Every child -- and every family -- has a different set of requirements. When interviewing for a job caring for a child with special needs, make sure it's a two-way conversation. Whether or not you have previous experience caring for children with special needs, the parents will be looking at more than just your skills and experience. They're looking for a person who has genuine interest in their child and not just someone looking for a job.
You need to ask questions that help you get to know the family and understand their child's needs. It's important to always emphasize the possibilities -- and not the limitations -- when talking to the parents. Their child is not a victim, but a whole person with extraordinary qualities. The main point you need to convey is respect for the child and respect for the family's choices. The child is more important that his or her diagnosis. If you have difficulty relating to that idea, then this is not the job for you. Parents will be looking to see if you can see through their child's diagnosis to the "treasure" of the personality and character inside.
Here are some guidelines for discussing the job with the family:
- Ask what the child enjoys, not what activities he or she prefers.
- For a non-verbal child, ask about the child's favorite ways to communicate, not "How do I know what she wants?"
- Don't ask about how limited the child is -- focus on the positive! Find out what the child excels at and how you can support and nurture those skills.
- Inquire about the nanny's anticipated role within the family. Do family members consider themselves very private? Would they prefer you to be more in the background or very involved with the family?
- Find out what the family's expectations are of a nanny. Would you support family members who would be the primary caregivers, or would they expect you to take on a larger role? Is there a specific area they would want you to concentrate on, or would your responsibilities be more general? Do the family's preferences correspond to your own?
- How does the child respond to new caregivers? Would any specific strategies help with the transition?
- On a practical level, get specific with the family about the child's daily routine and medical needs.
- Does the child do best with more or less structure?
- What about food allergies, food preparation and feeding issues?
- Is there anything in particular to be avoided or to watch for, or any special safety concerns?
These questions will provide important information about the child and also help you determine whether or not this job is the right match for you. After you leave the interview, reflect on whether or not you were comfortable with the family, the child and your expected role. If you are not comfortable with the situation, be up-front with the family. If you think you might like the job but aren't sure, ask if you can spend a little more time talking with the parents or visiting the family in a casual, non-interview setting, perhaps join them for an activity.
If you are comfortable with the job description and want to take the job, remember that children with special needs are just children. They do not define themselves in terms of their disability, and neither should you! They blossom with love, understanding and respect. With the right connection between caregiver and child you will both flourish!
Liz Weinstein is a freelance writer and television producer based in Boston and New York.