Back To School: When Your Child’s Needs Aren’t Being Met

A few weeks ago, we talked about ways to be proactive, flexible, and collaborative when advocating for your child’s special needs at the start of the school year. Now that schools are fully back in session, parents everywhere are starting to feel the true limitations of virtual and blended learning. Many children—especially those with special needs—are struggling to manage their time, emotions, and workload outside of a traditional learning environment.

Your child might not be getting the support he needs right now, but that doesn’t mean your hands are tied. Below are some possible ways you can go about addressing gaps in your child’s accommodations. Remember, each response has pros and cons, and no solution works for everyone. You might even take different approaches at different points in your child’s life—and that’s okay! As always, only you know where you are on your journey and what feels right for your family right now.

Need someone to talk to about how to structure your child’s school day or advice on how to look for outside resources? Check out our new Caregiver Coaching service!

Option #1: Do nothing.

Though it can feel hopeless and frustrating, there are a myriad of reasons why you might not choose to pursue special accommodations for your child at this time. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by his struggles and aren’t sure where to start. Maybe you believe allowing him to have a “normal” childhood is more important than addressing some minor academic setbacks. Maybe you simply don’t have the bandwidth to juggle this new project in addition to the multitude of other responsibilities already on your plate.

Whatever the reason, finding yourself on this path doesn’t mean you don’t care about your child or that you’ve given up on him. Rather, frame this time as an opportunity to observe and learn about what makes your him tick. What kind of things make him frustrated? At what point does he give up or ask for help? What kinds of things does he love to do, and how does he excel at those things? This knowledge will be invaluable if/when you do pursue accommodations in the future.

Pros:

  • Both you and your child’s teacher will be able to observe his struggles and start collecting the data/examples you might need to advocate for him within the school.
  • You won’t be forced to spend time, money, or energy you don’t have right now.

Cons:

  • If you do nothing, nothing will change and your child will likely continue to struggle.
  • Those involved with your child on a daily basis (e.g. teachers, classmates, family members) will also continue to struggle to manage and support him.

Option #2: Demand change within the school system.

 

In some ways, this is the hardest and longest path to change, but it also yields the highest potential benefit to your child. That being said, you have to be tenacious. You need the time, energy, and resources to educate yourself about your particular district’s programs and policies. You need to have an understanding of how these programs operate during COVID—i.e., don’t expect services in week 2 if special ed programs aren’t starting until week 3. Finally, you need to come prepared with a clear description of your child’s struggles, anything you feel might contribute to his frustrations or inability to make progress, and some suggestions as to how the team, including parents, can address them in a virtual or blended setting.

Start by assuming the school is on your side, the teachers are good at their jobs, and everyone involved wants what’s best for your child. At the same time, acknowledge that COVID has been disruptive to virtually everyone and every system. Whether or not your school is able to provide him with every accommodation he needs, you will be on the path towards a better situation.

Pros:

  • Ideally, engaging the school is the first step in building a strong, coordinated team—including teachers, therapists, and psychologists—that will rally to support your child.
  • At the very least, you will be able to collect more data/examples/documentation on your child’s struggles and what the school is either unwilling or unable to address.
  • School services are provided during your child’s regular school day and generally don’t take time away from homework, extracurriculars, family time, or being with friends.

Cons:

  • It is hard. Dealing with the school system takes a lot of time, energy, purposeful observation, and creative thinking about how to solve problems—even when it feels like solving those problems should be the responsibility of teachers or case workers.

 

Option #3: Establish relationships directly with therapists, tutors, or other outside supports.

Whether you’re looking to establish entirely new supports or supplement existing ones, finding the right outside services for your child takes a lot of trial and error. In some cases, you’ll be able to provide the needed supports at home with relatively small investments. Most likely, though, you will need to spend some significant amount of time researching coaches, tutors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists, etc. Though these services can be expensive, this is the path that will have the most immediate effect on your child. 

School services are often incomplete/imperfect and might not be able to provide all the accommodations you need right now. This doesn’t necessarily mean your school is terrible or unwilling to cooperate; they simply might not be able to see things you’ve noticed in a home setting, or your child might be performing better at school—with various in-class supports—than he is at home, where schoolwork seems confusing and out of context. If you do feel the need to go outside of the school system for additional help, make sure you’re at least keeping them in the loop.

Pros:

  • You will be able to proactively, directly address your child’s issues and personally ensure that he’s getting the support and accommodations he needs to succeed.
  • You might be able to gain insight or more details about how to support your child in a day-to-day home setting, not just in an academic context.

Cons:

  • Tutors, coaches, and therapists can be costly in terms of both money and time.
  • You will become your child’s case manager. The burden of researching, scheduling, and coordinating different services now falls entirely on you, and it takes a lot of bandwidth.
  • Outside services don’t take place during your child’s school day. You will either need to occasionally remove him from class or take him away from extracurriculars, friends, etc.

Back to School: Returning to Remote Learning

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 needsmanaging meltdownscreating 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.).
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Back to School: Returning to In-Person Classes

And we’re off! For many students, the transition from August to September means masking up and returning to in-person classes. This year is sure to include all the usual jitters and so much more. Below are a couple more things to think about as your child starts to navigate a blended or in-person schedule.

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 needsmanaging meltdownscreating good transitions, and setting flexible goals.

Be collaborative.

  • Find a good mask. Get your child’s input on what kind of mask looks cool, which fits the best, ties vs. elastic bands, etc. Remember, the more she likes her mask, the more likely she is to leave it on. Consider experimenting with face shields or making your own from an old t-shirt featuring a favorite character, color, or pattern.
  • Once you’ve found the right mask, have your child practice wearing it for longer and longer periods of time, gradually working your way up to something that approximates a school day. Have her practice both talking through her own mask and listening to others talk through theirs. 
  • Talk about the importance of keeping at least six feet between your child and her classmates. Find quick, tangible ways to help her gauge and measure it in the real world. (“Six feet equals six tiles on the floor or six big steps,” or, “If you can reach out and touch your friend with your arm, you need to take some steps back.”)
  • Talk about and practice appropriate/right-sized ways for your child to ask for more space when someone around her is standing too close or not wearing a mask. Have her focus on her feelings and use “I” statements. (“I feel like I need some more distance,” or “I’m uncomfortable, so I’m going to take some steps backwards” as opposed to simply, “You need to move away.”)
  • Redundancy is the best policy. Send your child to school each day with two clearly marked bags—one full of clean masks, and one for dirty masks. Buy several clip-on bottles of hand sanitizer and stash extras in her locker, desk, cubby, and lunchbox. 

Pay attention to routine and transitions.

  • Remember, returning to school in this climate is sure to be emotionally taxing, even if your child only goes for a couple days a week. Have patience and empathy. All the normal back to school exhaustion and transition pains will be the same, if not worse.
  • Give your child some time immediately after coming home from school to relax and recenter. Don’t force her to talk about her day, run through her chores, or pick up the backpack she just dropped on the floor—at least not until she’s had time to transition back into being home on her own, in her own way.
  • On the same note, be conscious of scheduling after school activities, especially at the start of the year. Forcing too many activities—even things she typically enjoys—and too many transitions will only make her more exhausted and deregulated.
  • Try to keep your child’s routine as regular as possible, even on days when she doesn’t attend in-person classes. Studies have shown that roughly consistent sleep and waking times help children stay focused and more regulated throughout the day. You might let her sleep in an extra 30 minutes on at-home days, but the basic routine should be intact (brushing teeth, getting dressed, etc.).
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Back to School: Managing Anxiety and Setting Goals

Back to School is officially underway, and reopening plans and procedures are changing rapidly—sometimes from one day to the next. Parents and children alike are struggling to navigate the nuances of in-person vs. online classes, and we’re all dealing with the stress that comes with figuring out how to properly socially distance and keep the ones we love safe. 

A certain level of fear and apprehension is probably inevitable at this stage, but having a set of clear, defined goals and a path forward that accounts for the wants and needs of everyone in the family is the best antidote to anxiety. Below are a few things to think about as you gear up for the new year.

A couple notes:

  • Remember, you need to take care of yourself before you can be helpful to others. See our previous post for some tips on managing your own anxiety.
  • Everyone has bad days, but some of us need more help. Know your own threshold and watch your child for signs of depression and anxiety. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional if you think you or your child need it. (Learn more here.)

 

Build your plans and priorities together.

  • Hopefully, you’ve been talking to your child about your family’s re-opening and back to school plans for a while. If not, start now. Talk about why your family has decided on your particular plan and what specific, tangible things will be different about this school year. Make sure he has time to process and come back to you with questions. Have him repeat the plan back to you in his own words, and ask him what he’s nervous or concerned about. Be prepared to have this conversation many, many times.
  • Develop a hierarchy of priorities and address each new concern or development in relation to these. For instance, priority #1 is making sure everyone in the family is physically healthy, priority #2 is making sure everyone in the family is emotionally healthy, and priority #3 is making sure everyone can have some time to focus on jobs or schoolwork. These are your core objectives—be prepared to drop, modify, or postpone anything that interferes with them.
  • Set aside a time each day or week to meet and discuss your family’s goals and concerns, take stock of what’s going on in the outside world, and plan what you’ll do next. Keep the time and place of these meetings as consistent as possible. Give your child time to ask questions and follow up with specific questions of your own. Knowing he can count on these meetings will help give him a sense of security and resiliency.
  • Use these talks as an opportunity to start shifting some responsibility for self-soothing and self-regulation onto your child. Work on helping him “listen to his body” and matching physical sensations with his emotions. Talk about how he can know when he’s anxious and develop strategies he can use to make himself feel okay in uncomfortable situations.
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Give your child a voice and a vote.

  • Make sure to give your child a voice in your daily/weekly family discussions. Ask him what he needs to meet each of the three core objectives (happy, healthy, and productive) and how you can help with each. Focus on tangible things, like setting aside some time so he can ride his bike and get exercise, or ordering some new headphones so he can better concentrate on schoolwork. He might not always get exactly what he wants, but he will feel heard, respected, and more in control.
  • Remember, not all learning happens at school and not all productivity happens at work. Give your child the space and support to pursue some non-academic goals when possible. Skateboarding is a great way to work on balance and get some exercise, for example, and drawing can help him learn to process emotion and work through anxiety. Focus on the need or goal that is being met, not necessarily on the specific way he’s going about it.
  • That being said, giving your child a voice does not mean giving him total control. The goal is to incorporate what he wants into the things you know he needs as much as possible—it is not to make him superficially happy at all times. He may want to play video games for eight hours a day, for example, but you know that works against his best interests physically, emotionally, and relationally. As the parent, you have the right and responsibility to set healthy limits. 

Back to School: Revisit Your IEP and 504

If you’re a special needs parent, you know how important it is to advocate for your child’s needs at the start of each school year. You probably already know that the partnership relationships you form with teachers and administrators in the fall will form the foundation of your child’s success throughout the year. Whether you’re gearing up for homeschool, distance learning, in-person classes, or some combination of the three, now is the time to take another look at your child’s IEP/504 and to ensure that your child’s entire support team-—including you—is aligned on expectations regarding academics, behavior, and teacher-parent communication.

What new accommodations need to be made to best support your child in this new environment? What old accommodations are irrelevant or impossible during COVID? How will you partner with the school staff to identify and address problems and celebrate successes? How can the school support you as a parent, and how can your parenting support the school? Below are a few tips and things to think about as you prepare for the start of the new year.

Be proactive.

  • Now more than ever, your child’s success requires a proactive stance. Don’t wait until school starts to come up with a plan, or the district might have already implemented concrete processes that are very difficult or impossible to change.
  • Create a document that lists your child’s strengths and weaknesses, how these have impacted her academic performance in the past (both at home and at school), and how you predict they will impact her performance in her new learning environment. Include any current accommodations, and re-assess the needs they are addressing in light of COVID. Be as specific and concrete as possible. The school’s staff should have already read the existing documentation, but that’s not always the case—think of this as a cheat sheet to get everyone back up to speed.
  • Schedule a pre-school meeting with your IEP/504 team, and don’t be afraid to track them down via email or phone if you’re told they’re not available until school starts. Talk openly about your expectations, questions, and concerns. You don’t need to walk into—or out of—the meeting with all the answers. However, it is important that.everyone on your child’s team is on the same page and following the same game-plan, even when that means acknowledging that some concerns remain unaddressed and that some answers will unfold over time.
  • Develop a good communication plan. As the parent, you should be forewarned of any changes to your child’s schedule, curriculum, or physical surroundings. Set up frequent check-ins with her teacher and IEP/504 team and talk about the best way to keep you informed so that you can better prepare and socialize these changes at home.
  • If your child is physically returning to school, request a tour of the building before her first day so you can start prepping her. Pay attention to changes in the classroom and the location of bathrooms. If possible, have her teacher accompany you on the tour.

 

Be flexible.

  • Accept that any existing plans and accommodations will probably need to change—in fact the whole idea of “success” or “optimal performance” might need to change, especially for special needs children. You and/or your child’s teachers may not be able to evaluate certain things remotely, like how well she’s able to focus in class or on Zoom, so be willing to exchange observations and insights with school staff and to adjust your goals as needed.
  • Schedule frequent check-ins with your child’s teacher to discuss what’s working and what needs to change. Make sure to give each plan of action enough time to tell if it’s truly working, and agree on what the markers of success are and what will cause the plan to shift.  (“We are agreeing now that we will all start the year by trying Plan A. If my daughter meets this Goal by this Date, then we will all continue Plan A. If not, then within one week we will all switch to try Plan B.”)
  • Consider novel solutions to old problems. There may be cases in which your school simply can’t support your child to the same, pre-COVID level. Be open to bringing in outside coaches or tutors, and don’t hesitate to reach out to other parents for advice. (Need some advice? Check out our new caregiver coaching service!)
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Be collaborative.

  • Remember, you are part of the educational team now—you’ve spent a lot of valuable time with your child in quarantine, and you have unique insight into her that no one else has. You have a voice and a vote in these decisions.
  • Also remember that your special relationship with your child means that your child may respond differently to teachers and peers than to parents and siblings—for better or for worse! This is normal, especially after everyone in your household has all been through an intense spring and summer together. Be emotionally prepared to observe these differences in behavior, and try not to take them personally. Acknowledge what you observe, share it with the team, and maintain your focus on identifying your child’s needs and on partnering effectively with the school to ensure those needs are met.
  • Don’t shy away from sharing your experiences and talking to your team about any specific strategies or solutions that have worked for you—and what hasn’t worked. At the same time, be honest when you don’t have an answer. You don’t always have to.
  • Keep in mind that districts and teachers are struggling with how to manage COVID, too. Give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they all care about your child’s success and doing their jobs well.
  • That being said, teachers and admins are definitely overwhelmed. Approach things with a spirit of collaboration, but remember things will slip through the cracks and you will have to be tenacious.

Executive Functioning: A Perfect COVID Project

Summer’s in full swing, and fall—particularly the return to school—looms large on the horizon. So many headlines over the past few months have focused on what went wrong with the quick shift to e-learning last spring: technological and logistical barriers, interrupted coursework, and social setbacks. There’s so much focus on what hasn’t been achieved that we seem to have lost focus on what our children can be doing with this time—learning new skills, creating good habits, and working on executive functioning.

Executive functioning is what gives us our sense of independence and self-sufficiency. It’s how we’re able to set and stick to a schedule, determine the steps needed to complete a task, set a goal for ourselves, and evaluate our own performance along the way. Many parents—especially special needs parents—tend to absorb these responsibilities for our children. Now that COVID has forced us to slow down a bit, take this opportunity to help your child develop the skills that will benefit him his entire life—no matter what COVID brings us this fall.

Focus on the parts, not the whole.

  • Help your child identify a simple, clear goal, such as cleaning his room, making his bed, or finishing his book report. Work with him to break the larger goal down into small, manageable chunks. You might divide the room into different sections, break the book report out by paragraph, or create a step-by-step list of how to change the sheets.
  • Give him as much choice as possible about the order and specific way in which he completes each task. (“What’s one thing you can pick up off the floor? What part of your book do you want to write about today? Should we change the sheets or pillows first?”)
  • You will need to take the lead at first, but work on slowly letting your child take over more and more of the work, planning, and decision making for each task. Wait until he’s mastered each step before moving on to the next one. Note: This will be frustrating. He will be slow, make a mess, and do it his way—but you must let him do it! 
  • Talk about strategies you use in your own life and how you’ve applied them to different situations. Have him tell you about a time he was able to complete a task and how he might be able to use what he’s learned. (“When I cleaned my room, I broke it down into small chunks. I can break my book report down into small chunks, too.”)
  • Use photos, checklists, or other visual aids to help illustrate individual steps in a larger process, and make sure to keep them in context—bathroom routines should be hung in the bathroom, homework reminders in the study area, etc.
  • Celebrate the small victories! Make sure to give your child plenty of praise and positive reinforcement. Call out each step he mastered in order to accomplish his overarching goal, and remember he’s worked very hard—never tell him any part of it was “easy” or that he “could’ve done it all along.”

 

Learn what motivates your child.

  • That being said, there is nothing wrong with some external motivation. A reward, even a small one, gives your child stakes in a chore or task he might otherwise try to avoid. Just be sure to focus on positive rather than negative reinforcement—reward him for completing a goal, but don’t punish him or take something away for failing to do so.
  • Whether your child is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, make sure his goal is clearly articulated and as specific and focused as possible. If his goal is, “I want to be better at math,” help him break it down into tangible steps or milestones, like “I want to get 100% on a math assignment” or, “I want to work with my math flashcards three days a week.”
  • Teach your child to make connections between his goals and the specific things he needs to learn or practice in order to accomplish them. Use open-ended questions and let him work out the process on his own as much as possible. (“What do you want to accomplish with your math today? What small things can you do to work on that? What worked well last time, and what can you do differently? How will you know when you’ve reached your goal?”)

Some final thoughts:

  • Your example is powerful. Talk with your child about things you want to accomplish in your own life, what aspects of the process you find rewarding or challenging, and how you’re evaluating and adjusting as you go.
  • Likewise, talk about failure and setbacks. Very few of us accomplish everything we set out to do on the first try. Emphasize that mistakes are expected, that they are how we learn, and that there is almost always a chance to try again.
  • Make sure your goals are right-sized. If your child’s having trouble getting a particular thing done every day, shift to just a couple times a week. Be flexible and try not to overwhelm him with an overly rigid schedule or an unrealistic timeline.

Struggling with Pandemic Parenting? Time to Dust Off Your Sensory Toolkit.

As many states continue to pause their reopening plans due to a surge in COVID-19 cases, so many parents, particularly those with special needs children, are once again feeling like the world has been turned upside down. Routines are broken, resources are no longer available, the structure and social supports of school are gone. All the hard work you’ve done to set your child up for success in class, in enrichment activities, with peer groups and friends—it’s all out the window.

We all know that sensory regulation is key to your child’s ability to self-regulate and that tending proactively to sensory issues can be a game changer. Remember, the deregulation and processing issues you’re seeing now are not new—you’ve managed them before, pre-COVID, and you have the tools to tackle them now, even with diminished support from the outside world. How can you recreate those supports in your home, with your resources, in a way that is only dependent on you? It’s time to dust off your old set of tools, roll up your sleeves, and rebuild.

Take stock of what’s been lost due to COVID-related closures.

  • Your child may no longer be spending time in certain physical spaces—not just classrooms, but also gyms, swimming pools, and playgrounds. Because many families rely on school or public access to these spaces, some of your child’s favorite physical or stimulating activities might not be available to her.
  • Your child may no longer be experiencing clear, multi-sensory transitions from one space or activity to another, such as hearing a bell to start and end each class or having time to recenter on the walk home from school. This can have a negative effect on her ability to manage her own activities and perceive the passage of time.
  • Your child may not be receiving the same amount of “social practice” and real-time feedback from friends and classmates. Similarly, she may not be receiving the kinds of personalized coaching, behavioral reinforcement, and social guidance provided by highly trained teachers, coaches, and counselors.
  • Finally, everyone in the family may be experiencing frustration and confusion as they are forced to adapt to new tasks, roles, and responsibilities. Parents used to working full-time and managing mostly weekends and after school routines are now finding themselves solely responsible for round-the-clock childcare, teaching, and housekeeping. Siblings used to seeing each other for only a couple hours a day are now forced to be constant companions and playmates.

 

Commit some time to re-learning your child’s sensory profile.

  • Identify the places, situations, and tasks where your child tends to struggle. Is she distracted by lights or loud noises? Does she panic when asked to give a friend or family member a hug? Does she gag when trying new foods? (Check out our ongoing Sensory Spotlight series for more on how to identify and support sensory sensitivities.)
  • Pay attention to how your child’s deregulation manifests. Is she constantly seeking your attention, even if it’s negative? Does she become withdrawn and anxious when overwhelmed? Is her bedtime routine a struggle every single night?
  • Get input from your child about what she needs and prefers throughout the day. When possible, give her choices about the way she performs certain tasks or the order in which she completes each step in a larger process. Let her decide whether she does her homework at the kitchen table or the desk in her room, the order in which she performs her bedtime routine, or the activities she does during quiet time.
  • Work on creating good transition habits and pay careful attention to how your child’s sensory processing can affect her ability to move smoothly from one activity to another. See our previous article on building good transitions for tips.
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Work on integrating more sensory experiences into your everyday life.

  • Have your child help with household chores that have a sensory component. Sweeping the floor and sorting laundry have a strong visual component. Cooking incorporates many different textures, smells, and tastes. Even something as simple as carrying in grocery bags can provide the pressure craved by proprioceptive and tactile seekers.
  • If you’re able and feel comfortable, take your child along on trips to the grocery store or other small errands. Bright lights, busy environments, and new sounds and smells can be great for visual, olfactory, and auditory seekers.
  • Get creative with your play. Matching, category, and “same or different” games with toys or other household items are great for children with discrimination issues. Take an afternoon and build forts, Lego cities, or even your own sensory table. Play soccer, catch, or frisbee to work on proprioception and hand/eye coordination.
  • If your child needs more help with regulation and stimulation, consider contacting an occupational therapist and asking about incorporating a Sensory Diet—a regimented, highly personalized set of physical activities that your child can do at home. (Learn more here.)

Getting Your Family Ready for Reopening

“This [Covid] feels like having a newborn: You don’t know anything, you have to do everything, but so much feels out of your control. Everything is scary. As soon as you figure something out, it changes. There’s a lot of pressure and judgement. I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong.”

As we enter the fourth month of lockdown, there’s a lot of excited talk about finally “opening up” and getting back to a “new normal.” Some states are opening businesses and public spaces quickly, while others are opening in slow, deliberate phases. There is no single roadmap for this, no one set of guidelines, and so many of us still feel confused, exhausted, and out of control in ways we might not have felt since we first became parents. 

But remember, having a newborn allowed you to develop some amazing strengths as a parent: you were able to live in the moment, adapt quickly to new situations, prioritize (sometimes ruthlessly), and accept what you could not control. Reconnect with those strengths and lean into them as the world starts to reopen. With a little planning and a lot of communication, your family can make this transition in a way that feels thoughtful and safe for everyone.

Things to consider:

  • Telehealth availability is high, but so is the demand. Start making appointments—both virtual and in-person—for healthcare, therapy, and other family services now, even if the actual appointment is a ways off.
  • Some places may be quieter or less crowded than usual. However, keep in mind that social distancing and more thorough cleaning procedures might mean some things take a lot longer than usual, and some areas may be restricted. Don’t hesitate to call ahead and let providers know about your child’s particular needs.

 

Talk about it.

  • Learn how to read your child and understand to what level he needs the situation explained to him. Be attentive to both verbal and nonverbal communication about his level of understanding and his feelings about what he’s hearing (this could be vastly different for every child). Put things in direct, black and white terms as much as possible.
  • A plan is the best antidote for anxiety, so talk to your child about what to expect when you leave your house. Prepare him for how people might look (masks and gloves) and how people might behave (anxious or standoffish). Make sure he knows what’s expected of him in regards to distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing.
  • Stress the importance of respecting others’ choices in regards to social distancing. For example, Grandma’s not crazy for continuing to quarantine—she’s older and therefore higher risk, plus she might have other risk factors that lead her to be more cautious or anxious. On the other hand, you might know someone who has to return to work or is choosing to engage in more social activity than your family’s comfortable with. This is a situation that makes people emotional and defensive, and it’s not helpful to argue with others or be confrontational.
  • Talk to your family about how to manage transitions—into summer, into reopening, etc. Develop good “transition habits” as a family. All the rules of transitions apply: stay regulated, ease yourself into it, try not to force too many “new” things at once. (More on this next week!)

Take it slow.

  • Choose your family’s “safe” social circle and expand it slowly. Think of it like concentric rings, with the core/innermost circle being your household. The next innermost ring might include grandparents or your next door neighbors, and the ring beyond that might include cousins, friends, or coworkers. Make sure everyone in each ring agrees to the same “rules” about social distancing. Be explicit with your child about how you choose the members of your circle and what the rules are.
  • When you’re ready to start going out, apply this same idea to stores, offices, and establishments. In this instance, the innermost circle would be grocery stores, doctors, and other truly essential businesses. The second ring might be department stores and barbershops, and the ring beyond that might be restaurants.
  • Go on the first few outings alone if possible. This will let you get a lay of the land, acclimate yourself to the new way of doing things, and be better prepared to set your child’s expectations. Don’t be embarrassed to reach out to friends, neighbors, or the establishment itself and ask what to expect.
  • Check in frequently when you’re out with your child, and have an exit plan ready in case he needs a break or is misbehaving. If he does start to become frightened or overwhelmed, remind him you can both leave right away, with no consequences or punishment for him, and try again later. 
Shift Expectations

Shifting Expectations and Redefining Success

In our last post, we talked about some ways to manage your stress and get ahead of your anxiety during COVID-19. This week, we’re focusing on another way to prevent anxiety: getting rid of unrealistically high expectations and releasing yourself (and your child) from pre-COVID standards.

It’s important to remember that “lowering” your expectations doesn’t mean you’re expecting less from yourself or that you’re dropping the ball. To the contrary, giving yourself permission to redefine and reorder your priorities allows you to make room for things that allow your family the flexibility, regulation, and resiliency to be truly successful.

Adjust your expectations.

  • Learn to recognize symptoms of anxiety in yourself, physical and otherwise. Get in the habit of rating your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 throughout the day, and let your family know when you start feeling overwhelmed.
  • This is a hard, scary time, and you are one person who cannot do everything you’re used to doing in a given day or week. Give yourself permission to let some things go.
  • Accept that you can’t predict or control what the next few months will bring. Take things one day at a time and don’t spend valuable energy worrying about when schools will reopen or whether you’ll be able to travel for your summer vacation.
  • Forgive yourself for “falling off the wagon” with homework, to-do lists, or fitness routines. Focus instead on how quickly you can get back on track, and let the getting back be your marker of success. Expect curveballs and disruptions—they will come.
  • Give yourself and your child permission to say no to socially distanced activities that feel stressful or draining on a given day. You don’t have to attend every Zoom playdate, birthday drive-by, or virtual happy hour.
  • Say all of this out loud—your child needs to hear it. Be explicit about what tangibles are changing, such as how we do our work, how much work gets done, and how we connect with friends and family. Let him know it’s okay to let some things go for now and that you don’t expect him to be perfect.

 

Check your own baggage.

  • Let go of the idea of the “super parent.” Parenting during quarantine means you’re a lot more than just Mom or Dad: you’re also a teacher, coach, therapist, housekeeper, chef, nurse, and play date. Learn to be okay with dropping the housekeeper today so you can be a better teacheror giving the teacher a day off so you can be a better play date.
  • Don’t get hung up on your idea of what your child’s experience should be. Maybe you have great memories of your childhood birthdays, full of expensive gifts and parties with all your friends, but social distancing means your child’s birthday can’t have those things. Instead of getting upset about what’s missing, try to find a new, creative way to make him feel celebrated.
  • Be proactive in managing your stress and anxiety. (Last week’s post has some great tips!) Keep in mind that blow-ups and lashing out are usually the result of feeling overwhelmed and are rarely about whatever’s happening in this exact moment.

Redefine success for your family.

  • You can’t perfectly recreate pre-COVID routines, but you can still craft successful days that focus on family and whole-child development. Pre-COVID goals might have been getting to school on time, completing homework, and going to bed without a meltdown. Shift your focus from specific tasks to things like staying regulated, keep learning, staying sane as a family, and having some fun together.
  • Likewise, think about redefining academic success for your child. A successful day might not mean following the pre-set curriculum and getting 100% on every assignment—it might not even mean completing every assignment. A modified COVID curriculum might include things like self-regulation, independence, and self-directed learning.
  • Remember, no child has 100% successful days, even when things are normal. Distraction, irritability, and overstimulation happen at school, too, but these may seem amplified now that you’re responsible for their “school day.”
  • Instead of focusing on what COVID has disrupted, look at what this experience can offer: more time together as a family and more time for self-led interest activities.
  • Keep experimenting! As long as you’re still figuring out what works, dropping what doesn’t, and adapting to new challenges, you are successful.

Managing Anxiety in Lockdown

COVID-19 continues to dominate the news, and even the luckiest among us—those who continue to have income, flexibility, and health—are feeling stretched and stressed in ways we haven’t before.

Like most parents, the vast majority of your energy over these past few weeks has probably gone to helping your children cope with changing schedules, e-learning protocol, and anxiety about the “new normal.” Making time to focus on your own emotional health is likely at the very bottom of your list, but it’s far from a selfish or frivolous act—it’s actually one of the best things you can do to care for your family. Think of this time like being on a turbulent airplane: it’s rough and scary, but you have to pause and put on your own mask before you can be any help to others. Only by learning to manage your own anxiety—by taking the time to put on your own mask—can you truly show up for your children as a model of safety, generosity, and resiliency.

Get ahead of your anxiety.

  • Learn to recognize symptoms of anxiety in yourself, physical and otherwise. Get in the habit of rating your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 throughout the day, and let your family know when you start feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice mindfulness or another form of meditation. If you don’t want to meditate, try running, swimming, playing guitar, or drawing—anything that keeps you focused and physically engaged while allowing your brain to “turn off” for a while.
  • Make it a priority to take care of your body. Try to go to bed at a reasonable hour, eat a varied diet, exercise frequently, and try to get outside for a few minutes each day.
  • Be mindful of your media consumption. Try to limit checking news apps to once or twice per day, and don’t have cable news constantly going in the background.
  • Allow yourself to engage in some “silly” self-soothing behavior, as long as it’s safe and within reason. If it makes you feel better to make a family budget in Excel, reorganize the bookshelf, or alphabetize your spice rack—do it.
  • Take some time each day to sit down as a family to focus on what is good, certain, and predictable. (“Today we are safe, we are loved and able to be together, and we have plenty of good food to eat.”)

 

Learn to cope with panic attacks.

  • If your anxiety does lead to a panic attack, verbally acknowledge what is happening and recognize that you’re not in physical danger. (“I am anxious and am having a panic attack. I am safe. This will pass.”)
  • Focus on getting control of your breath. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, so that your belly expands, and exhale through your mouth. Repeat until you start to feel better.
  • Make a conscious effort to relax your body. Starting at your head, focus on alternately tensing and relaxing each successive muscle group until you’ve worked all the way down to your toes.
  • Don’t let fear scramble your brain. Remind yourself that you are in control and think about other times you were able to overcome difficult or stressful situations.
  • Every few minutes, rate your level of anxiety on the 1 to 10 scale. This will force you to come back to the present moment and see that your anxiety is slowly getting better.

Be generous with the ones you love.

  • Check in with friends and family members, especially those prone to anxiety or depression. Ask them to rate their own feelings using the 1 to 10 scale, and focus on being present and empathetic.
  • Be aware of what produces anxiety in others, and don’t let your coping become someone else’s trigger. Don’t insist on a two-hour family budget meeting, for example, if it will soothe you but leave your spouse even more stressed.
  • Try to have a kind, generous interpretation of others’ actions. For example, your kids are probably interrupting your conference call because they need your help, not because they’re trying to annoy you and make your day difficult.
  • Keep in mind that children process stress differently, and acting out may be a sign of fear or anxiety. Work on helping your children name their feelings, and avoid punishing them when you’re stressed or anxious.
  • Try to find comfort and meaning in the ways you can help others. Organizing a food donation, writing letters to quarantined grandparents, caring for a pet, even just warming up some coffee for your spouse—serving others is a great way to get out of your own head and see the positive impact you have on others.