The Search for a Special Needs Super Nanny

mom and daughter laying down looking at each other

Finding a caregiver for any child is a big deal; finding a caregiver for a child with special needs can be an ordeal. I know this from experience: I have a son with cerebral palsy, and I'm a working mom. Over the years, I've had to hire a variety of babysitters and caregivers. When my son was very young, I was your basic nervous wreck every single time. But now that he's 7, and I've matured as well, I know what I'm doing--and I've learned a few tips and tricks over the years that have helped. Glad to share!

  • Be open about your child's needs.If you are placing an ad, give a general scope of the help involved in caring for your child (for example, "Child requires assistance with basic tasks such as dressing, feeding, toileting and bathing.") It's better for potential caregivers to know right up front what kind of work will be involved--and for those who are not interested in caring for a child with special needs to move along.
  • Do a first interview without the kids around. There's no need to let them meet each other until you think they're a good candidate; meeting a string of potential babysitters might confuse your child.
  • Share the good, the bad and the ugly during the next interview. This should take place at home, with the entire family around. It'll take a couple of hours, and you'll want to lay out the realities of caring for your child and his or her abilities and challenges. When I've interviewed babysitters, I've gushed about my son, who has the world's sunniest smile and is generally sweet and fun-loving. I've also shared the trickiest parts about managing him--for instance, since he is unable to speak, he occasionally gets frustrated and hits. You want caregivers to have a complete understanding of what caring for your child will be like.
  • Explain the complete scope of tasks. At our house, caregivers have had to administer medication, as well as sit through therapy and speech sessions with our son and do exercises with him while I was at work during the week. It'll be helpful for you to make a list of tasks ahead of time so you remember to touch on everything; eventually, you'll want to give that list to the caregiver you hire.
  • Ask open-ended questions. This means that instead of asking questions that someone could answer with a "yes" or "no," you ask questions that encourage discussion. For example, instead of saying "Are you comfortable with feeding my son?" you could ask "What sort of experience have you had that would make you comfortable feeding an older child?" Other good questions: "What was your favorite part of caring for the last child you worked with? And your least favorite? Have you had to deal with an emergency special needs situation? If so, how did you handle it?" Ask a few personal questions, too, like what the person enjoys doing during his or her free time; these can be very revealing. Prepare a list of questions ahead of time.
  • Have playtime. Obviously, caregivers will be on their best behavior, but you will get a sense of how he or she will interact with your child.
  • Get at least three referrals. Call every single one and ask the tough questions, too, such as "Nobody is perfect. What would you say this person's biggest imperfection is?" When we hired one daytime nanny, her reference told us that her biggest downside was that she wasn't always so creative about playtime. She was, however, an otherwise warm, kind, responsible, dedicated, caring person--the most important things, for us. We've never had a single regret about hiring her. You'll also want to do a criminal background check as well as a driving record check, if she will be transporting your child around.
  • Do a trial day. A few years ago, we were looking around for a new caregiver. There was one young, energetic woman who seemed promising; she'd previously cared for a child with special needs. So my husband and I paid her to come over for an afternoon and take care of the kids while we observed. Mostly, she played with our daughter; when our son had a meltdown, she seemed utterly incapable of handling him. She also didn't seem to have the patience for feeding him. We would have never known if we hadn't had her over for a trial.
  • Don't assume that all special-needs caregivers are alike. Even though the woman above had previously worked with a child who had disabilities, she wasn't able to work with my child's disabilities.
  • Above all, trust your gut. You know better than anyone--better than doctors, better than any experts--what's right for your child. If your instincts are telling you someone's not right, listen to them.
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Comments (5)
Photo of Melissa B.
Melissa B.
This is definitely great advice. I am a nanny and have worked with several children with special needs, and coming from the other side of the coin I especially find the "trial day" idea very helpful. There's nothing worse than being plunged into a situation you can't handle when you've already committed to the family.
Also, the open ended questions are helpful during an interview because they tend to abolish those uncomfortable silences and help guide interviewer and interviewee toward conversations that reveal whether or not it's the right person for the job.
Thanks for the great advice!
Posted: June 07, 2012 at 11:14 PM
Photo of Laura H.
Laura H.
Very nice article. The other thing to look for, which you touched on above, is to look into what kind of person they are OUTSIDE of their job. Are they happy, fulfilled people, well balanced psychologically? We had a recent experience with a caregiver who "needed to be needed". She wanted to take on the mom role, rather than the caregiver/educator/safety role. THe reason was the condition of her life outside of the job, and not having enough support and fulfillment in her own life.
Posted: June 03, 2012 at 5:38 PM
Uche O.
Excellent advice. I will explore all the ideas. I'm just starting to search for a caregiver starting July. Thank you
Posted: June 03, 2012 at 9:21 AM
Sandra B.
Wow great advice..I wish I read that before this week. It would have been less stress than what I have been going through. I was looking for a housekeeper but I also have S.N. teen that would need looking after as needed. I didn't know what I was needing until I couldn't get the right help. If I asked for housekeeping, responses about care for my son became a concern. If I ask for s.n. care, I would get lite housekeeping only. I need housekeeping with care for s.n. teen. I may of found a few who are willing. Hopefully I will be able to select one. Thanks for good advice.
Posted: December 21, 2011 at 6:35 PM
Photo of Donna P.
Donna P.
Great advice. Especially when a child is non verbal, it is up to the parents to make sure they are going to be safe and happy in their absence. I also recommend Teddy-cams and the like. No one should ever think twice about doing whatever is necessary to make sure their child or dependent of any age is being properly treated and cared for. Thanks for the great artcle!
Posted: October 06, 2011 at 2:52 PM
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