Calming the Chaos: Creative Interventions for Young Children with Special Needs

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By Elyssa Yeh, MA, R-DMT

It’s funny. Whenever I work with kids in any role – dance/movement therapist, teaching artist, babysitter, volunteer in a preschool, or auntie to my almost-two-year-old niece – I often hear from other grown ups, “You’re really great with kids!”

I’ve never thought too much about it because I have always felt that I’m just being me - authentically, compassionately, and empathetically - whenever I interact with children. But lately I’ve begun reflecting on some of the tools I’ve been using with the kids I work with.  Today, I’ve decided to share with you some of the ways I utilize creativity and collaboration to work with young children, both of neurotypical development and with special needs. Here are some of the things that I try to help calm the chaos.

Identify the Chaos

I recognize in myself that chaos and I are like two sworn enemies, and the disruptive monster called Chaos can pop up in my life in several ways. From, feeling rushed during my daily routine to spontaneous surprises to just feeling off or not at my optimal level. Children can experience this too, and those with special needs may experience this with more intensity.

Now, I’ve learned to identify my monsters as they emerge and then use coping skills and self-regulation techniques to help me (admittedly, not always implementing and practicing them ideally), however, youngsters are still learning. So, by simply helping to acknowledge and identify the chaos with and for your little ones, you can intervene and teach them ways to understand and cope with chaos.

Try integrating creativity by using your voice to be your child’s voice as you notice chaos taking over. For example, you may notice your child is becoming dysregulated by loud noises or music, and you can assist and support them with statements such as, “I’m feeling overwhelmed by the loud sounds. I think I need…” This identifies the source of the chaos and teaches ways to cope and regulate their emotions with empathy and compassion.

Play through the Chaos

One of the most useful techniques that I use with all young children is play. Play is a way to lighten the tone, shift, and redirect. It is also collaborative because it meets your child on their level and allows your child to engage in a language they can understand and speak.

For example, I can recall a moment when I was entering a preschool as a volunteer and I noticed a father-daughter duo having a difficult time transitioning into the school setting. The 4-year-old girl, who is also on the Autism Spectrum, just did not want to go to her classroom, for whatever reason. Her father appeared flustered and unsure of how to react and respond.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have learned that, often, children (and even adolescents and adults) follow Newton’s Third Law: For every action or force, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, you push your child when they don’t want to be pushed, and they will likely push back in opposition.

So, I said hello to the two and playfully asked the child if she would like to tip-toe with me to the classroom. Of course, she was initially puzzled, but she joined in as we tip-toed down the hallway, “Just like a ballerina!” she exclaimed. And, we all made it to the classroom calmly and playfully.

Play can be freeing for a child when structures may feel constricting or binding. See what creative and playful ideas you and your child can come up with to, quite literally, move through the chaos.

Chaos as Imagery

Imagery is one of my favorite tools to use when I work with young children with special needs because it allows them to create a world where the chaos becomes less chaotic. Essentially, imaginative play, imagery, and the imagination empowers children to creatively modify their environment and themselves.

Perhaps you and your child find yourselves in a situation where they need to move through or to a new and unfamiliar space. Together, it may be helpful to use your imaginations to create a sense of familiarity, comfort, and okay-ness. You and your little one can move and talk through the imagery as you work together to overcome the chaos.

This one is similar to the previous intervention, Play through the Chaos, because it relies upon the foundation of play for creativity and collaboration. It also integrates the first technique, Identifying the Chaos, by providing words and language.

Singin’ in the Chaos

This one may seem silly, but silly is an excellent way to facilitate emotional regulation in young children, both of neurotypical development and with special needs. Singing is also a way to provide a structural and soothing rhythm when everything else is going haywire. A simple and repetitive jingle or tune may feel orienting when things are already disorienting.

For instance, adding a little jingle to the task that your child needs to accomplish shifts the “Wah-wah-wah-wahh” sound of Charlie Brown’s teacher to what you are actually trying to communicate to your youngster.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Finally, when all else fails, it may be time to slow down and take a few deep breaths together! Not only is this helpful for your child, it is helpful for grown ups too. Seriously, when I find myself amidst the chaos and my monsters are coming from all angles, a few deep breaths can do wonders.

Also, there are a variety of different deep breathing practices that can be fun, playful, creative, and beneficial for you and your little one. From imagery and breathing to pranayama practice to simply counting your inhales and exhales.

These are a few of the creative interventions that I could identify, and that I have found to be successful with young children all along the spectrum of development. Give them a try, and see how they adapt and evolve with your family. I would love to have you share your creative ideas with me and The Groove community.

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