Schools are closing all over the country for COVID-19. Many people are in a panic. Some are concerned with contracting coronavirus, others are unsure of what to do about childcare and income. Posts are flying all over social media about how to cope with kids being out of school. Many of these posts are fantastic… yet aimed toward parents of average, neurotypical children. Special needs parents have different struggles to address. As a mother of three children with developmental special needs and a special education paraprofessional, I want to share my plan to cope. Disclaimer: COVID-19 survival for special needs parents comes with no guarantee.
I work in a high school with all kinds of super powers [This is my way of creating a positive outlook on different abilities]. My primary [self-proclaimed] job title is Sidekick to Autistic Superhero. Publicly known as Bologna for confidentiality purposes, my #1 superhero follows a routine he and I compromised on and created together. Balancing educational requirements with rewards for effort, good behavior, kindness, and advocating for himself is a routine we thrive on.
Consistency and routine are crucial to life with special needs children. No one welcomes change but, for our kids, change can be earth-shattering. Imagine my adult reaction to change as I was alerted that schools would close for 3 weeks. I had three hours to prepare Bologna and my other superheroes for this change to their routine and three days to prepare to provide my children at home for the hiccup in their routine.
Justin and I talked about a few key items that would maintain consistency:
- Wake up/bed time. While it isn’t necessary for our kids to strictly stick to their bedtime and wake up time, we find that too much difference would create a problem. Superheroes are creatures of habit. Habit = no change. If we create an environment where they crash late and rise late, it creates a tough transition period for returning to school. This is why we take several weeks of summer break to transition to our “school sleep schedule”.
- School hours are school hours. We talked to the kids about a schedule for the hours they would regularly be in school. We did not write an hour by hour schedule, as it is unrealistic with our children. They are four different ages, in three different schools, follow different schedules in school, and have different educational needs. We set basic ground rules:
- School hours are for school work, artistic creativity, organizing, reading, and chores.
- Cell phones can be used as frequently as they are used in schools, at lunch time.
- Video games and other leisure activities can begin once the school day ends.
EDUCATING WITHOUT A TEACHING DEGREE
It is unreasonable to a parent of one child to come up with 6 hours of educational material for each day. I think I’d pull my hair out if I had to figure out teaching grades 12, 8, 5, and 1 simultaneously each day. Kudos to Montessori teachers—I’m fascinated with your work. However, spending time out of school with zero educational material goes against our special needs parent word of the lifetime: consistency.
The plans we put into action to address the educational needs:
- Have your kids check Google Classroom. Check your e-mail. Different school districts/schools/teachers are handling the closures in different ways. Some are providing coursework through Google Classroom or other educational websites.
- Check this site for hundreds of educational resources that are free. Some are always free and some are free due to the COVID-19 situation. My preference to this site over the others is simple: Most sites for educational resources are geared toward grades K-8. With a 12th grader at home and a 9th grade Bologna (who I am trying to encourage via school e-mail over the break), I NEED high school resources. My gratitude to whoever made this list.
- FILL THE GAPS.
- Art and craft projects. Search Pinterest. Create cute little leprechauns like I did with my school superheroes on Friday before the closure.
- Those dusty boxes of 100, 300, 500, and 1,000 piece puzzles are ready for some attention. (P.S. LA Times does not require a subscription to access their daily crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and Ken-Ken!)
- Celebrate the day. Today is National Everything You Think is Wrong Day… quite a day for me to write this blog post, right? We started celebrating fun national days years ago, writing them on our calendar, and planning activities or crafts to honor them. You can find some fun days to celebrate here.
- Have a dedicated music listening time. Music has proven therapeutic to all of our children—to the extent of which headphones in our house is as crucial as the current American needs for toilet paper. They will be hunted if not found!
- Go outdoors. Walk around the block. Use sidewalk chalk on the driveway. Play with your pet. Jump on a trampoline. Houses with 6 people get stuffy and tense very quickly.
- Games. Spot It is one of our kids’ favorites. It's great practice for observing and reflexes.
Speaking of tense, Bologna and I had a class this year on “Mindfulness”. It was a great class, providing strategies on emotional regulation for teenagers and adults. I decided to use some of the content to create a mindfulness drawer in our household crafts. I created Pinterest boards with mindfulness activities and visuals for autism to print and use in our home. Yes, we do get strange looks at times where we have coping skills hanging where pictures should be. We don’t care; they get us through tough times.
Some coping ideas:
- Small and frequent breaks. Breaks give us all time to reset, putting stressful times behind us, and tackle the next task with a clearer head.
- Mind games. These are learning strategies disguised as games.
- I do this daily with Bologna. I use our conversations to relate to something he is learning in math or English. For example, we walk the track 4x to complete a mile for gym. As we walked, I asked him, “If it takes 4 laps to complete one mile, what percentage of one mile is one lap?” He tells me 25% without a second in passing.
- I frequently distract my kids, in school and at home, with physical or fidgeting activities as a mind game. We walk and play word association games, we run and play math games. We do Sudoku to recognize logic, play with Legos as we discuss a book we just read for reading comprehension.
- Slack on the rigid schedule. If your superhero is struggling, revert to the Frozen song and “let it go”. After years of trial and error as special needs parents, we have found sometimes an adult task is better left for tomorrow. The traded task for time to swing an overstimulated child on a swing has resulted in shorter and fewer emotional meltdowns. Like parents of newborns, special needs parents often need to fit life tasks in wherever they can. Que sera sera.
- Embrace the downtime. “Take life as it comes, straight no chaser” – Straight No Chaser, Bush. It doesn’t matter what your belief system is; take the cues for downtime as messages from the world that it’s time to give yourself a break. Your job as a superhero sidekick is the most important one you have. You are the voice of the nonverbal, the calm space for the wild. You deserve moments of nothingness.
- My Pinterest board on Mindfulness
- My Pinterest board on Autism
- Time out for parents. This one is a difficult one, as we all have different resources for help. The truth is, Justin and I don’t go out often. We are home with our kids almost all the time we aren’t working.
- Sometimes, a time out for us is…
- Organizing the garage
- Putting clothes away in our closet
- Doing a crossword puzzle
- Listening to music while we meal prep
- Other times, a time out is
- A trip to the store
- Running around the lake across the street
- Reading a book when the kids are all upstairs
- Sometimes, a time out for us is…
[We took the time on Friday to run together. It was more like a death-defying stunt combination of swimming, sinking in quicksand, and hydroplaning. I ran through puddles to soak Justin. We took those 32 minutes to play as children. From the bottom of our hearts, we hope you get 32 minutes every so often to be a child again. You deserve it.]
Our thoughts are with you, mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, guardian, or Sidekick of your own Superhero. This isn’t going to be easy but like great woman [Happy Women’s History Month!] physicist, Lise Meitner said,
“Life need not be easy, provided only it was not empty.”
If you’ve made it to the end of this, you’re a rock star. Thank you for sticking with my rambling for this long. As a reward, feel free to take coupon code COVID19 for 25% off weighted blankets in our shop through March 31, 2020. If you haven’t heard about the benefits of weighted blankets, come check out this blog post. After all, COVID-19 Survival for Special Needs Parents is best used with a weighted blanket.