Families of Children with Special Needs Face Additional Challenges During Quarantine | News from the FIU
By Rumi Agarwal, candidate doctorate, Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work
Since the schools closed for in-person learning in mid-March, my many WhatsApp discussion groups have been buzzing with moms wondering, “What are the schools planning to do?” “Do you plan to send your child away in the fall?” And by voicing concerns like “I’m having a hard time keeping my child busy and off the screen.” “I’m afraid my child is late this year.” As a parent, I share their plight and that of many other parents and caregivers across the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic has called into question the way we manage our professional, academic and social obligations. For families with a child with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), the pandemic has added an additional level of challenge: ensuring that the child’s unique learning needs are met by caregivers who are not necessarily trained or prepared to provide academic support.
Being in a physical classroom in a school setting offers many benefits for students with IDD. It offers much needed structure and routine, clear boundaries, an opportunity for socialization and independence, and academic support aligned with the needs of each student.
With the likelihood of virtual classrooms for most students in the coming school year, it is imperative that we think about strategies that allow us to support our child and prevent COVID Slide. Similar to the “summer slide,” this is a phenomenon where students demonstrate decreased learning as a result of the summer break or, in this case, circumstances brought on by the pandemic.
What can families of children with IDD do to cope with the COVID slide? The most important thing right now is to work with your child to create a realistic structure that catches their interest and keeps them engaged, creative, involved, and continually learning. Based on my own research and a recent item which offers advice to families of children with autism, here are some suggestions for starting a family.
- Contact your child’s teachers, programs, and therapists to see if they have recommendations based on your child’s specific needs; ask the school if they can change the learning mechanism – maybe you know, from the virtual switch from March to June, that sitting in front of a classroom live via Zoom will not hold the interest your child; look for a tutor to create a formal school program at home – we all know that children listen to other adults better than their parents.
- Explore the educational apps that can be incorporated into the daily schedule.
- Check to see if existing mentors for transitional age children or adults can continue to register once a week to provide support and guidance.
- Schedule virtual time with grandparents where they can take turns reading a book or playing virtual games with each other like Ludo. It’s a win-win because older family members also face loneliness and would appreciate the connection!
- Make family walks and meals a fun learning time, think “Can you make five equal piles with the peas on your plate?” “What are the numbers in this mailbox for?” “What do you see in the clouds?” then make a story with that picture being the main character.
In addition to academic growth, use this time to develop independent living skills, which are equally important for holistic development.
- Take a walk and teach your kid to cross the street and navigate the neighborhood using a map app on a phone.
- Create a daily schedule together with your child that includes both academic and independent activities. Design slots for basic grooming, tasks (like helping with meal preparation, sorting or laundry based on age), creative time, physical activity, and tasks such as schoolwork.
- Consider recording a video of your child doing each daily activity as a reminder of the sequence of steps and as a memorable achievement.
Finally, screen time is inevitable (and we need to stop feeling guilty about it!), But you can establish screen time as a privilege when all other required activities are completed. Teach your child how to set an alarm on a device like Alexa to prompt them to switch from screen time to the next activity.
Returning to school in the fall will be a new experience for all of us, regardless of the context. As parents and guardians, we need to think about how we can support our children, especially those with special learning needs. However, it is equally important to remember that you are their parent first, and then a teacher. If you lose patience, remember to take a step back and nurture the parent-child relationship. Maybe we can all use our focus groups with mothers to express ourselves a bit and share strategies that support learning in the classroom age at home.