Supporting Your Child with Special Needs in a Post COVID-19 World

Supporting Your Child with Special Needs in a Post COVID-19 World

By Ann-Marie Sabrsula, M.A.Education Coordinator, The Arc Westchester’s Children School for Early Development

When the COVID-19 health crisis caused schools to close, it placed all of us in unknown territory when it came to accessing support for children with special needs. Students receiving services at the time of the closure had an active Individualized Education Plan (IEP) detailing all the supports they were in need of, which was written for established service delivery models such as specialized programming, inclusive classrooms like we have at The Children’s School for Early Development, or related services delivered in the home or community (speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc.). Once schools and programs closed, educators and programs across Westchester County were tasked with lifting those services from the IEP and transitioning them to remote or distance learning – a modality that was never intended for providing special education services.

Under these new parameters, the mandate was to provide students with a “continuity of learning” that would allow them to access as much support as feasible given the unprecedented circumstances. As a result, web-based platforms such as Google Classrooms and Microsoft Teams were selected as a window through which the child’s program could virtually be accessed. All related services were also to be delivered through synchronous (live) video-based communications or “telepractice.”

Needless to say, the learning curve on both sides of the screen was steep. Teachers and related service providers needed to quickly learn how to provide instruction and therapies at a distance without the human connection that is so important to establishing and maintaining rapport with students. In turn, parents and caregivers needed to learn how to be an instructional facilitator and therapeutic partner so that their children could continue to work on their educational and discipline-specific goals while they were home and away from the classroom.  Student response to this new modality has been quite varied and, for many, it is difficult to maintain their attention and summon up the self-regulation to sit at a computer and actively participate. This placed new and additional burdens on families who were attempting to manage other unexpected and, oftentimes, significant challenges due to the pandemic. Access to technology in order to participate in distance learning posed a challenge for some families as well.

With the Executive Order that Governor Cuomo issued on June 5th, the prospect of having in-person special education summer services for those students who qualified for the extended school year became an option. As a result, some school districts and programs will now be providing summer services on-site as they originally planned. For many, however, it was felt that they would not be able to confidently provide the mandated multiple health and safety measures by the start of the summer session on or about the first week of July and, as a result, have chosen not to do so. Understandably, many families are deeply disappointed by this decision as they feel that distance learning is not a good fit for their children with special needs, that they are not making progress towards their educational goals, and that their children have regressed in their overall skills. 

As we continue to work towards in-person education and services for children with special needs, here are just a few strategies and tools you can use to help your children continue to build their skills.

Give Yourself a Break

As parents of children with special needs, you take on a level of responsibility for your children’s developmental successes that those with typically developing children do not. Under normal circumstances this can be a challenge, within the context of distance learning in a pandemic, it is daunting. The pressure that some parents carry where this is concerned can be overwhelming. I recommend (and even ask our parents) that they “take themselves off the hook.”

Taking steps like reaching out to their child’s teachers and providers to share their experience with them and ask for their help to reduce some of the burden would be a great place to start. Digital channels like Zoom are not there just for our students. They can be used to virtually bring the team together to support the family as a whole. 

Be kind to yourself and know that those of us on the other side of the screen recognize without judgment that you are doing the best you can.

Leverage Digital Resources

During the closure, many websites and learning apps have been made available to families (and programs) at no cost. For young children, websites such as ABCya, Starfall, ABC Mouse, Scholastic, Tumblebooks, and Epic Books are now easily accessed by families on their own or through their child’s program. Regarding fun yet educational games to play at home, our teachers recommend Go Fish, Memory, Zingo, Bingo, Uno, Candyland, Dominoes, and Hoot Owl Hoot.

Some apps that are recommended by speech therapists include Splingo (Pronouns, Language Universe, Categories, Actions), Speech with Milo Articulation, Speech with Milo Sequencing, and Articulation Carnival.

Don’t Forget About Self Care – For You and Your Kids

This is an unprecedented time for all of us.  As adults, we may be finding it difficult to process the depth of what has been happening and the profound and significant effects we are faced with as a result of a global pandemic.  If we are having a hard time trying to make sense of it all, imagine what your young child might be experiencing.  Keep in mind that children may not always be able to express what it is that they are feeling.  As a result, we may need to consider their behavior as a barometer for their inner emotional experiences. Occurrences like changes in sleep or eating patterns or an increase in emotional responses may be outward indicators of their internal fears. 

Acknowledging their experiences and validating their feelings are simple yet profound ways of helping them to feel better.  Adjusting expectations around previously established skills or behaviors is also a way of accommodating our children’s needs at this time. Parents can also find social stories online that are specifically written to help children understand the virus, how we need to take care of ourselves, and why the world seems so different right now. 

Knowing When to Go Back to In-Person Services and Education

The future of education in a post-COVID world is unknown to all of us – including those who will be making decisions and shaping instructional programs under these unique circumstances.  All individuals involved will be making the best and most informed decisions as possible given what we will know at that particular point in time.  That being said, we may very well be looking at a variety of program models that will account for parent concerns around returning their child with special needs to school.  Many models currently being considered are “hybrid” models that will include a combination of both in-person and distance learning with the ratio between the two having yet to be determined.  Additional specialized models in consideration of children with underlying medical conditions are also being explored.  Regardless of the chosen approach, all school-aged and early childhood programs have an exhaustive and highly detailed set of guidelines that they are mandated to follow and protocols to put into place to keep all students and staff healthy and safe.   

While it is expected that this information will be shared with families, if parents have any additional questions or concerns, they should contact their school or program administrator to access that information. Remember that you as parents are active and important members of your child’s educational team and their district’s committees on special education. Parents should feel confident in their ability to advocate for their child and communicating their comfort level around a return to in-person learning is well within that role.