Thanks to Shawna Akerman, Educational Coaching, Disability Advocate, ASD Focused, Adulting Specialist and founder of Karmacountrycamp, for her insightful comments.
Everyone has had to adjust in one way or another to the COVID-19 pandemic. This reality is especially true for families with children with special needs.
It’s difficult enough for kids to adjust to new learning methods, but children with special needs face unique challenges during this time of distance learning. From navigating websites to dealing with remote instruction, limited accessibility to access education, and social interaction being almost impossible, kids with special needs need as much support as possible from their parents during this time. Burnout is overwhelming as support from outside services, agencies and programs are limited.
Recognizing the Challenges We Face is Important
Child development experts point out that admitting we’re all facing unexpected challenges right now is the first step to meeting those challenges head-on.
According to Barbara Bentley, PsyD., clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a specialist in developmental and behavioral pediatrics, “It’s really important for everybody to realize, ‘This is hard!’ Nobody’s really feeling like we’ve got this. Being gentle about the expectations for yourself and your child is really important.”
Bentley believes one of the most important things parents can do is recognize what a significant event this is for children with special needs. Kids are experiencing fear and anxiety no matter their needs, but children in need of additional support during the best of times really struggle when something like COVID-19 arises.
Many kids with special needs get a significant amount of support through the school system. For many, that support isn’t there right now. That means parents must step up and fill in the gaps – something that’s easier said than done for many families. Demands like educational guidance and supervision throughout the at-home school day and finding an alternative learning environment is putting a strain on a lot of families, emotionally and financially.
Read this poignant account of pandemic life stressors, for a family of three children, one of whom has a neurogenetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome, ‘During coronavirus, families like mine have been hung out to dry’
How Can Parents Help Kids with Special Needs during COVID-19?
One of the greatest challenges kids with special needs face is prioritizing their tasks and planning their day. Parents who take the time to write out a schedule with their child and create manageable priorities put kids on the path to successful at-home schooling right from the start. Often, giving kids direction in the morning is enough to keep them on track all day.
Parents can also “practice what they preach.” Setting a good example for your child is a great way to guide and support them during this difficult time. COVID-19 distancing guidelines are difficult for all of us and the sooner parents create an organized work-from-home schedule the better for everyone in the family.
Not all learning tools are going to work across the board for all children. This is especially true when it comes to kids with special needs. Even the most successful learning tools might not be a good fit for your child.
Parents should not be afraid to experiment. There is no “right way” to navigate educating your child during the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone is learning as they go. The best thing you can do is be flexible and give tools a try until you find one that suits your child. In many cases, using your child’s existing interests as a guide can help. Make a list of things your child loves and look for ways to incorporate these things into your at-home curriculum.
Take a Comprehensive Approach to Schooling at Home
It’s also important for parents must remember that traditional in-person school days are not focused exclusively on academic learning. Kids aren’t sitting at their desks for six hours, nor should they be. It’s just as important to work physical activity, recess, meals, and downtime into the schedule as it is to include traditional learning activities.
This includes social time, too, which can be challenging with social distancing guidelines in place. Parents should be a resource for others in their community who share the same challenges they do. Speak to other parents of kids with special needs and come up with plans for kids to socialize safely. This might be remotely or virtually or it could include outings to wide-open outdoor spaces for supervised play.
Finally, make sure you are addressing your child’s emotional needs. These are unpredictable times and for kids with special needs, the situation can be frightening. It’s important to not brush your child’s emotions aside. You might not be able to “fix” things, but you can offer your child a safe and non-judgmental space to share the overwhelming feelings that might arise.
Setting aside some time each day, even on days when difficult emotions aren’t a pressing issue, can help to ward off a meltdown you don’t see coming. Including relaxation time in your schedule can help you and your child. A routine that includes the following relaxation exercise can help:
• Sit in a quiet space with your child and take a few deep breaths.
• Stretch out your arms and legs, spread your fingers and toes, and clench the muscles in your body for a count of three. Relax and repeat three to five times or more.
• Inhale one last time as deeply as possible and slowly exhale.
If you notice throughout the day that your child is getting edgy or restless, take a break. Spend 10 to 15 minutes coloring, playing with a beloved pet, doing jumping jacks, dancing and singing, or running around outside. Use your intuition to figure out what your child might need at any given moment or ask him or her for guidance. This also helps kids feel as if they have some control in their day which is very empowering.
In summary, there are many things parents can do to make COVID-19 schooling a little easier for kids with special needs. If you’re looking for direction, try a few of the following:
From Shawna Akerman, “Set a schedule for work and breaks. Find two peers who are working online and hang out virtually on “mute” while doing your own work or sit across from your child so they can look up and refocus when they get distracted.
Get creative. School is fun. Making learning at home fun. Color code the schedule. Use Pinterest and involve your child in creating the schedule. Use household routines to practice academic skills. Bring math into the kitchen. Closed Captions on all devices for reading support.”
Youtube has teaching videos to watch to build vocabulary skills. Have your child create videos to teach you what they learned. Hire a teacher to help you get creative at home. Read the curriculum so you know what the goals of the year are.
• Storyline https://www.storylineonline.net/
• Purchase a fun timer to keep you on track
• Set clear realistic goals each day to feel successful
• Incorporate story time into your day and consider using it as a chance to focus on something COVID-19 specific – the importance of handwashing, keeping in touch with friends when you can’t see them in person, etc.
• Create a visual depiction of your daily schedule and post it where your child can see it throughout the school day
• Praise your child frequently – positive feedback is motivational
• Offer plenty of sensory opportunities throughout the day, including visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory stimulation
• Find out what social support is available in your area and don’t be afraid to use it
• Hire a teacher in training to support you home schedule
From Shawna Akerman, “If you are caring for as child with special needs PLEASE be compassionate with yourself. The important things to remember are, emotional learning is as important as academic. You child will remember how you reacted to negativity and frustration. Model emotion regulation, it is a key to success in the educational and employment world.”