CMAS in Action: A Team Effort– Supporting Special Needs in CNC

Shanda Burnett. Special Needs Consultant at CMAS

Children arrive in your CNC programs and may exhibit concerning behaviours or delays. Sometimes, these issues disappear as they settle into the routine. Other times, additional professional assistance is needed. Even if a child does not have a special needs diagnosis, CMAS can help.

Shanda Burnett, the special needs consultant at CMAS, works with both CNC program staff and families to support a child who already is identified with–or is suspected of having–special needs.  She offers practical in-program strategies to build staff capacity to work with the child, as well as recommendations and counsel if further resources are required.

“We first have to identify their needs: what is the child doing or not doing within the developmental domains and how does this affect their functioning within the program?” says Shanda. “For example, we need to know why a child is not engaging in play or not moving from one activity to another.”


Step 1: Initial Observation and Documentation

What distinguishes a special need from a settlement-related behaviour? Shanda explains that a special need is specific and continuous or recurring. So, she always suggests observation and documentation to help shed more light on the situation.

“You need to look at how children are responding and interacting with each other, the routine, and the class environment,” says Shanda. “If, after observing, your gut tells you something is wrong, then you can take it a step further.”


Step 2: Developmental Screening Tool

At this point, Shanda encourages staff to use the LookSee™ Nipissing District Developmental Screening Tool. Observation can stretch over days or weeks to make sure it is accurate over time.  If there is more than one staff available, she also suggests a second person conduct the screening separately to get a fresh perspective. Then, staff can compare their checklists from the tool with previous documentation. She cautions against doing observations during transition times, where the comings and goings of parents and children may cause changes in behaviour.


Step 3: Special Needs Visit and Consultation

If there are still concerns, Shanda meets with staff and observes the child. Once she can pinpoint the “why” behind a behaviour, she offers hands-on strategies so staff can better support the child within the program. She breaks these down into smaller components, so caregivers can work on specific tasks instead of trying to tackle entire skills at once.

Shanda encourages parent involvement in discussions, especially if she recommends additional professional resources.

“The bigger picture includes families,” notes Shanda. “When I started at CMAS, it was mostly about spending time with staff, so they feel confident and competent. In turn, they would work with the parents to support the child. As time went on, I noticed staff struggling because parents need support, too. Part of my role is guidance for parents who are navigating outside of the settlement agency. Now, I try for a team approach.”

These conversations can be both delicate and overwhelming. Parents may not even have the language skills to understand the challenges faced by their child nor the supports available.


Step 4: Ongoing Team Support

In fact, in one recent case, Shanda invited the family’s settlement worker to a meeting to provide interpretation services.  This helped the mom fully understand Shanda’s advice on the resources needed, how she could access them, and even how to apply for associated tax credits. Next, Shanda was able to enlist the settlement worker’s help in everything from assistance in filling out forms to access therapy for the child to seeking out support services for the mom.

“This is how we need to be approaching special needs cases in our programs–myself, staff and parents involved, plus a settlement worker who was willing to go above and beyond,” recalls Shanda. “We can give parents knowledge of resources and pride in their role, but we don’t want them to carry the whole load on their own.”

Getting everyone involved and comfortable with seeking support from the start is key, as early intervention leads to a better outcome for the child’s wellbeing.

As Shanda says, “We have to ask ourselves, ‘How do I help a child to move along in an environment or community, so they can better navigate it now and in the future?’”

Often, the answer to that requires a team effort.

To contact Shanda, you can email her at