Written by Julie Sheard

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown many families’ routines for a loop.  For parents of special needs kids, the “in-person” school experience was an integral part of their children’s academic development and social connections.

School time also offered parents much-needed assistance and time to focus on work or other important life issues.  If you are a mom or dad of a child with special needs, use these strategies to help you and your child cope with distance learning difficulties.

Control the Environment

Establish a designated learning space for your child with special needs. This space should have a desk or table and be free of extra visual stimuli.  Take into account the effect the location may have with possible distracting simultaneous household activities.

Keep academic tools organized and have an accessible place for every item that your child will need for the school day.  During distance learning, many schools will supply students with essential materials to complete schoolwork.

If you are struggling with obtaining materials, contact your child’s school or teacher, and they can direct you to the appropriate avenues.  Allow for flexible seating as needed.  If your child has special needs, they may require various sensory-based tools to regulate themselves during the day.  

These can range from different seating options (stool, yoga ball, pod chair, etc.) to squishy pencil grips and fidget toys.

If you can, try to offer your child options with where and how to sit, within reason (keeping it in the “learning space”), and providing it can allow them to continue to be productive.  Ensure you are offering regular breaks to play, exercise, have a snack, or practice mindfulness.

Take Advantage of Visual Tools

If needed, your special needs child may require a visual schedule to know what to expect throughout the day.  Include the breaks and fun activities into this schedule.  Your school may provide you a picture schedule, or you can write the schedule onto a whiteboard if your student is a reader. 

If the whole day’s schedule is too overwhelming, consider only writing the schedule between each break.  For example, you could number items, one through four, and have the fourth activity be labeled “break.” 

Special needs scheduling cards

Adjust variables for each child as needed.  Keep things successful. If your child can successfully complete one activity but consistently falls apart during the second activity, consider small breaks in between each job. 

A visual timer can help in this regard with transitioning from the break back to academic activities.  If your child needs more motivation to complete work, ask your teacher for an example of a token system, or create your own. 

A simple idea is when each activity is finished, your child receives one sticker.  Five stickers can be exchanged for ten extra minutes of playtime or screen time.  Use your child’s interests to your advantage.

Strategize for Success

Choose times to work on academics that works for your family.  If you know your child with special needs is more receptive from 8 AM to 11 AM,  aim to complete the majority of their work during that period. 

If possible, allow different family members to help your child with the subjects they feel confident with.  Maybe dad is better with reading practice, and mom can help with the science experiments. 

Siblings can also assist when appropriate and if their schedule allows.  Make sure to be flexible with their learning day if your child struggles with sleep issues, is hungry, or manages stress or trauma. 

Healthy snacks

If a child is in a heightened state of awareness, and basic needs are not met, they will not be ready to learn.  Take advantage of this unprecedented event where the whole family can learn together. 

If your family’s learning pattern is not synchronous with your child’s school schedule, speak to your child’s special education teacher about solutions, which brings us to the next strategy.

Communicate Often with Your Child’s IEP Team

Don’t be afraid to ask for adjusting expectations to reduce anxiety as well as discuss solutions to issues.  Ask for alternative ways to record attendance if your child is not able to attend daily Zoom meetings.

Request that services be offered concurrently during remote learning if you are worried about the amount of screen time or if screens are dysregulating for your child. 

If you request it, occupational therapists and Speech/Language pathologists will gladly send along ideas of activities you can do with your child to help reach their IEP goals if you are able.

Get Comfortable with Zoom

Try practicing doing Zoom with a friend or a grandparent, so you can work with your child to practice the non-verbal responses available (raise a hand, thumbs up, thumbs down, yes/no digital options). 

The anticipation of Zoom can sometimes create anxiety.  Speak with your child’s teachers to consider to start Zoom meetings early, or to request an aide or other teacher to begin engaging with your child five minutes before the meeting to get them warmed up.

Make Time for Fun with Your Special Needs Child

There are several entertaining activities that you and your child will love doing together that can simultaneously target their individual academic goals. 

Crafts, sensory activities, and games are fantastic ways to practice fine and gross motor skills, social skills, and a plethora of educational goals.

A special needs boy painting

Be Kind with Yourself and Practice Mindfulness

Be sure to focus care on the rest of the family, including yourself.  Consider the issues your family faces week to week and adjust as needed. 

Your special needs child may express their anxiety through a meltdown, and it’s important to empathize with their inability to cope with various stressors.  Identify how meltdowns are different from tantrums. 

Children with special needs may also sense our stress of dealing with this new way of living, working from home, and even managing children’s school schedules.  Practicing mindfulness will allow you to discipline your child effectively and positively.