While many students are now starting to return to in-person classes, many more are gearing up to get back to remote classes. Parents, having learned from the pains of last spring’s abrupt shift to e-learning, are frantically working to create the best possible at-home learning environment. Setting up at home doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be thoughtful. When it comes to children with special needs, a little monetary investment and a lot of creative thinking can make a big difference in terms of focus and regulation.
Over the course of the summer, we’ve been taking some deep dives into pandemic parenting tips, things to think about prior to reopening, and how to better care for yourself so that you can care for your child. Need a refresher? Take a look at our previous articles on how to advocate for your child’s special needs, managing meltdowns, creating good transitions, and setting flexible goals.
Set up your space for success.
- Create a separate, dedicated workspace in your house for each child and, if at all possible, make sure they’re far enough apart to keep them from seeing, hearing, or otherwise distracting each other while working. Let each child personalize his space—within reason—using posters, stickers, fun lighting and seating options, etc.
- Take care to recreate any sensory-specific accommodations the school has made for your child up to this point: flexible seating and lighting, fidget options, etc. Don’t hesitate to reach out to his old teachers or special ed teachers if you need help or ideas.
- Recreate some more general classroom elements as well. Many stores are now selling laminated wall charts featuring the alphabet, days of the week, and the weather. You can also make your own and have them laminated at your local office supply store.
- If you’re able, get your child pumped up by going “back to school” shopping—whether online or in-store—and let him pick out some school supplies he’s excited about. Think funny notebooks, new headphones/headsets, flash drives, pens with different colored inks, and anything with a favorite character.
- Set aside a couple hours to make sure all your child’s technology is set up and working properly. Download apps, double-check passwords, pair Bluetooth devices, etc. A little bit of time working out the kinks now will save hours of frustration later.
Focus on creating good transitions.
- Create a weekly schedule for each child and hang it in an obvious place. Include a list of each class or subject, preferably color-coded, and a brief description of what your child should be doing in the few minutes between subjects (“Do 10 jumping jacks and get a glass of water,” or “Use the bathroom and move to the desk for math time.”)
- Consider single-use timekeeping devices such as digital watches, timers, or alarm clocks. Whether it’s an old-school egg timer or a multi-sensory alarm clock designed for children with special needs, having a dedicated way to track time will keep your child from picking up his phone and becoming distracted throughout the day.
- Further avoid distractions by using dedicated apps rather than bookmarks in your browser whenever possible. (Here are some ways for Mac users to turn web pages into dedicated desktop applications.)
- Develop some strategies to help your child transition between activities that have to be done in the same space. Consider using different devices for different subjects, changing the lighting for math, facing another direction for social studies, putting some desk items away for reading, or simply hanging a sticky note with the current subject name above the desk. If you color-coded your schedule, make sure folders (both physical and digital), notebooks, and pens for each subject align to those colors.
- Remember to keep moving! Remote learning likely means your child will be sitting in one or two spots for the majority of the day therefore won’t have as many natural breaks to get up, go outside, move up and down stairs, etc. Start the day with a walk or some exercise, and remember to build in frequent movement breaks.
- Try to keep your child’s routine as regular as possible. Studies have shown that roughly consistent sleep and waking times help children stay focused and more regulated throughout the day. You might let him sleep later than he would for in-person classes, but the basic routine should be intact (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.).
Think about a time when you took a few moments to move from one thing in your life to another. Maybe you had an important conference call or presentation, and you took ten minutes before it started to fold some laundry or walk around the block. Maybe you went for a run Friday after work to burn off some stress before settling in for a long weekend with the kids. Whether you were aware of it or not, you weren’t simply “clearing your head” before you moved into the next task—you were self-soothing, self-regulating, and engaging in good transition habits.
As we close the books on e-learning and start venturing out into reopening public spaces, we need to be extra conscious of how things have changed and how these changes are affecting our families. Sudden changes in environment or routine can leave some children, especially those with special needs, feeling overwhelmed, deregulated, and anxious. Below are some tips and suggestions for effectively managing transitions for your child. (See also: our previous post on managing deregulation.)
Talk about what’s changing.
- Set your child’s expectations accordingly. Focus specifically on what tangible, practical things will be different for her and how her routine will need to adjust. What exactly is changing? What exactly will be different? What is staying the same? Having an idea of what to expect and what to count on can be hugely comforting.
- Build your child’s confidence by talking with her about times things have changed in the past and how she was able to manage it successfully. (“I know starting fourth grade can feel hard and scary. It might feel like starting third grade last year. What did you do to help you get through it then? You sure learned a lot. Is there something you will do differently this time?”)
- Give your child a manageable number of options and choices whenever possible. She shouldn’t necessarily be the primary decision maker, but she should know you value her input and want her to be happy. (“Would you like to have reading time before or after lunch today? Would you like to have apples or oranges with your snack?”)
- When giving your child choices, focus on the desired outcome. For example, you might ask what she wants to accomplish with her e-learning program, and she might respond, “I want to be done by 3:00.” Instead of focusing on the narrow parameters of the goal, reframe it as an opportunity to work on a desirable outcome—in this instance, the desirable outcome would be developing good time management skills.
Create a transition ritual.
- Rituals are a great way for children to learn to manage daily transitions, self-regulate, and develop the flexibility to adapt to new situations. Reserve small blocks of time between activities for jumping jacks, deep breaths, a walk around the block, or any combination of things that allow your child to calm down and recenter.
- Have your child incorporate some physical component into her ritual if possible. Think of a basketball player shooting free throws or a baseball player stepping up to the plate—a few small gestures can be a powerful signal to the brain that it’s time to shift focus.
- Create family rituals and traditions to mark major life events, seasonal changes, and weekly milestones. Start the summer with barbecue in the backyard, have a “fashion show” before the first day of school, or kick off the weekend with a Friday night movie. Having the whole family participate can be comforting to your child, and it can help her understand that changes in routine are a normal part of life and can be fun.
- Practice what you preach! Be conscious of what changes are affecting you and learn to cope with your anxiety. Create a transition ritual for yourself and model it for your child. Be vocal about what you’re doing to get yourself ready for the next thing in your day. (“I need a few minutes to get ready for my meeting. I’m going to take a walk around the block and get some of my energy out.”)
Control your environment.
- To the extent you can, organize the day in blocks that work well for your child. Pay close attention to her interests, frustrations, energy level, and attention span. Don’t try to force too many small activities back to back if her transitions tend to be long and difficult, and be sure to build in frequent movement breaks.
- Talk to your child about what activity is coming up next and give her verbal warnings, such as five minutes until bedtime or ten minutes left to play outside. Keep in mind you’ll need to remind her more than once.
- Take care to limit distractions and potential sensory triggers. Be mindful of light coming from windows or lamps. Make sure your child has earbuds or noise canceling headphones if she needs them, and teach her how to adjust both the volume and brightness on your laptop, tablet, or phone.
- Arrange and rearrange your physical environment to best accommodate the task at hand. If possible, have different rooms for different activities, and move objects out of the area that aren’t needed. Put school computers and workbooks away on the weekend, for example, or put toys in a basket and take them out of the room during homework time.
- Let your child acclimate to each space and activity in a way that makes sense for her. You might have a few Legos in the corner of her reading area to help her calm down from a busy morning, or she might need to run outside and burn off energy before settling down into dedicated reading time. Either way is perfectly fine—just be strategic.
Many states are now entering their second full month of lockdown, and we’re all struggling to adjust to this new way of life. Distance learning, working from home, sheltering in place with your family—it’s a lot to take in for anyone, and it can be especially disruptive and upsetting for children with sensory sensitivities or other developmental issues.
Below are some tips to identify when your child is deregulated and manage sensory-related meltdowns. While these strategies have worked well for our families, remember there is no single schedule or process that works for everyone, and no one knows your child better than you. Don’t be afraid to go with whatever works for your family.
Signs your child is deregulated:
- Appears excessively energetic, manic, or slap-happy
- Appears aloof or distracted; fidgets or spaces out constantly
- Has a heightened sensitivity to sensory input, such as light or sound
- Has disproportionate or extreme reactions to stimulation or stress
- Regresses into past behaviors when stimulated (meltdowns, thumb sucking, etc.)
Deescalate tantrums and meltdowns.
- Meet aggression with empathy and compassion. Start by validating your child’s feelings—not by telling her how she should be feeling or how you feel.
- Create a “safe space” away from the rest of the family where your child can go to calm down until she’s ready to talk. Be clear that time in this space is not a punishment.
- Allow time for the “fight or flight” response to work itself out of the body before trying to have a conversation (usually about 20 minutes).
- Don’t expect your child to “fix” the issue right away. Discuss how you can work together to tackle this problem in the future, give her time to process, and allow her to try again.
- Come up with a “safe word” or gesture your child can use to indicate she’s becoming frustrated or upset. When she does use it, make sure to step back and allow her to calm down before continuing the conversation.
- If needed, use a social story to help your child identify her own feelings and understand the feelings of others. (Pop culture references, like the movie Inside Out, are also good.)
Look for triggers in your environment.
- Monitor your child’s use of electronics, keeping in mind that signs of deregulation can manifest as late as 30-90 minutes after screen time has stopped.
- Be mindful of how many activities your child’s doing each day, including Zoom calls. Even if she enjoys these activities, too many transitions can be stressful and exhausting.
- Make sure your child is physically active. Sensory diets have been shown to help improve concentration, alertness, and calmness in children with sensory issues.
- Avoid teasing, nagging, or other antagonistic behaviors that might result in an outsized reaction. Make sure siblings have time apart.
- Children react to how parents manage stress. Make time to care for yourself—even though it’s hard—and demonstrate healthy ways to manage stress and talk about feeling deregulated. (“Mommy’s a little overwhelmed right now. My brain feels scrambled, and I need a break.”)
Create good transition habits.
- Allow 10-20 minutes of transition time between each activity if at all possible. Avoid multitasking during this time.
- Help your child come up with a transition ritual. This can include screen time, quiet time, or any number of activities that will help her regulate and ramp up to the next task.
- Remember, too many transitions can be exhausting and lead to meltdowns. Be aware of how many activities your child’s doing in a given day and look for signs of deregulation.
The holidays are just barely over, but Spring Break is already coming up fast! Whether you’re planning on relaxing at home or flying off to Disney World, accounting for your child’s sensory sensitivities can feel overwhelming–but, with a little extra thought and careful planning, it can be done!
See below for a few of our favorite tips on tackling spring break and traveling with sensory needs.
Tips for Traveling with Sensory Needs
- Don’t stop at online research. Call up the resort, park, or club and talk about your child’s specific needs and available accommodations. (Disney, for example, has a wide variety of services for patrons with disabilities.)
- Keep your routine as intact as possible. If you can, rent a house or Airbnb instead of getting a hotel room. This will give you more control over meal prep, baths, and sleeping arrangements.
- Practice good transitions. Take the few minutes between activities to make sure your child has a bathroom break, a snack, or even just a few deep breaths.
- Pack for your child’s sensory triggers. Helpful items might include noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, smelling jars, or a picky eater’s favorite snack.
- Plan your stops. If you’re driving, pack a cooler and eat at rest areas or parks instead of restaurants. Build in time to let your child run around and burn off excess energy.
- Keep your own expectations in check. Leave plans open-ended whenever possible. Rather than trying to stick to a rigid schedule, try to do just one or two things each day.
- Make sure your child knows what to expect. Print out maps, brochures, and photos from Google or Yelp and go over them together. Practice waiting in line and develop strategies for dealing with overwhelming situations.
- Build in downtime. Each member of the family should have time to go for a walk, read a book, or do whatever calms and centers them. Remember, taking time for yourself will allow you to be more present and able to fully enjoy your time together.
Some Tips for Staying Home
- Keep your routine as intact as possible. If you do need to change up your family’s schedule, talk to your child about how this week will be different than usual.
- Take day trips. Shorter, focused outings are generally cheaper and allow you to maintain more control over meals, timing, etc.
- Look for less trafficked alternatives to popular destinations. Check out smaller train or art museums, or go see your local minor league team instead of the Cubs.
- Know when other schools are on break. Keep in mind that play places and other popular destinations will be much, much busier than usual.