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DEC Recommended Practices: Environment

Nicholas visits with Mia and her grandmother, Mrs. Wilson, during breakfast. Mrs. Wilson loves to cook and would like to involve Mia but she isn’t sure how. When she’s tried, Mia pulls her hand away or arches her back instead of touching the ingredients. Mrs. Wilson knows that she should help Mia touch different textures since Mia can’t see them, but Mia doesn’t seem to like it. Nicholas notices that Mia is learning to the side in her highchair due to her low muscle tone, which makes it difficult to use her hands or feel secure exploring. He sees lots of great learning opportunities in this environment so begins to think about how he can help.

How do the Environment RPs fit with EI?

We talk A LOT about the environment in early intervention. We are federally mandated to provide services in “natural environments,” which for us means more than just the location. “Natural environments” also refers to what we do in those locations, how we interact with the child and parent, and perhaps most importantly, how we support their interactions with each other during their routines and activities. The DEC Recommended Practices (RPs) match well with our concept of natural environments when they describe “environmental practices” as “aspects of the space, materials (toys, books, etc.), equipment, routines, and activities that practitioners and families can intentionally alter to support each child’s learning across developmental domains.” The authors of the RPs go on to describe these practices as encompassing three aspects of the environment: “the physical environment (e.g., space, equipment, and materials), the social environment (e.g., interactions with peers, siblings, family members), and the temporal environment (e.g., sequence and length of routines and activities).” These three aspects can really guide our approach to developing intervention strategies that fit with families; they remind us to think about “environment” is much more than just a place.

Time to Apply the RPs!

Let’s consider how Nicholas could apply the environmental RPs in his work with Mia and Mrs. Wilson:

E1. Practitioners provide services and supports in natural and inclusive environments during daily routines and activities to promote the child’s access to and participation in learning experiences.

Nicholas is off to a great start. He’s joining Mia and her grandmother during a routine that’s important to them. He’s there to help Mrs. Wilson find ways to help Mia participate in breakfast preparation, which will give her access to textures, smells, materials, and interactions that she doesn’t have access to now. His collaboration with Mrs. Wilson could open up a whole new learning opportunity for Mia.

E2. Practitioners consider Universal Design for Learning principles to create accessible environments.

Nicholas should consider the what, how and why of learning during this routine. He can help Mrs. Wilson present materials to Mia in different ways (the what) by letting Mia use her fingers to touch when she’s comfortable or use a spoon to stir ingredients when she’s not. He can help Mrs. Wilson read Mia’s cues (the how) to find out what she likes. Her arching and pulling away may be a function of her positioning, so once they find a way for her to feel stable in sitting, they can reassess her reactions to find out what she thinks and wants to do. They can also experiment with different textures, smells, temperatures, and types of foods to see what motivates Mia to explore (the why).

E3. Practitioners work with the family and other adults to modify and adapt the physical, social, and temporal environments to promote each child’s access to and participation in learning experiences.

Nicholas can help Mrs. Wilson consider these three aspects when planning for intervention. They need to find a way to improve Mia’s positioning in her high chair. They need to see what materials in the kitchen might make exploring more comfortable. Perhaps Mrs. Wilson could use her voice inflection, volume, or the amount of words she uses to facilitate interactions between herself, Mia, and the ingredients. They might reflect on the sequence and length of the meal prep routine to see how Mia could participate. Maybe Mia could help Mrs. Wilson stir the pancake batter, then munch on scrambled eggs while the pancakes are cooking, rather than wait to present all of the food at the same time when Mia is too hungry to take the time to explore it.

E4. Practitioners work with families and other adults to identify each child’s needs for assistive technology to promote access to and participation in learning experiences.

E5. Practitioners work with families and other adults to acquire or create appropriate assistive technology to promote each child’s access to and participation in learning experiences.

Nicholas’s observations can help identify the need for AT to improve Mia’s positioning. He can brainstorm with Mrs. Wilson about how to use low-tech options, such as towel rolls beside Mia to keep her stable. If she needs more than that, they can discuss more high-tech options and contact the service coordinator for assistance. Similarly, Mia might benefit from a spoon with a built-up handle to make holding it easier. Or, perhaps having a mat on the high chair tray that provides more color contrast would make it easier for Mia to see the food. These are all things good early interventionists consider; the trick is to remember that not all of these needs have to be solved by something from a catalog. Always consider low-tech, aka stuff already found in the home, first.

E6. Practitioners create environments that provide opportunities for movement and regular physical activity to maintain or improve fitness, wellness, and development across domains.

Nicholas could consider how Mia gets to and from her high chair for breakfast. Perhaps there are opportunities to increase her independent mobility around this routine.

Sometimes, we might look at the DEC RPs and think “I don’t do that” or “I only do that in certain settings.” For example, E2 sounds like something you would do mainly in a group setting. As you can see with Nicholas, these practices can be implemented even in a family’s kitchen. How we think about the environment, and these practices, makes all the difference.

Do you have an example of how you’ve considered the three aspects of the environment described in the RPs: physical, social, and temporal?

How do you implement Universal Design for Learning during EI visits?

What other ideas do you have to help Mrs. Wilson include Mia in the breakfast prep routine? What else should Nicholas consider?

Share your ideas in the comments below.

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