering with his teachers,” she says, “on how to make accommodations for him in the classroom and whether what worked for him at home would also work for him in class. Doing this taught me a lot of things I wish I had learned in college. It also taught me the importance of being an outspoken advocate for my son.”

She still is, now that James is ten and attending a performing arts school in Lexington, where he specializes in ballet. “Every time he has a new teacher,” she says, “I approach them in advance to let them know about both his weaknesses and his strengths. James is very smart, as I always tell them. He has a very large vocabulary and he’s very creative. But he has a difficult time meeting new people and anything new can be overwhelming for him. So, it helps if I brainstorm with his teachers on the best ways to work with him.”

Unfortunately, many parents of children with special needs are scared to speak up for their child, as Dr. Vanover did. “The parents feel like they’re being intrusive and fear their child will bear a label,” she says. And the parents’ reluctance to share information makes it even harder for teachers to help children with special needs. “Teachers are on unfamiliar terrain when dealing with a child with special needs if they don’t get the family’s perspective on what works,” Dr. Vanover explains. “So, teachers need additional mentoring and training to prepare them for the reality of working with children who have special needs.”

Most teachers take a couple of special ed classes, Dr. Vanover explains, where they learn theory and definitions, like what autism is and what a speech delay is. “They don’t know what it’s like to have your boots on the ground and be in a classroom with children who have special needs. When teachers come to me for training, they’ll often have questions about how to deal with specific behaviors in a real-life classroom. And teachers need more of this kind of hands-on training on strategies they can use with special needs children. The training needs to be part of teachers’ professional development goals, which they plan with their directors—and it must consist of more than simply having someone say, ‘Let me explain autism to you.’”

This type of guidance to teachers and child care directors is the core of Dr. Vanover’s new book. But she also devotes a chapter to partnering with parents and she has experience with the issues parents face as they try to speak up for their special needs kids. “One of my greatest achievements has been helping parents advocate for their children when they’re going into an individualized education program meeting. IEP meetings can be overwhelming for parents who don’t know special education law and don’t know their rights. The parents find themselves facing six early childhood professionals who tell them what their child needs, and the parents might be afraid to disagree. So, I’ve coached several families before IEP meetings and reassured them that they are the best judges of their child’s needs. And it’s such a blessing for me to see the parents’ relief when they know their child is going to get the services that will help them best advance.”

That includes quality early learning, so Dr. Vanover is disturbed that it may become even harder for parents to find programs for their special needs children. Now that pandemic-era federal funding for child care has ended, programs for special needs children are especially under siege, as she explains. “Due to the shortage of child care, programs have long wait lists, so they’re less willing to serve a child who has behavior issues. Programs can dismiss children like this very quickly because replacing them is easy. So, Kentucky Youth Advocates has seen an increase in phone calls from people whose children have been expelled and who can’t find another program to enroll them in.”

Now Dr. Vanover is fighting to ensure programs for special needs children stay in place. Her sense of mission springs from personal experience as the mom of a child with special needs. It also reflects her belief that “helping those who are the most vulnerable offers the best rewards for teachers,” she says. “It’s worth the investment of effort and time to see special needs children surmount obstacles, make advances and meet milestones.” In addition, having special needs children in classrooms is good for all children, she points out.

Typically developing children benefit from inclusive settings because it helps them learn better, as Dr. Vanover explains. “According to the TEACH model used in Montessori classrooms, there are three stages in learning. The first step is seeing someone who’s more experienced do something. The second is to do it yourself, and the third is knowing it well enough to teach it to someone else. Inclusive classrooms give typically developing children the chance to solidify their highest level of learning, so typically developing children and special needs children benefit alike. Besides feeling empathy and being able to interact with someone who’s different is a huge life skill,” she says. “It’s part of what it means to be a good human being in our world.”


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