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What to consider for children with special needs


Special Needs Sports

Special Needs Sports

One of the most important aspects of school is non-academic extracurricular activities. Students who participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports, chess, music, student government, yearbook clubs, and other special interest clubs, develop talent, skill, and teamwork. By participating in extracurricular activities, students have an opportunity to make friends they would not otherwise have made during the regular school day.

The importance of extracurricular activities cannot be overemphasized, particularly for students with special needs who are mainstreamed because it provides an opportunity for them to learn new skills, improve their talents and self-esteem, and develop relationships with their peers. In addition, when students with disabilities participate in extracurricular activities, other “non-disabled” students will look past one’s “disability” and focus more on one’s talents and skills.

Therefore, it is important that parents understand that students with special needs have the right to participate in extracurricular activities at school.

There are so many skills that a child with special needs must work on, and many of those life and academic skills are addressed at home and at school. But our children need to also learn to play and interact with other children, and develop their own hobbies. Part of our responsibility as parents is to help our children gain the tools they need to lead happy, productive, fulfilling lives as adults, and an important part of anyone’s happiness is their hobbies. These activities also can teach important social skills, help increase muscle tone and physical fitness, and target learning in fun ways. Here are some tips to help you choose the right extracurricular activities for your child with special needs.


The federal law known as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that public schools provide students with disabilities equal opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities as their non-disabled peers. Those who enjoy reading regulations may refer to 34 CFR Section 104.37. Many schools must also comply with another applicable federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability: The Americans with Disabilities Act. Like Section 504, the regulations that public entities (which include schools) must adhere to under the Americans with Disabilities Act are stringent.

Children with disabilities may also be protected by another federal law known as The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act. This is a very important law that affords children with disabilities the right to a “free and appropriate education.” A “free and appropriate education” may include gym classes, including physical and occupational therapy, as well as any extracurricular activities that may be available to the general student population. Under these federal laws, schools must not discriminate against students on the basis of disability and may be required to implement necessary modifications or provide accommodations in order for students with disabilities to participate in extracurricular activities.

If your child has a disability and is interested in participating in an extracurricular activity, but has not been able to do so, your child may be a victim of disability discrimination. It is important that you advocate on behalf of your child and speak with the school to find out why your child has not been afforded an opportunity to participate in an extracurricular activity of his or her choosing. If you are unable to make headway with the school, you may wish to consult with a child advocate or a special education attorney for assistance.

Know Where to Go

There are lots of different area agencies and companies that can help you identify all of the options available to your child. Your child’s school may offer on-site programs in a setting that is familiar and comfortable to your child. Your local YMCA or other gyms may offer classes and less-competitive sports leagues that are more inclusive of children with special needs. Local churches, libraries, community centers, Boys & Girls Club, and 4-H are also other great places to inquire about local clubs and teams. Ask parents in your neighborhood and school about other local companies, like karate and dance studios, and find out how their experiences have been. Your child might then be able to attend an activity where he already knows some of his peers.

Use Your Child’s Strengths

If your child is still working on his cooperative team skills, consider starting out with activities that offer “parallel” opportunities – swimming, track, golf, bowling, hiking, dance, photography, music lessons, art classes, and martial arts are all great opportunities, and many of them offer later opportunities for more cooperative activities like relay races, group art projects, music groups, and karate sparring. Is your child highly active? Does he light up when he hears music? Does he start dancing as soon as he hears a beat? Focus on activities that will allow him to feel happy, capable and confident, and fully participate with his peers.

Meet the Adults

It is important as a parent that you be comfortable with the adults caring for your child. Find out who would be the teacher and assistants working with your child, and don’t be afraid to ask if the organization has references or background checks. Talk to families who are currently working with that adult.

Be a Spectator

Ask if you can watch a lesson or a game before your child begins to participate. If your child enjoys watching activities, bring him with you and try to get some feedback from him on what he thinks about what he is seeing. Watch his reactions to the activity – nonverbal reactions can sometimes be more telling than what they say.

Try Before you Buy

Many companies that offer lessons will let you try a free or discounted lesson before buying a package, so ask if this is an option. If you are considering enrolling your child in a sports league, try the sport with them, your family, or some friends to see if they enjoy it or have any challenges that you may want to address first. Look to see not only if they have some of the prerequisite skills they may need, but also if they seem to enjoy the activity. Keep in mind that your child may need to learn more about the activity before he really enjoys it, but hobbies should be pleasant experiences!

Practice Makes Perfect

If your child’s new hobby involves a lot of new skills, consider letting him practice parts of it at home with familiar people (i.e. hitting a baseball or catching the ball) before you introduce him to a team where he must not only perform these component skills, but also put them together with many others. Give your child opportunities to practice her new skill in between scheduled activity sessions. Ask if you can take a video of a part of your child’s lesson, as this may help with practice when you don’t have the coach or instructor there with you.

Utilize All of Your Resources

While your child is learning the activity, she may need extra attention or instruction to keep up with the other kids. If she has a sibling or cousin who is skilled in the activity, see if they can join your child as a junior coach or assistant. Is your child receiving OT? See if there are skills they can work on in therapy that will help him gain competence in his new hobby. Does your child have an ABA therapist? ABA therapy often incorporates generalization of skills, so talk with your ABA therapist about whether they might be able to shadow your child during some sessions or incorporate similar activities into therapy.

Julia Garstecki is a teacher, freelance writer and proud mom to Drew and Stephanie. She lives in Upstate New York. See more about parenting a child with disabilities at

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