Homeschooling Strategies for Your Child With Special Needs
Helping you and your child succeed with homeschooling during COVID-19.
Written by Dr. Liz Matheis
This period of time feels a little surreal to me, as I’m sure it does for you, too. As parents, this is a time where we are balancing our work and home demands. While we are trying to maintain our employee status, we are also being given the responsibility of teaching our children through their subjects.
I know when I saw the pile of work that was sent home for my children, as well as the emails and Google Classroom notifications, I was most definitely overwhelmed. I had to find some way to organize the assignments and create some sort of order for each day. For my child with special needs, understanding her academic strengths and weaknesses, as well as emotional needs, hasn’t been easy for me, and my appreciation for her teachers is that much higher and deeper.
Our teachers are not expecting our children to work for the duration of the entire school day. However, it may be taking you and your child longer than the school day to complete a few assignments. My efforts have been met with tears, falling to the ground and a fair share of yelling … on both of our ends. Now that it’s been a week, I have a few strategies to share with you that may save your sanity and help you to create realistic expectations for what a school day will look like for the next few weeks.
Take a Quick Read Through Your Child’s IEP
Although you are not a special education teacher (or maybe you are!), take a look at your child’s accommodations and get a sense of how to work within the classroom is broken down for your child. This may give you a few ideas of how information is presented. If you’re still not clear, email your child’s teacher and ask her or him how you could teach your child a concept or how to work through the assignment. You are likely going to gain a few great ideas!
Break It Down
For some of our children, having your parent become your teacher is a mixing of roles and relationships. Understandably so! Your child may push back when you present work more so than she would with her teacher.
So, let’s get you through this. Break down subjects with specific times and specific time limits each day. For example, your child’s four major subjects, regardless of age or grade, are science, social studies, math, and language arts. Based on your child’s tolerance and endurance, you may wish to:
- Each class will last 30, 45, or 60 minutes
- Decide on the time before you begin
- Set a timer
- Teach three subjects per day
- Rotate the subjects so that one subject is being “dropped” daily
- Break down tasks into parts. For example, if your child is assigned to write a paper, break it down into its parts: an introduction, paragraph one, paragraph two, paragraph three and conclusion. You may wish to work on one to two parts each day
- Work on five or 10 math problems at a time
- Take breaks in between subjects; decide the maximum amount of time that will feel relaxing but not too relaxing where re-engaging becomes too difficult. Set the timer again
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The Mighty hopes to make all their blogs and articles available to all people across all languages. We are happy to share my blog, “Please Stop Punishing My Child’s Invisible Disability” in Spanish. Please read and share!
Como siempre digo, primero soy madre de tres hijos, y luego soy psicóloga de niños. Trabajo con muchos niños, adolescentes, adultos, jóvenes (y sus familias) que tienen trastorno por déficit de atención e hiperactividad (TDAH), ansiedad y discapacidades de aprendizaje. También soy madre de clase en la escuela de mis hijos donde hay niños con estas y otras discapacidades. He trabajado como psicóloga escolar en escuelas públicas y sé lo que recomendé para los niños en mi carga de casos. A lo largo de los años, he oído de los padres, con los que trabajo, que sienten que a veces la discapacidad de su hijo es malinterpretada y subestimada.
No se puede ver una discapacidad del aprendizaje, trastorno del procesamiento sensorial, ansiedad, TDAH (y muchos otros). El perfil único de un niño es detectado por el equipo del niño (padres, maestros, pediatras, psicólogos, etc.), pero no es un hecho, cambia, y no viene con un manual.
Entonces, ¿qué significa esto para usted, como el padre de un niño con una discapacidad invisible? Usted va a ser un defensor de su hijo hasta que él o ella aprendan a abogar por sí mismos. Esto significa que usted necesitará educar al maestro de su hijo, paraprofesional, administrador de casos y al director, porque las áreas donde su hijo muestra fortaleza y debilidades no siempre son fáciles de ver o recordar.
Permítanme compartir una historia de un dia en el que me ofrecí como voluntaria para la clase de medios de mi hija cuando estaba en primer grado (ahora está en cuarto grado). Este adorable hombrecito (con TDAH) quería un libro de, “Curious George.” Su paraprofesional se paró junto a él con un cronómetro y lo acosó con comentarios como: “Elige un libro. Tienes tres minutos para elegir un libro. ¿Ya has elegido un libro?” El pobre no tuvo la oportunidad de procesar. Pude verlo como se agitaba mas y mas y estaba sucediendo a manos del mismo apoyo que se suponía que le ayudaría a tomar una decision.
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The beginning-of-the-school-year-honeymoon-period is now over, and your child is settling into the school year. Perhaps you’re noticing that your child is struggling with word problems, identifying letters, remembering the sounds letters make, or writing. Perhaps your child’s teacher is pointing out to you that he is struggling to sit in his seat, finish work in class, interact with his peers. So now what? What do you do with this information?
If you’re making these realizations now, you may want more information about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and possibly gain a support plan in school. In essence, you may be ready to seek an evaluation. The next question is what kind? Who can provide an evaluation for my child? What information do I want to gain from this evaluation? So, where do you begin?
Seeking a Psychological Evaluation for Your Child:
Step One: Speak to your child’s teacher and gain feedback regarding your child’s performance academically, socially, emotionally and behaviorally? What are academic strengths and weaknesses?
Step Two: Decide if you would like for your school’s Child Study Team to perform the psychological evaluation vs. seeking an independent evaluation.
Before you make that decision, you need to answer the question: what’s the difference between the evaluation and report you would gain from your Child Study Team vs. one gained from an outside professional? Well, there are several and here is a summary to help you when you make this decision.
The Psychological Evaluation through your Child Study TeamThe Psychological evaluation completed by your school should consist of a standardized test, such as the Wechsler Intelligence Scales, an observation, and a student interview.
In the end, you will gain a report that provides an IQ of your child’s cognitive/intellectual performance, a summary of a classroom observation, and information about your child’s interests, preferences, and reported academic strengths and weaknesses. Please note that the School Psychologist is not permitted to provide any diagnoses, if relevant, within this report.
This information will be used to compare to the results of the Educational Evaluation that is completed by the Child Study Team Learning Specialist in order to determine if there is a learning disability that is negatively impacting your child’s ability to perform academically.
The School Based via the Private/Independent Psychological Evaluation:
If you are seeking an independent psychological evaluation, that means that you are working with a Clinical Psychologist, privately, to provide you with an evaluation and report. The Clinical Psychologist has the ability to administer additional tests in order to answer questions you may have as a parent, or to gain more specific information about your child’s intellectual and academic skills.
Being a School and Clinical Psychologist, when I perform a private psychological evaluation, I also administer an achievement test and executive functioning testing, as well as look at anxiety, attention, learning, and memory. All of this information creates a learning profile that indicates your child’s learning style, strengths and weaknesses.
This report is comprehensive and offers information about learning style that the School Psychologist’s report does not contain. That is, is your child a visual spatial learner; an auditory learner? A hands on learner? With this information in mind, the recommendations in the report can then be geared towards the best way to teach new information to the student that is in line with the way he naturally takes it in.
Pros & Cons
So, what are some of the major pros and cons of a Child Study Team (CST) generated psychological evaluation vs. a private/independent one?
The Essentials of a Successful School Year for You and Your Child’s IEP
When a new school year begins, students are not the only ones with butterflies in their stomachs. Parents of students with special needs also worry about what a new year, a new teacher and a new classroom may bring. If your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the legal document clearly delineates your child’s needs. Here are tips for creating a positive classroom experience and successful school year.
Schedule a parent-teacher-case manager meeting.
At the start of the school year, all of your child’s teachers provide written signatures that they have reviewed your child’s IEP. However, it is a brief overview and teachers are not yet familiar with your child’s program, modifications and accommodations.
After the first couple months of school, schedule a time to sit down with your child’s teachers and case manager to review academic supports and accommodations. In essence, you are setting aside this time to give teachers an overview of how your child is best able to take in information while reviewing accommodations, such as providing a word bank on a fill-in-the blank test or giving a lesson outline prior to the presentation of new material so that your child can follow the outline and add personal thoughts or notes. This is also a time for you to meet and make a connection with all of your child’s teachers, permitting them to know you by name and face.
For a Successful School Year: Put it in writing.
Once your child’s IEP meeting has been held, your child’s program goes into effect within 15 days of the IEP meeting date, with or without your signature. Sometimes, parents are misled to believe that if they do not sign the IEP, they are showing disagreement or require more time to review the document in detail. However, when you are in disagreement with an element of a behavior plan, related service or program within your child’s IEP, prepare a written letter to your child’s case manager indicating what specifically you are in disagreement about.
Integrate a sensory diet into your child’s day.
Create a personalized activity plan that can be integrated into your child’s daily schedule in order to satisfy the need for movement, deep pressure or heavy work. These types of activities satisfy proprioceptive, vestibular, auditory, visual and tactile needs for a child who may have a sensory processing disorder, difficulty sustaining attention, or is restless and fidgety.
For example, a child diagnosed with ADHD or Autism may not be able to maintain attention and focus to one task while sitting down at a desk for an entire class period. As a result, a sensory tool may include a move ‘n sit cushion, which is a seat cushion that is wedge shaped and filled with air. It is used to help fidgety or lethargic students maintain a level of alertness. A child who is restless may also need the opportunity for movement breaks within the school day. It might benefit a child like this to work at his or her desk for ten minutes and then take a five-minute break to go to the bathroom or water fountain, or to send a note to another classroom teacher or the main office.
For children who are hyperactive, a five-minute gym break for a quick run or game of basketball can be integrated into the child’s schedule to allow for a better ability to focus on class tasks.
Consult with the occupational therapist (OT) in your child’s school for additional ideas and how they can be integrated and implemented on daily basis. Overall, these strategies can help you and your child to transition into the new school year smoothly. While also giving you the chance to discuss your child’s academic program and develop a positive rapport with your child’s teachers.
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1. Limit the amount of commitments your child has
I still encourage the use of a rule that Dr. Liz had shared with me one day. “One activity, per kid, per season”. Maybe your child enjoys playing two different sports in one season. Maybe they enjoy their piano lessons and singing in the school choir. Have a conversation with your child and narrow it down instead of automatically signing up for all of the activities at once. Take things on gradually, seeing how one activity plays out in the schedule before signing up for another.
2. Schedule down time
With schedules so packed, take a look at the calendar and notice where there are open spots. Make it a priority to keep these spots open and allow your child to have down time where there is less structure and less pressure to perform a certain way. Children need some time to unwind from the school day and busy weekends filled with activities. This is also a good opportunity to schedule quality time together as a family, which does not have to be anything elaborate. Planning a family movie or game night are easy ways to promote healthy communication patterns and family bonding. This scheduled down time should be just as much of a priority as the piano recitals, soccer games and cheer practices.
3. Check in with your child
Engage your children in ongoing discussions where you are checking in with their stress level. Tell them that it is perfectly acceptable for them to speak up if they feel they are too busy or not getting enough time to rest. Help your child develop their priorities in terms of extracurriculars and narrow down the ones that mean more to them. This will depend heavily on your child’s developmental level, but it is important that as they mature, they have more of a say in their extracurricular activities.
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Your Best School Year Yet
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and you’re patiently cajoling your middle schooler to start his homework. He’s avoiding it with every ounce of his being. You finally get him to agree that if he finishes his homework, he can have one hour of video games. He sits down ready and eager, but quickly realizes that he didn’t bring his math book home, can’t find his science sheet and has a social studies test tomorrow, but can’t remember which chapter to study.
If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, this ongoing struggle may be familiar, and you’re probably feeling like something needs to change. It’s common to want to avoid the medication route and seek behavioral strategies that teach your child the skills needed to organize, prioritize, get the work done and hand it in. On the other hand, medication is helpful to lots of kids with ADHD.
MAKING YOUR DECISION
Medication has side effects, and those side effects can sometimes be scary for a growing child. It’s frustrating to watch and not easy for children with ADHD. They have true neurochemical deficits in the frontal lobe that aren’t all that different from a diabetic whose body doesn’t create sufficient insulin at the right times.
So, what’s the “right” thing to do? Is there a “right” thing? The answer is no. Here’s what to consider when deciding the appropriate course of treatment for your child:
- What’s the impact on your child’s daily functioning?
- How much is your child affected by poor focus, hyperactivity or impulsivity, anxiety, difficulty transitioning, going to school each day and daily routines?
- Is she able to establish and maintain friendships?
- Can he take in class lessons and learn?
- Does she distract herself or others in the classroom?
- Is he able to transition from home to school to activities?
- Is completing homework a struggle?
- Can she participate in leisure activities such as birthday parties or family gatherings?
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You can begin to implement behavioral strategies, routines, boundaries and consistency from day to day. For example, create a space for your child to complete homework that’s not at the kitchen table, since your kitchen is likely the Grand Central Station of your home. It’s also helpful to implement a no devices rule while homework is being done. Create a visual schedule of morning, after-school and bedtime routines. You can also make a list of household rules and consequences and make sure to implement them consistently using a calm demeanor. You may want to start a nightly, tech-free quiet time before bed.
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When it comes to doing homework sometimes kids can be nomads. They will plop themselves on a couch, bed, floor, wherever they may land. Unfortunately, this is not optimal for homework or studying. Your child should have a designated study area. This should be an area as free from distraction as it can and calming. For some children, this may be an office desk or kitchen table. If their desk is in their room, it is important they use their desk and not the bed or bean bag chair that may be in it. While some students use apps such as Focus Keeper to stay on track, not having it placed within reach is key. It should be close enough that they can hear the timer for their break but not close enough where they can play games and browse social media.How to study
As many of us learned the hard way, cramming was not the best way to learn and retain information. Setting up a study schedule for an allotted amount of time before the test will help your child retain information and reduce stress before the exam. This can be done using their agenda book or a dry erase calendar in their room. Including reminders and goals will help reduce the last minute cramming and test anxiety. While they are studying, allow for breaks. As mentioned above there are apps that can be used to set an amount of time to study and time for a break. These breaks should be restorative and not involve screen time. That can make getting back to studying more challenge and cause a power struggle between you and your child.
Celebrating their hard work
Even though they may have not gotten a perfect score, celebrate their effort. Knowing that studying is difficult for your child, the fact that they were able to sit and prepare for their tests is a success. It’s the process not the product. The more encouragement and sense of pride they feel the more they will want to continue these habits to make not only you proud but they will make themselves proud!
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A strong, developmentally- appropriate social/emotional emphasis is crucial in creating a successful inclusion program. Through structured social/emotional lessons, modeling emotional coaching in the moment, as well as play experiences, children learn that we all have feelings and different coping strategies. Mirror neurons fire in our brains through observation of other human beings. By exposing our children to teachers and caregivers co-regulating with other students and working them through strong emotions, we are laying the groundwork for building empathy. Students also learn how to enter into another child’s world and see the world through another person’s eyes. For example, another child may share a similar passion for Mickey Mouse, however, their play may look a little different e.g. stacking or lining a figure up. With assistance and modeling from adults in the room on how to engage with students, we are teaching them how to consider others’ interests and needs. In the future, this may help our children to include other children in their play and social interactions that may not initiate on their own. I know that my hope for my own child is to be an individual who respects and includes all people.
Enhances Communication and Interpersonal Skills
As adults, an important skill to be successful in life is learning how another individual communicates and tailor our interactions accordingly. Exposing our children to inclusion settings from an early age helps them to gain an understanding that we all communicate differently. In addition, exposing young children to a variety of communication modalities help to strengthen and develop language.
Multi Sensory supports and engaging lessons help each student access the full curriculum and accommodate all learning styles.
In an age of high-stakes testing, the importance of supporting and enhancing childhood development in an educational setting is often lost. Children need to move and experience to learn. An inclusive setting supports the critical, developmental building blocks for learning that are sometimes not emphasized in all educational settings. The importance of experience and process is lost through pressure of the “product.” Multi sensory learning experiences are critical for all children to access the curriculum through their individual learning styles. Inclusive settings create a supportive learning environment, engage a variety of learners and creates a more responsive learning environment.
When I walk into my son’s classroom, it’s difficult to distinguish between the students who have individualized education plans and those who do not. This is exactly as it should be. Through my son’s eyes, each and every one of his classmates are his buddies. Some communicate with technology and sign language. Some need cool little gadgets to make their bodies feel safe and ready to learn. Some of them like Paw Patrol just like him. Most of them like to move while learning just like him. Most importantly, they are his friends. By exposing our children to these types of educational environments from an early age, we are raising children who will grow into empathic adults and creating a more inclusive world.
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Working to make a child’s school experience transition successful, here are some tips to help ease anxieties and build success.
Drive by the school your child will be attending to familiarize them. Stop and play on the playground! This is a great way to build excitement as well as prepare them. They will have an pre-existing level of comfort that will build confidence for those first few days.
I also recommend lunch rehearsal. Pack their lunch and have them practice independently taking it out, opening their lunch containers, and even how to heat up, if needed. All schools have lunch aides to assist but creating opportunities for independence so your little one who may be to shy to ask for help yet or does not have to wait too long for that help.
Practice the school schedule! Yes, that means those summer lazy sleep in days (at least for my children) need to start getting their school sleep schedule back on rhythm. I can thank high school’s summer sport schedule for kick starting me and my high schooler with early morning wake ups, but now I have to shift my elementary kids back to earlier bedtimes and earlier wakes up times as well.
Books- setting the tone!
Books are great emotional tools that helps prepare for the upcoming transitions as well as the emotions with change.
For working on parent attachment and being able to successfully separate, I recommend:
Attachment & Separation
Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
This book establishes a loving gesture that helps an child detach successfully. This is an easy quick routine to add to your morning send off!
Leap Back Home to Me by Lauren Thompson
This book highlights all different adventures while the parent will be there at home waiting for the child. The message of independence with comfort of a waiting parent will help the kindergarten be ready to “leap” to school!
The Invisible String By Patrice Karst
This book is a fantastic metaphor of how love connects us even when we are not together. I like to pair this book with a small physical transitional object like a ring, necklace, string bracelet etc…
I Love You All Day Long by by Francesca Rusackas
Another simple book that reassures a child of their parents’ love which helps with separation.
Here are books that will help set the tone and ease anxieties. When we know what to expect, the unknown becomes less scary!
- Kindergarten Rocks! By Kate Davis
- First Day Jitters by Julie Danneber
- Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
- Off to Kindergarten by Tony Johnston
- Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten by Joseph Slate
- The Night Before Kindergarten. by Natasha Wing
- First Day of School by Mercer Mayer
Managing Your Own Anxiety!
Last but not least, how we, as parents, feel! I know I struggled when my babies went to kindergarten. I still remember happily waving goodbye to my kids oozing confidence for them to absorb. Then, after the school bell rang with all the school children tucked behind the doors as parents shuffled to their cars, I balled crying. I share my story as an example of how it is important to set the tone for our children. If we show anxiety and showing uncertainty, our children will read this and increase their anxieties. So, as Dr. Liz’s says, “Fake it, Until You Make It”. Of course, it is ok for both to be nervous, but this is the time for you to be their rock. And if anyone wants to cry together, I will be balling as I send my oldest to his first day of high school, we can meet up after that bell!
Happy First Day of School!
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