A Shared Responsibility: Educating in the Home During a Pandemic.
This past Tuesday, our school board met to decide whether it was an option to send our children back to school for two days a week with virtual instruction for the remainder of the week. They voted it was not safe, and the new plan is to go back in person on March 29, 2021, after vaccines became more available to teachers and staff. While I completely understand and fully support this decision, I still feel sad. On March 29, 2021, my children will have had a total of eight days spent inside a classroom for in person learning with their teachers. We all remember last March 13, 2020 when schools closed. During that time there was chaos, uncertainty, sadness, fear, and confusion. Our goal was just to survive and shield the boys from the pandemic as much as possible. It was not pretty, but we navigated pandemic schooling last spring and welcomed the break over the summer to enjoy “normal” activities that could be done safely outside. Despite the break, I was still filled with anxiety over the summer on what the following school year would look like. I constantly worried about so many things I had never previously even considered. Would my children wear their masks? Would they be traumatized having to social distance inside the classroom? Would they have recess or be confined to a small space all day? Would schools even open? And the biggest worry - if they didn’t, how would we survive virtual school with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism?
In August, we received the answer that our schools would not be opening for live instruction due to the community spread. My youngest, who has ADHD, would start his first experience with school, virtually. I had zero hope a kindergartner could be taught online. When I received their daily itinerary, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. There were set times for live instruction, set times for independent work, specials, and different platforms to log onto to find the independent work. I love organization. It calms and soothes my anxiety. When I stared at the piece of paper, I had no clue where to even start. I spent the weekend thinking about how I have organized our daily schedule and appointments in the past (because raising a child with Autism and one with ADHD, there are a LOT of appointments). I cried, I breathed, I took walks, and I talked to friends who were facing the same fears with having children with special needs at home learning. Then, I started to get creative. What I have created works for us. It is an example of how much organization goes into keeping my boys as independent as possible and successful with virtual learning.
When I learned they were going to be virtual for school, I made up my mind that I would be as positive as I could and sell it as the best thing ever. I also take time to validate their feelings of sadness, fear, and frustration, as I do not want to discount negative emotions they are experiencing. Some days it runs smoothly, and a lot of days there are stand offs and battles on doing our work and exhaustion from the adults trying to turn our home into a classroom. It is not ideal. It is not how my children should learn. But it is working. There are clear benefits such as me getting a front row seat for the challenges they have with learning, getting to become closer and coordinate daily with their teachers, having lunch together as a family, and seeing the two boys grow in their friendship and play together. If we focused on all the negative, we would not be to the point we are now with virtual learning and our successes.
Creating space to learn
With two kids who have several sensory difficulties and challenges with generalizing, I knew creating a space that looked like a classroom was important. With Autism I knew AZ would struggle with the concept of doing school at home. I will be honest, if I was having them completing school at home, I needed something appealing to look at. And let’s be real, it was one of the only things I could control!
Our goal for our children is to be as independent as possible. I created this visual schedule board for each of the boys to break down the times and classes for them to follow throughout the day. We also have a family visual schedule that shares who will be home with the kids and our activities (this includes caregivers and outside private services). The boys can look at these schedules whenever they need to manage their own time. We also created a monthly board to break down their special per day and school calendar. The boys have fun going to the monthly board to help us when creating their daily visual schedule to include their special for that day. All kids can benefit from having a visual schedule, but kids with Autism and ADHD benefit immensely from this. Their anxiety is lowered by knowing what to expect and visually seeing the schedule.
Visual timers help both boys visually see how much time is left with a certain task. We use it to keep track of how long they must work before receiving a break. It also helps them be accountable for their own time, as they can set the timer themselves and hear the sound go off when it is time to return from their break. You can find these on Amazon.
Sensory help and breaks
I knew with us doing school at home, I would have to plan for ways to meet both boys and their sensory needs. We have several different ways the boys get movement and sensory input to help with regulation while they learn. We use a physio ball, a fidget seat, sensory squeeze balls, bands on their desk for their feet to sway back and forth, a calculator jumping mat, mini trampoline, and a huggle pod. In school, they would be having natural movement built into their day and increased sensory input just simply from others being around. Kids are not meant to sit in front of a screen all day. Because this is the best option during the pandemic, we had to find ways to make it work. An occupational therapist can provide even more strategies to help with sensory needs.
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. And communicate some more
I made a mistake the first two years of AZ’s schooling. The first year by not communicating as much as I needed to with the Autism and Regular Ed teacher. Then the second year I had a great working relationship with the Autism teacher and aide but failed to communicate as much as I could have with his Regular Ed teacher. This year I set up a meeting prior to the start of school to introduce ourselves, share our concerns, and areas of strength for AZ. This year, AZ has the same aide, but his Autism teacher changed with the new year. Throughout the entire school year, I have been in constant communication with all team members. I have found this year to be so much more enjoyable with us all working together as a team. His Regular Ed teachers have been very understanding with challenges in the home, allowing accommodations when needed, and even meeting with him one-on-one virtually to help with certain assignments. His Autism teacher and aide have been wonderful with flexible thinking on how to engage AZ while he learns at home. Most importantly, they are supportive of the system we have in place at home to best engage him. I have taken the same approach for NZ as we navigate setting up his 504 plan. It was humbling for me to hear the shock and admiration from his teacher for all the work we did before NZ entered kindergarten. I genuinely believe it helped put into perspective how far he has come and how hard he has worked to achieve the educational goals he has attained. Communication is key with any relationship, and your child’s teachers are no different.
Find something worth working towards
Most of us do things because of intrinsic motivation (we want to do it for ourselves). With Autism, unless it is a highly preferred activity, intrinsic motivation is something that needs to be worked with and comes with developmental skills. I fully understand how hard completing school at home is for my children. To encourage their enjoyment and motivation with school, I have created individualized ways to motivate them. For AZ it is more concrete, specific, and immediate. We have created a sheet he can access at anytime that reviews the “expected” and “unexpected behavior,” our behavior modification plan, and the reward for engaging in expected behavior. We also use a visual chart to keep track of stars earned for him to receive his reward. I have asked for his input and found creative rewards that change after a certain amount of time (mainly when I recognize he is becoming bored with the reward).
Outside providers are key
Our schools are amazing. They have provided so much for our children. I also know how valuable outside services are, as we have been involved with them since our Autism diagnosis in 2015. We receive private speech and occupational therapy and could not survive without these providers. Early on our journey with AZ we also received private physical therapy. Do not hesitate to find outside services to help with educational and social goals. They have been instrumental in both of our children’s growth.
Coffee keeps the world going
When all else fails, there is coffee!