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.
Structured vs. unstructured time
If you are tempted to include an “unstructured” or “open” period into your schedule, think about your child’s ability to handle an unstructured time. Maybe, together with your child, create a visual of the activities that your child can choose from for this period.
Think maintenance, not progress
Many parents of children on IEPs worry about helping their children make progress. It is great if you know how to work with your child and have the time. If not, focus on maintaining the skills your child already has. Get in touch with their school and private providers for advice on what to prioritize and suggestions for easy activities that you can do to maintain the skills and maybe even make progress. Remember that you cannot replace your child’s entire team. If this situation becomes extended, chances are that services will be offered online. A lot of private providers are already offering them. If you have access to any of those online opportunities and your child can benefit from them, it’s worth doing. If your child cannot benefit, perhaps it is better to request compensatory services when schools re-open.
Set up expectations, for yourself and your child
It is not easy being the driver of schedule when you are a mom and not a teacher, and you do not have the infrastructure of the school behind you. You might be tired and be in a bad mood on some days. Do your best to stick with the program (but don't drive yourself crazy). I have explained to my children that it is very important that we have this schedule, and that I am open to their input on it. I also explained to them that in this situation when we are stuck at home for an extended time, discipline is very important for our mental health and well-being. Following our schedule is a part of taking care of ourselves, making sure that our mind stays active and our bodies stay strong.
The optics are important
Every day when your child gets up, make sure they get out of their PJs, get dressed and brush their teeth before your schedule starts. This helps initiate a transition from the night into the more scheduled period of the day. Consider setting up a dedicated space for daily activities as well. This space should be as free of distractions as possible.
A clear policy on electronics
When are they ok, what kind of electronics, what activities are allowed on those devices?
Visualize, preview and review
Your child should always have a visual schedule available. Preview the schedule every day, more than once if needed. Review the schedule with your child in the evening to discuss how the day went. What went well? What can go better tomorrow?
If your child is very excited about finishing an activity, whatever you were going to be doing next can wait until tomorrow and be allocated more time if needed.
Rewards instead of punishments
Find ways to make it worthwhile for your child to follow your schedule. For example, you could give a sticker (or a check mark if you don’t have stickers) for each completed item on the schedule. There can be a reward of your child’s choice after a certain number of stickers or check marks is accumulated. In this kind of system, there is nothing to be lost. You want to set it up so the reward is achievable yet not too easy so that your child values it.
Build in breaks for yourself
Being with your child, or children, with or without special needs, all day long is a lot of work. Make sure there is a time when your child is with another adult or enjoying a solitary activity (video game, movie, Lego, etc) so that you can take a breather.
Avoid stress, for yourself and your child
If you notice that you are getting too stressed out, step your efforts down until you feel better. The same goes for your child. If they are showing signs of stress, reduce the demands and allow time to decompress. There is so much stress floating in the air right now, paying attention to everyone’s mental health is key.
Include time for special interests and fun!
There should be plenty of time for that!
No one’s life depends on whether you get through the schedule. It’s OK if you don’t. Your child thinks you are the best parent... and you really are!
A huge list of all types of online educational activities and websites that might be fun and stimulating for your child is found here.
Also, a non-profit, Different Brains, has a list of COVID-19 related resources for neurodiverse individuals and their families here.