18 Tips to Help Children With Special Needs Thrive While Learning at Home

By: Jennifer Twachtman-Bassett, MS, CCC, and Robert D. Keder, MD

Educating children at home is a challenge for most parents. It can be even more overwhelming for parents of children with special needs, who are navigating distance learning without the supports their child typically receives in a school setting.

Jennifer Twachtman-Bassett, a speech and language pathologist and autism specialist, and Robert D. Keder, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, join the blog to answer common questions from parents of children with special needs – from how to structure your child’s learning to how to talk about coronavirus.

As families navigate COVID-19 school closures, what general advice do you have for parents of children with special needs?

Take a deep breath.
Congratulate yourself for everything you’ve already accomplished! Remember, this is new for everyone. That includes you, your child and your child’s teachers and clinicians. We are all figuring this out together.

Talk with your child’s teachers, therapists and clinicians.
If you haven’t already, become familiar with your child’s goals and objectives from their Individualized Education Program (IEP). If you’re having trouble with their IEP, ask their teacher if they can walk you through some realistic goals for what you can do at home.

Connect with other parents and children.
We are all practicing physical social distancing, but this doesn’t mean we have to be alone or disconnected. For your own sanity, connect with other parents to talk about what activities, games and strategies seem to work for dealing with this extended school break. You can help your child, too, by setting up safe video chats with family and trusted friends.

Give your child a sense of control.
Since this is an unusual time for everyone, remember that children are experiencing anxiety just as much as we are, even if they don’t show it. One way people tend to cope with anxiety is by having some sense of control. To help your child during these unusual times, find ways to give them as much control and choice as possible. For example, allow them to plan or choose what you eat for lunch or dinner. They can then help you prepare that meal. Encourage your child to explore different hobbies or leisure activities that they may not have tried before (think: arts and crafts, music, etc.). Encourage them to create a new game or activity that the family can play together. To do this, they will need to create the rules of the game and communicate them to others — all great life skills that children can learn at home! Get other tips for independence-building activities.

What strategies can parents use to help children with special needs learn at home?

Set realistic expectations.
Since this is new for everyone, we are all figuring it out together. Because your child has special needs, you will need to see what and how much they can handle. You are not their usual teacher and they are not used to you being their teacher. Be realistic about your own abilities, too. If you are still working full- or part-time, it is okay to be realistic about how much learning can get done at home.

Request a modified list of assignments.
Ask your child’s teachers and therapists to provide you with a simplified list of things to do. These goals and objectives will give you an idea of what to work on. If you can, schedule telehealth visits with your child’s clinicians and therapists who work outside of school.

Share photos of potential learning items.
If your child is very young or less verbal, send your child’s clinician a list or photos of toys or objects in your home that you can use to work with your child. Ask your child’s clinician to teach you specific activities to do with your child using some of those objects. For example, you might schedule a telehealth visit to focus on this tutorial. (Is your child a patient of Connecticut Children’s? We now offer Video Visits in more than 30 specialties.)

Identify pressing needs.
Sometimes needs, behaviors and skills at home are different than they are at school. Make a list of your child’s most pressing, basic needs and ask your child’s clinician specific questions regarding how you can help your child meet these needs. If you are able to schedule secure telehealth visits, send your child’s clinician a video of your child to show your questions or concerns.

How do you recommend parents structure the day for children with special needs?

Keep your morning routine.
Wake up, wash up, get dressed and have breakfast as you usually would on a school day. Make a schedule for the school week (Monday through Friday) and put it on the refrigerator or wall at home so that everyone can see it.

Incorporate learning slots.
Schedule “learning slots” throughout the day. Your child’s age and special needs will determine the length of time per learning slot; work with their teachers and school providers to set this up. For younger kids, these learning slots might be devoted to reading a book or playing a game together. For older kids, let them have some say in which activity they want to place in any given slot.

Set time limits for learning slots.
Think about how long your child can stay focused. Trust your gut, and what you’ve observed from helping them with homework in the past. We recommend learning slots from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on your child’s age and skill set. Start on the hour, and use the remainder of the hour for play, relaxation or a break. For example, if you have a younger child, you can start at 9 am, work on reading for 20 minutes and then give them (and yourself) a 40-minute break. If you have a child in high school, talk about scheduling 30- to 40-minute chunks for working, followed by reasonable breaks.

Have your child identify activities for breaks and rewards.
Work with your child to build a list of good activities for breaks, and reasonable rewards for maintaining their schedule. Keep praising your child for all of their accomplishments! Avoid threats or punishments. This is hard work for them too, especially since they are not used to doing this much school stuff at home! If it becomes a battle, talk with their teachers and clinicians.

Get moving.
We definitely recommend scheduling physical activity into the day. A family lunchtime or afternoon walk or dance party is a great way to recharge.

Teach time management and planning.
This is a great opportunity to help teach your child how to manage their time and plan tasks for the day – so encourage your child to be as involved in the planning process as possible.

Be flexible.
Pay attention to what seems to work and what doesn’t. You can always make changes. Be mindful that your child may start to tire out as school closures continue, and you may need to adjust your expectations.

> Want help getting your family through COVID-19? Check out our School Closure Kit

What advice do you have for talking about the coronavirus to a child with special needs?

Talk to your child.
Talk with your child about new “rules,” such as social distancing, and why those rules are important. Validate their feelings and let them know that you find this difficult too. Talk to them about when and where these rules apply. For example, while we may socially distance ourselves from others in public, we probably won’t do that at home with our families. This means that if we take a walk in the neighborhood with our family, we don’t have to be 6 feet apart from each other! Encourage your child to ask questions and express their frustrations with the new restrictions. This gives you a chance to talk about these issues and develop coping strategies and solutions.

Be patient.
Remember that this is just as hard for your child as it is for us. Children with autism might have a hard time breaking from usual routines, so we should be patient with them as they adjust. Children with ADHD might be impulsive and forget about social distancing; rather than punish them, we want to be patient and set them up for success.

Inform, but don’t alarm.
Keep your child updated on new developments with COVID-19, without providing too much information that might be alarming. Focus on positive progress and getting closer to reaching the goal of life returning to normal. Children with autism might have strong, obsessive interests, so it’s important to keep an eye on your child’s online activity to manage their processing of information if COVID-19 itself becomes an interest. Check their browsing history and set up appropriate Internet filters. Spend a day unplugged from the news and media if needed.

Are there any external resources you recommend for parents?

All Children: PBS Kids has great resources for all children, including a daily newsletter with activity and game suggestions for the day.

Autism: The Autism Society of America has an excellent COVID-19 tool kit that can help families with all aspects of the impact of this virus on individuals with special needs. At this site, you will also find a link to the Autism Society’s Facebook Live series, which includes recordings of past sessions and a schedule of new sessions. Members of the Autism Society’s Panel of Professional Advisors conduct these sessions, along with parents and other prominent professionals, and they cover a variety of topics. The Autism Society of America also has a helpline that families can call: 800.328.8476.

ADHD: ADDitude Magazine has great articles about being stuck at home and dealing with COVID-19-related pressures for children with ADHD.

Intellectual Disability: The Arc of Connecticut has several resources related to children with intellectual disability and includes information about legal rights as well.

Get more tips and resources for parenting during coronavirus >

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