The Search for a Special Needs Super Nanny
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.