E. Exceptional Learners

Every child needs and wants to experience success. All children have potential and all children are capable of learning. The potentials and capabilities will differ, but they are always there. Exceptional children require a bit of extra effort to keep them learning, engaged, and focused. The same holds true for special needs children. This section provides practical advice on how to create an engaging environment in order to meet the diverse needs of all the learners.


During the early childhood years, the parent should be constantly evaluating the child’s developmental progress. The progressive nature of development is the same in every child – but always at a different rate. If you are knowledgeable about the various stages of child development, you'll be well prepared for working with all children, even exceptional and special needs children. The aspects of child development are the same no matter who the child is. Exceptional and special needs children may not reach “typical” milestones at the same rate as “typical” children, but the sequence of development remains the same.


A developmentally appropriate environment for “typical” children is also a developmentally appropriate environment for the majority of exceptional and special needs children. Often, no changes will have to be made.


The concept of developmental appropriateness has two dimensions: Age appropriateness and individual appropriateness. Age appropriateness is the basic knowledge of child development which provides a framework from which adults prepare the learning environment and plan appropriate experiences. It refers to physical and expressive development, emotional development, social development, cognitive and linguistic development as well as spiritual development (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).
Individual appropriateness refers to the adult's knowledge of the person within each individual child and how learning experiences match the child's developing abilities while also challenging the child's interests, understanding and critical thinking skills. Individual appropriateness encompasses the child's pattern and timing of growth, personality, learning style, copying skills and family background (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009).

A developmentally appropriate environment offers practices based on child development theories that promote child-initiated, adult-guided, active learning. Exceptional and special need learners need a strong focus on individualization through the identification of each child’s strengths, interests, and needs in an effort to adapt the environment for optimal individual growth.


Successful environment management includes the following strategies:


  • Predictability & consistency (illustrated schedules, concurrent group times, routines and rules for security, control and trust)


  • Organization (personal space, pictures on shelves, tactile shelf labels, trays, and mats for reassurance)


  • Familiar objects and images (photos and stuffed animals for trust & belonging)


  • Collaborative games/activities (for building social skills, relationships, empathy and tolerance)


  • Clearly defined play/work areas (traffic patterns, minimized distraction, invites peer participation) (for wheelchairs: bolsters on the floor & table heights adjusted; special chairs, standing tables)


  • Duplicate materials (exploration options, rotation of materials, for cooperation vs. competition)


  • Soothing and relaxing materials (play dough, sand, water, blocks, and art supplies for building cooperation, social skills, and relationships)


  • Expectations for independence (limit choices, a set place for everything, adaptations to materials, individualized attention, all the above)


  • Use communication boards for all children in the dramatic play area (all levels of verbal abilities will benefit through exposure to print, visual cues, expanded vocabulary and types of phrases expressed)


  • Effective supervision (using visual, auditory and physical presence)


  • Search for volunteers (foster grandparents, student interns, community service students, parent volunteers)


Successful instruction includes the following strategies:


  • Knowledge of child development allows for observant comprehension of past, current, and future capabilities of each child.


  • Errorless learning techniques which result from purposefully planned lessons focused on the current level of ability and interests of the children and uses successive approximations to guide them toward progress. A successful classroom environment (developmental appropriateness + errorless learning) is characterized by the adult's ability to:
    • Know present level of ability for each child.
    • Compare current performance with past performance.
    • Identify the next realistic level of ability.
    • Foster progress while avoiding chain errors, aversive learning, prompt dependency, delayed antecedents and misused learning time.
    • Observe and document behavior and progress based on realistic expectations.
    • Again, identify next realistic level of ability.


Errorless learning is when the adult delivers an antecedent and either prompts immediately (zero-second time delay) or waits a beat for the child’s response. If the child begins to give an incorrect response, or fails to respond, the adult immediately prompts the correct response and offers praise. The same antecedent is then presented again, this time as an attempt to have the child respond correctly without the prompt or with less of a prompt. If the child answers correctly without assistance, the adult reinforces the response and continues the lesson. However, if the child again begins to respond incorrectly, the adult must quickly prompt the child again for the correct response. Then, leaving the error producing antecedent, the lesson continues to other targets in an effort to increase independently initiated correct responses. After several correct responses, the adult can return to the missed target to try for an correct independent response, again prompting and trying for a transfer trial as necessary.


  • Thematic project approaches to learning give us a structure to plan and implement engaging concepts, teach through play and exploration, document children’s actions and language, and use such documents to assess children’s abilities, interests, and needs.


  • Purposefully planned regular activities should be planned first before planning extension and special activities. Do not assume that the child with exceptional or special needs requires something different; start with activities that are planned for all children. The adult may only need to encourage the child to participate, or give some assistance. When special activities are necessary, they should be planned to include other children who do not have an exceptional skill or need. Under some circumstances it may be necessary to plan special, separate activities solely for the child with exceptional or special needs. However, this should only be done if activities with a group are not appropriate or successful.

Copple, C. & Bredekamp, S. (Eds.). (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8 (3rd ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.


  © Christine Gillan Byrne, 2008.