Child Advocacy

Programming for Children with Special Needs, Part Two

by Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski

In Part One, the reasons for serving children with special needs in a storytime setting were highlighted. This week I will cover some elements of the Rhythm and Rhyme Storytime for Children with Special Needs and their Families which make the programming distinctive.

Relaxed Rules: Due to developmental differences of children with special needs, I have not placed restrictions on ages of participants. We have successfully served children ranging in age from two to sixteen in the same session. Planning is geared towards preschool; I share this information with parents if they inquire about the target audience. The storytime is treated as a full family experience during which parents, siblings and therapists are welcome. During the program, we experience children moving around the room rather than sitting still, verbalizing occasionally at random and possibly needing to leave the room and return during the program. The following comment from our survey related to the program substantiates this practice: “This is a great idea! Kids can roam free and make noise without parents worrying they are bothering others.” When we pass out items for the children to use for hands-on activities, we do not insist on the children handing them back in at the end of the activity but instead allow parents guide their child’s participation and decide when their child returns props.

Setting: The setting of the room has variations from our other storytime classes. For example, we use dimmer lighting. Seating spots are important, whether a storytime rug or individual carpet squares. At one class we had an entire line of people at the back of the class near the door rather than on the storytime rug. Afterwards, I asked a Parent Advocate from the Autism Society her opinion. She told me that oftentimes parents of children on the autism spectrum prefer to be near the door in the event that they need to make a quick exit. Subsequently, we now ask that everyone join us on the carpet at the beginning of the class during announcements, expressing an understanding that they may need to temporarily leave during class. We place stuffed animals or pillows around the rug also by request of a parent from our focus group who suggested that we have “pillows for my sensory seeking child.” We have started placing all programming materials into a lightweight toy box on our front table. This is because some children were distracted if items were simply placed on a table at the front of the room. A related focus group comment: “It would be helpful if the items on the tables before a story time could be hidden so my child does not try and take them.”

Program Components: I begin each class with announcements followed by review of the daily agenda on the visual schedule or “schedule board” (see photo of an example of a schedule from a recent class). We utilize small laminated cards of Boardmaker software (a product from Mayer Johnson) pictures attached by Velcro to a large flannel board to show our schedule. Each picture card is removed and placed into the “done” envelope on the flannel board as the activity is finished. A typical schedule may include variations of the following cards: “book,” “activity,” “singing” and/or “puppet” and always ends with “blow bubbles” and “coloring.”

schedule board

When planning the program, we choose books with patterns, repeating lines or easily reproduced visual options. For example, we read Dog’s Colorful Day: A Messy Story About Colors and Counting by Emma Dodd while incorporating a hands-on activity using a poster board image of Dog with Velcro dots (see photo below). Each child received a colored dot at the beginning of the story and as the book talked about the colors, they placed their dot on Dog in the appropriate spot.


We read The Deep Blue Sea: A Book of Colors by Audrey Wood while simultaneously displaying the flannel story (see photo below).
Deep Blue Sea

We also choose books with few, easily reproduced characters such as Night Goes By by Kate Spohn. We laminated stick figures of a star, moon, sun and clouds and acted out the story at the same time as we read the book (see photo below).
Night Goes By

Double visuals (book/puppet, book/visuals or book/flannel simultaneously) offer options for the children to acquire literacy through multiple channels and follow a comment from our focus group: “Use as many visuals as possible.” I use repetition in our program plans–reading the same opening and closing books and following the same ending routine (bubbles during “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and classical music). Each session includes extra time buffered into the program so that families may enjoy socialization time–for some families this may be their only visits to the Library so we want it to be as welcoming and lasting as possible. We place puppets and coloring sheets out for the children’s use during this time. Also, I remain in the room to answer questions or receive feedback from participants.

Music: Because some children on the autism spectrum may have sensitivity to music, I utilize low-key or acoustic songs during the program rather than jarring options with a heavy beat or lots of movements (spinning, jumping, etc.). During each class I will plan at least one or two hands-on musical activities using props, scarves or beanbags that may be beneficial for hand-eye coordination and/or motor skills.

Allergies: It’s best to avoid use of food or wearing of perfume during the program due to allergies or other sensitivities of participants. A respondent from our focus group stated that “the library is great because it is one of the places where we don’t have to also worry about food. My child has food allergies and this is a big issue.”

Flexibility: When working with children, it is always important to possess flexibility and a sense of humor. However, it is essential for presenters to maintain an extraordinary amount of adaptability during special needs programming. It is expected that participants may not sit still or be quiet during the program. While viewing a video of our Rhythm and Rhyme Storytime for Children With Special Needs, I noticed that when a child circles behind me while I’m reading, I simply lift the book for her to pass without any modification in my reading or expression. While I didn’t think about it at the time, I realize that this flexibility becomes an innate and vital aspect of this type of programming. Please don’t assume that the children aren’t benefitting from the experience because they aren’t focused upon you at all times. It is also valuable to be aware of your non-verbal communication to assure that you are not showing frustration or impatience if the program is not going exactly as you may have planned.

Timing: I learned through the first survey that Saturday mornings work best for our families. One of the survey respondents stated “Saturday is a really great day. Dr.’s and therapy appointments would prevent us from coming during the week.” Other families have also mentioned that appointments during the week may deter their attendance. As a result, our Rhythm and Rhyme class is scheduled monthly on varying Saturdays at 10am.

Spreading the word: As suggested by a member of our focus group: “create an email distribution list of parents/families and let them know when programs will take place.” I send email reminders to my distribution list the week of the programs, knowing how busy the families are and that advance planning is not often an option. I also request email addresses of first-time participants in order to share the upcoming class dates if they express interest in these reminders.

While these elements may overwhelm at first glance, it will become a habit to incorporate these minor changes as you begin planning your story time programs for children with special needs and their families. Upon observation of our Rhythm and Rhyme program, colleagues overwhelmingly assert “we can do this, too!” and even discover benefits to incorporate into their regular storytime programs.

Part three of this blog series will include examples of program plans for our past Rhythm and Rhyme storytimes.

Below are the links for the other four articles of Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski’s Programming for Children with Special Needs series:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five


  1. Abby

    What a helpful series! I’m looking to incorporate programming for kids with special needs at my library and your posts have been extremely helpful and inspiring! I’m looking forward to Part 3! Thanks!

  2. Cheryl

    Ditto. This is extremely helpful for those of us SLMs who have no training in working with special needs children. Thank you for sharing!!

  3. Kate

    Your series of blog posts have been invaluable to me in creating my first sensory story time. Thank you!

    I do have one question: where did you find that poster of Dog from Dog’s colorful day?

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