While many parents struggle to make homeschooling work for children whose schools have shut down due to coronavirus, parents of children with special needs are faced with the additional challenge of trying to replicate their kids’ different therapies and unique school environments from home.
Emily Scheinert, who runs the Autism Teacher Instagram account and is a certified K-12 Special Education Teacher based in Charleston, S.C., has been taping short lessons at home and sending activities for students to work on with their families as a result of the state’s school closures. She offers her best tips on trying to help your special needs kids get as much as possible out of the next few weeks of homeschooling.
Why is school closure particularly challenging for kids with special needs?
For children of all abilities, school plays such a critical role in their everyday life. For many kids, their classroom is their second home and “safe place.” Kids with special needs especially crave the structure and predictability in daily routine that school provides best. With this big change may come big push back for some children. Others may find it difficult to view home as a place where they now receive instruction if they have never done so before. It will take time and consistency for families to establish a successful “new normal.”
How can parents work with teachers to help bridge the gap until their kids are back at school?
Establishing what their schedule will look like is the first step that parents should take. Align their home routine with their typical school day; pay attention to what times they were eating at school, going outside, and completing academics and aspire to mimic that. Once parents have established a schedule, they can begin to prepare their home for where different activities will take place.
I encourage families to complete activities in the same places each day. This will help kids adjust more quickly to their “new normal” and add a level of a predictability which will reduce the anxiety that typically comes with the unexpected. For example, if parents are going to do arts and crafts at the kitchen table, do so every day and keep a small bin of supplies you may need (scissors, glue, paper, etc.) nearby.
What kind of resources do special needs teachers rely on that they can share with parents?
Your child’s teacher should be able to send you homework you can print out at home. Families who do not have access to a printer should let their school know and they should be able to drop off printed materials. I have been sending my students’ families various websites and educational videos and music to incorporate into their daily routines as well. Your child’s teacher will likely do the same but feel free to reach out to them and ask for more resources should you need them!
For parents who feel intimidated or not fully equipped to deliver the level of education their special needs kids get from specialists and therapists, what would you recommend?
It’s okay if parents do not deliver new instruction, especially not right away! Parents should focus on taking time to maintain the skills their child has previously acquired. Start with what they already know and use tons of positive reinforcement. You may surprise yourself with how far you can go!
On another note, the home environment is a great place for learning! Take time to teach them lessons that feel natural in the home environment, things that you feel confident in teaching because you do them often. Making a peanut butter jelly sandwich, folding laundry, sorting silverware, gardening, etc. There are so many life skills to teach outside of the classroom that you now have the time to address! If you can take this time off to instill a little more independence in your child, then you have delivered the instruction that matters most!
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I’ve seen those schedules going around for kids that break the day into 45-minute-chunks. Are those good to use for kids on any end of the spectrum or will they need adjustments for special needs?
Parents know their child best and how long their attention span typically lasts. It is likely students have a longer attention span in the classroom setting with their teacher. If they are doing math for 40 minutes at school, start with 20 minutes at home. You can always work to build this time up but start slow. Use a timer. Allow your child to earn two-to-five minute breaks after completing a satisfactory chunk of work. Get a basket of things you know they like for these break times (Play Doh, small toys, bubbles, music). These items should be highly motivating and only used for work breaks. This will increase their motivation and keep your learning time together positive.
Maintain a visual schedule of their day, let them see what is coming next, let them mark off what they have completed as they day progresses. Keep it up to date and make them aware of any changes you have made to the schedule beforehand. Especially in the beginning, parents should take extra time to go over their daily schedule until it is learned by the child.
Are there particular hardships special needs kids/parents face when school is out (since many rely on therapy they get through the school system)? Any setbacks or other bumps to prepare for?
If your child receives therapy, stay in communication with their therapist(s). They should be able to give you plenty of activities to do at home that will work towards their targeted goals. Get online because there are many resources available to you, now more than ever. Your child’s therapist(s) should be able to point you in the right direction if you don’t know where to start. Your child may still be able to receive therapy that is medically prescribed, or they may ask to move to video conferencing. Speak with your therapists and insurance providers to understand how your child will be impacted during these times.
This is the first time many of us will be “teaching” – any tips on how to stay energized and motivated as we do it?
Celebrate the small wins every day. Did they sit in a chair for X amount of time? Did they create a piece of artwork? Whatever it may be, celebrate it and let them see you celebrating it! This will bring you joy as their teacher and your child joy as a student who is succeeding.
Give yourself some grace. It isn’t easy to go from a parent to a parent and a teacher. Try to enjoy this time because it truly is a special opportunity for you to have quality time with your child while playing a hands-on role in their education. Take notice of how they learn and work with you. This time will inevitably help you be a better advocate for your child’s needs in the future. It will help you better relate to teachers and professionals in meetings and will hopefully bring your child and you much closer.
Try to be as prepared as possible. You will lose your child’s attention if you are preparing a lesson while they are there. This is why most teachers either stay after school or come in early (or both). Preparation is the best thing you can do to ensure a smooth day.
Any other advice?
The last thing I would say is all parents are in the same boat as you whether their children have special needs or not, everyone is in this together. Find refuge in that and talk to other parents so you don’t feel so alone. Teachers, therapists, and administrators are all out of work and so eager to help as well. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
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Do you have any resources you particularly like?
Some free ones I recommend: ABCYa, Starfall, Sheppard Software, Cool Math 4 Kids, Scholastic Study Jams, Storyline Online, National Geographic Kids, PBS Kids, Seussville, Brain Pop Jr., Highlights Kids.
Some good paid ones: Teach Town and ABC Mouse.
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