Several people have reached out to me asking for tips of home-schooling children on the spectrum and also with ADHD, anxiety and other related conditions during school closures related to COVID-19. There are no easy answers to suddenly finding yourself in the role of a teacher and managing your child's entire daily schedule.
My general thoughts on managing this situation guided my suggestions. As parents, we need to help our children cope as we ourselves are at the same time coping. We should consider the possibility that this need for restrictions and self-isolation might last for quite a while. We need to be mindful of our personal resources. We need to make them last.
As you read through my tips, please keep this in mind. There is no need to be harsh on yourself and feel like you need to do absolutely everything. If something is a constant fight, it is not worth it. It will not benefit your child and your family if you work so hard that you burn out. Each one of us must find a balance between doing what we can and allowing ourselves to feel that it is good enough. Do not compare yourself to other people who are doing other things. They make decisions that are best for them. You make decisions that are best for you. The goal is to feel that your child, yourself and your family are all doing reasonably well by your standards, not someone else’s.
With this said, here are some suggestions for staying at home with children on the spectrum, with ADHD, anxiety and other related challenges during school closure. Consider these as a tool set. They don’t all need to be used at the same time. Choose the tools that will help your family.
Children on the spectrum, with ADHD , anxiety and related challenges do better with predictability and structure. The reasons why it works for children with each of these conditions are different, but schedules seem to work. Don’t be tempted to cram too many things into yours. You want to have a structured, predictable day without too much stress of constantly shifting gears and changing activities. Balance challenging and enjoyable activities. Think about what is better for your child: to have the same schedule every day or to have a varied schedule? Consider the first week to be a period of trial and error. What have you learned? What can you do next week for things to go smoother for everyone?
Consider your child’s level of ability for different tasks
If an activity such as reading or math, is hard for your child, then it should be on the schedule for a shorter time if at all. Many children on the spectrum, with ADHD, learning disabilities, etc., experience anxiety about activities that are difficult. This anxiety can show as ‘resistance,” avoidance (needing a snack, needing to use the bathroom right before the task and taking a long time), becoming silly or argumentative, becoming rigid and requiring a number of very specific conditions under which the task is to be done. You can reach out to your child’s public school and private providers for suggestions of activities that would be easier for your child. If your child continues to show anxiety, it is not worth persisting, better to remove anxiety-provoking tasks off the schedule.
Consider your child’s attention span for different tasks
Same as above. Is your child’s attention easily taxed for the tasks they do not find interesting? Match the time your child is engaged in these tasks to what is realistic and manageable. You can’t replace teachers. Within the schedule, have mostly things that are both useful and enjoyable to your child. When the schools re-open, everyone will pick up from the same place in the curriculum – the place where everyone has left off before the schools closed. We won’t be able to teach our kids all the things they learn at school. This is especially true for kids in higher grades. However, your child could spend some time on educational websites exploring an area of interest, and then tell you about what they have learned. They could read a book that you can then discuss together. You could see a documentary together and discuss.
Teach your child to do things around the house by doing them together. In my house, this “life skills” period is towards the end of the day. I told my kids that if they do well on their schedules, we will be baking. If not, we will be making soup. The point is, find a way to motivate your child to do well. Without a “buy-in,” this will be a very hard go. Your child can learn, or at least develop an initial understanding of how to make lunch, wash the dishes, clean the kitchen, do, fold and put away laundry, and many other things. These are valuable skills that often get lost for kids with special needs as we focus on academic and social goals. These independence skills are valuable life-long and, research shows, make a tremendous difference in the outcomes.
Include physical activity
This is another area where you have a lot of choices. Going for a walk, a hike or a bike ride, finding a dance or yoga video on YouTube, taking one of the many available virtual classes, or just playing hide and seek or running around the house… What is important is to keep moving and, ideally, spend some enjoyable time outdoors to maintain physical and mental health. Please follow guidance from your local public health authority when planning being outside.
Explore social opportunities
Can your child play online with their friends? Can they FaceTime a friend to play a board game? I believe that isolation from peers is the hardest thing for many kids in this situation and maintaining social connections is worth every effort.
Leave adequate time for transitions and breaks
It is not easy to move a child with this kind of profile from one activity to another. This is to be expected, so plan for it. Think about strategies that help your child switch from one activity to another. One of them could be finding a good “stopping point.” A lot of times, with hyperfocus, perfectionism, and related anxiety, moving away from an activity can be a challenge. Allowing your child to choose when they stop, i.e. “at the end of this page,” “when I finish solving this problem,“ can help. Moving from a less preferred to a more preferred activity, i.e. math to lunch, is also easier than in the opposite direction.