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.
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 teacher—or 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.
We all know these past few months have been hard on everyone, and it’s been a particularly stressful time for families struggling to adapt to this new way of life.
Our mission remains true: to empower families like ours and to help them navigate typical childhood experiences, even in these very unusual and uncertain times.
To that end, Twenty-One Senses is thrilled to announce we’ll soon be launching a new service to provide parents with personalized coaching, empowering them to rise to the challenges presented by COVID-19. Working together, we’ll build strong coach-parent-child teams focused on learning, self-regulation, empathy, resilience, mindful communication, problem-solving, and self-care.
As of April 16, 26 states have either recommended or ordered schools to remain closed for the remainder of the 2019 school year. We all knew this might happen, but it still hurts. Millions of parents and children alike are feeling overwhelmed by the new schedules, roles, and responsibilities thrust upon them by shelter-in-place living and distance learning. With a lot of patience, tenacity, and deep breaths, we can emerge from this stronger and more resilient.
Stay tuned for more information on this exciting new service. And stay safe, everyone.
At Twenty-One Senses, our mission has always been to help families with sensory issues navigate typical childhood events, play spaces, and activities. However, we recognize the world is quickly changing and all families, not just those with special needs, are adjusting to a new way of life.
To better support social distancing measures intended to curb the spread of COVID-19, we will be pausing our regular programming to focus on e-learning resources for children of all ages and abilities. We’ll be adding to the list regularly, so check back often. Please share it on social media or with anyone you think might find it useful. Finally, let us know if you’ve found a great resource we should include.
We believe in the power of community, cooperation, and positivity in the face of adversity. While there are certainly challenges ahead, we can all use this moment to pause and reflect on the things that matter most: our families and our communities.
Take care of yourselves and each other.