When the COVID-19 pandemic started and schools closed, parents across the globe felt the stress of wondering what to do with their children.
That stress was amplified by parents of children with special needs, who were plunged into isolation and needing more than just a Wi-Fi connection to supplement their kids’ schooling.
Laura Sambrookes-McQuade, a clinical assistant professor in the department of Speech and Language Pathology at Midwestern University knows that pain. She’s the mother of a high school junior and she has specialized in teaching graduate-level students at the university about autism and articulation, motor and speech and language disorders, as well as how to support parents emotionally and socially.
She also has a few recommendations for parents as they guide their children with special needs through the pandemic and home learning.
Take care of yourself
“The best thing you can do to take care of your children is to take care of yourself first,” Sambrookes-McQuade says.
That sometimes means stepping away for a second and telling your child that you need to take your own time out.
Sambrookes-McQuade says that identifying and verbalizing the feeling is the first step toward letting your brain fix the feeling.
“Mindfulness researchers say that if you acknowledge the feeling that you’re feeling, it automatically deactivates the stress response,” she says. “If you’re feeling really stressed or angry, the process of saying ‘I’m really stressed’ or ‘I’m really angry,’ makes your brain instantly start deescalating that emotion.”
“You don’t even have to say it to a person, go outside and say it to the outside,” Sambrookes-McQuade says. “Giving a small break from stress-inducing situations, naming that emotion and then going outside and taking time to notice grounding activities is the first thing you can do to help your child.”
Make a schedule and stick to it
Sambrookes-McQuade says she makes stick-figure schedules to show kids what action they’re doing during that scheduled time.
“Having regular, dedicated time to maintain regular systems of sleep, eating and exercise is integral for all families, but in particular families of children that have special needs that might have sensory issues,” Sambrookes-McQuade says. “They have to have those sensory needs met and if those sensory needs aren’t being met, they will get those met – it might not be in the way the parent wants them to, but they will get their needs met – whether it’s jumping on the bed or something else.”
For kids who are non-verbal, finding visual reminders of emotions on Pinterest and printing them out to post in a common location will help kids show parents that they’re happy, sad, frustrated, stressed, anxious and more.
Make sure a little down time is scheduled into the day for those kids who start to show stress.
Parents need to give themselves permission to say “no” to additional items that bulk up the daily schedule, whether from work or family or added for the benefit of the child.
“You have to plan into your day the amount of time it takes for caregiving, work and education routines, and recognizing that is enough,” Sambrookes-McQuade says. “The extra things, during this time, we may have to take them off our plate, because there’s not enough hours in the day.”
It’s OK to supplement with specialists
Now that we’re six months into the pandemic, many children with special needs are also six months further along in their development.
Maybe it’s time to potty train or maybe it’s time to try a new skill?
For parents having trouble knowing how to take that first step toward teaching potty use or bike riding, Sambrookes-McQuade recommends finding an expert by calling outpatient centers that can recommend specialists.
“Using the professionals that are specially trained in these skilled developmental areas would be beneficial,” she says. “You may still need to get a referral from your physician to get that done. But remember, if your car needs a tune-up you take it to a mechanic. If your child needs help in one of these areas, someone that is skilled and trained in this one particular area could be very, very beneficial to the parent just to give them tools and tips.”
It’s also OK to ask for help
Parents working through remote learning are now learning to become experts at their child’s IEP.
But, some of the expectations and directions on the IEP could look like a foreign language. That’s the time to reach out for help, Sambrookes-McQuade says.
“I think that the most important thing that parents can do is communicate with their school team,” she says. “If they don’t understand the IEP and the goals that were written and how that applies to their child to seek out a resource that can explain that to them. Because if they understand how that educator is going to be addressing those learning needs for their child, they will better know how to help their child at home.”
This branded content also appeared in Chicago Parent’s September/October 2020 magazine.