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Helping Children With Special Needs During School Closures

2020-05-05 by Dr. Jenny
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It is hard enough to step in as your child’s teacher or playmate, but when children are missing therapies, special education support, or social skills training, what can parents do?

I love neurodiverse kids. They think about the world differently and challenge us to meet them where they are. It’s why I’m a developmental behavioral pediatrician — my job allows me to partner with families who work hard to understand their child’s unique strengths and challenges, advocate with schools, and help children grow into awesome humans.

But so many families have been thrust into a “new normal” of no in-school or after-school therapies — the very therapies parents have worked so hard to arrange! This New York Times article illustrates the challenges these families face. If that’s not enough, when children are stressed, they tend to regress and lose the skills they seemed to have mastered. This can bring on feelings of frustration or grief in parents, especially if children were thriving in school this year. (On the other hand, I have some patients who are really excited to be home in their ‘comfort zone,’ because school stressed them out.) Either way, here are some things you can do to support your child with special needs while schools and therapies are closed.


5 Ways to Make the Most of Learning at Home When Your Child Has Special Needs

  1. First, adjust your expectations.

    It’s impossible to recreate all of a child’s IEP supports at home. Decide on a few goals — academic or behavioral — that fit with your child’s strengths and challenges (for example, completing a little non-preferred work every day; maintaining his or her reading level; being flexible). Talk to teachers about what they think are the most important skills to work on — but only pick a few! If we overdo it, trying to get our kids to finish too much work in a day, it may backfire in the form of defiance or “escape behaviors.” (FYI: my kids’ favorite escape behaviors are being silly and negotiating — and I fall for it way too often!)

  2. Use outpatient therapists as a lifeline.

    Lots of parents are seeing negative behaviors crop up in their children, especially when it’s time to do school work. It’s a normal part of reacting to stress and change, but it can make your day feel impossible. If your child has outpatient therapists (an ABA team, occupational therapist, or counselor), try to schedule video visits so that you can get coached on how to manage the new behaviors. Ask for tips on visual supports, books to read, or self-calming activities.

  3. Remember, school involves a lot of social-emotional learning.

    So it’s OK if much of your day involves working on managing big feelings, being more independent in remembering to do chores, being a good listener, or being flexible. Playing cards, make-believe, puzzles, or other games that involve turn-taking lets kids practice social thinking, nonverbal communication, or language and storytelling.

  4. Keep up connections with friends.

    If your child had a “lunch bunch” or social skills group at school, see if the kids can get together for games or snacks over video-chat once a week. Ask friends’ parents to send updates of what they are doing at home — in the form of photos, voice messages, or email. If your child has autism and sometimes prefers to be in their own mind, it can help to remind him or her what her friends are thinking and experiencing.

  5. Make a plan for tech.

    Kids are needing technology more than ever to keep connected to classmates and learning, so don’t stress about the extra time they’re spending in front of screens. But have a plan for how much entertainment tech time your child will have once schoolwork is done, and what kinds of content they can use. I’ve been advising families to 1) keep the content positive with good role models, 2) not let kids dive into endless feeds of videos or gaming (it’s hard to get them out again!), and 3) find new creative ways to use tech, such as cooking, crafts, making stop-motion videos, or learning new dances. The more you have a plan, the easier it will be to adjust back to your family’s normal routine when the world opens up again.

Hang in there parents. You are doing great, and saving the world one stuck-inside day at a time!

Read More on Special Needs

Here are some links to pre-COVID-19 blog posts on Melissa & Doug about children with special needs. You’ll find some useful play ideas and more:

5 Tips for Learning Through Play for Children with Autism
5 Tips from a Pediatric Occupational Therapist on Skill-Building for Children with Down Syndrome
All Special Needs Themed Articles

The American Academy of Pediatrics is partnering with Melissa & Doug on the Power of Play to raise awareness about the health benefits of open-ended play and how important play is for both parents and kids.

Learn more about the Power of Play >

This web site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice, nor does use of the site establish a physician-patient relationship. The use of this web site does not replace medical consultation with a qualified health or medical professional to meet the health and medical needs of you or others.


Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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