Managing the Coronavirus Break for Children with Disabilities

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Managing the Coronavirus Break for Children with Disabilities; Removing the Stumbling Block

This is, without a doubt, a most strange and unusual time. This unprecedented break in not just school, but life, is unsettling, stressful, and anxiety-provoking, to say the least.

Educators have been asked to rapidly change the way they offer instruction. Many have quickly and adeptly found ways to pivot to keep students engaged and learning. Most are also weighing the balance between enough and too much in regard to online instruction. This is unfamiliar territory for most, amidst a time of heightened anxiety, and trying to figure out what is right is taking a lot of trial and error.

What’s interesting is that one of the most significant, underlying principles of inclusion is trial and error. A willingness to be flexible, pivot on the fly, and go in an unplanned direction when it produces a meaningful result is the hallmark of good inclusive education. It is a bright spot in an otherwise challenging time to notice so many educators willing and able to do exactly this. I am so hopeful that when this ends (and it will!) educators will remember these skills and bring them back into their classrooms.

I have also found myself thinking a lot about summer vacation. While I am aware that this is definitely not the same, I have been noticing some distinct parallels, especially for families with children who have disabilities and learning issues.

We often 
assume that all families look forward to summer vacation, but sometimes it’s anxiety and not joy that accompanies the dismissal bell on that last day of the school year. Parents of children with a variety of disabilities and learning issues, for example, often notice that their kids thrive on the structure and routine the academic year provides; the prospect of long stretches of unscheduled time can be overwhelming. This brings us to where we are right now.

Here are some fun and engaging ways to make this unscheduled and unusual break more manageable and more enjoyable for children with a variety of disabilities and learning differences:

1. Create a calendar
Develop a calendar of a week at a time to plan out activities such as online school, FaceTime playdates, walks outside, playtime, cooking, etc. The unknown in this situation can be scary, so not trying to go beyond a week can add reassurance. Seeing each week laid out can help children with attention deficits and visual processing issues to cope with what may feel like too much unstructured time. Also, schedule opportunities to focus on longer-term opportunities such as a household building project so children can understand the value of working on large-scale projects one small piece at a time. In addition, given how much is digital and online right now, using a physical calendar can provide a much welcome break. Here are some great options: 
magnetic weekly calendar for children
weekly dry erase schedule with markers

2. Create daily schedules
Hours of unstructured time may create anxiety or overwhelm children with disabilities such as autism or mood disorders. Left to their own devices, many children may spend hours watching television, playing video games, or worse: complaining about how bored they are. Providing children with a daily schedule — and engaging them in some elements of planning — will help them move through this challenging days more smoothly, confidently, and with a sense of purpose.

Here is an example of how to schedule a day to keep kids engaged:

·       8:00 a.m.      Breakfast
·       8:30 a.m.      Online school
·       10:00 a.m.    Break
·       10:15 a.m.     Online school
·       12:00 p.m.    Lunch
·       12:30 p.m.    Outdoor play (if weather permits) or other 
                          physical exercise
·       3:00 p.m.     Hobby or craft time
·       4:30 p.m.     Free time
·       6:00 p.m.     Dinner
·       7:00 p.m.     Family reading time, game night, or movie 

Some important things to keep in mind:
  • Consistency is key. Even though each day’s schedule may vary slightly, maintaining the basic structure — including meal times and other set features — will help children know what to expect.
  • Review the schedule for the next day each night at bedtime. This helps children who struggle with transitions to feel more prepared.
  • Post the schedule in the kitchen or some other readily-accessible place, or let family members carry copies with them. Being able to refer to the schedule throughout the day is both reassuring and empowering for kids who learn visually. Here are some good options for creating visual schedules:
Visual Schedule with multiple sectionsvisual schedule

  • Adapt to your child’s preferences and moods from time to time. Even when children need routines to flourish, take advantage of this time to do things you may have always wanted to do.

3. Read together.
Set a specific time each day for family reading. Everyone can read from their own copy of a book silently, take turns reading out loud, or even listen to a recording of the book together. These techniques will benefit children with dyslexia, auditory processing problems, or other reading-related disabilities. Use chapter breaks as an opportunity to talk about characters, settings, or plot points. As an added bonus to get children excited about finishing a book, plan a party to celebrate making it all the way through. Make your celebration special, and build excitement about it, by baking themed treats or decorating the house.

4. Start a blog.
Many children view using the computer as a reward, so writing on one instead of in a notebook may encourage kids to spend additional time drafting posts about their days. This may be particularly helpful for children who struggle to express their ideas and feelings in writing, such as those with dysgraphia, fine motor challenges, or visual processing issues. Once you have determined a set of topics to help focus your child’s composition, encourage them to write about their ideas or experiences a few times each week. Establish a publishing schedule, and create a blog calendar to help keep track of posts. As an added bonus, children may enjoy tracking the blog’s stats. This creates an opportunity to practice math skills, an added benefit for those with dyscalculia, as hit counts increase over time.

5. Help those in need.
Building empathy in children requires thinking about others. Finding a way to help others during this challenging time will be both rewarding and reassuring.

This is indeed a strange time. Make sure you are listening to your children and caring for their mental health as well as your own. No one, NO ONE, has lived through a pandemic before, and there are going to be ups and downs, and lots of mistakes. It’s ok. Leave room to forgive yourself, you are doing the best you can.

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