Stanford Children’s Health experts offer ideas and advice for all parents and families, including for children with special needs
Since schools closed in March due to COVID-19, many families have struggled to help their children adjust to distance learning. Their difficulties include navigating unfamiliar educational websites, filling gaps left by lack of in-person instruction, and supporting kids who miss the routines of school and their friends and teachers.
Experts from Stanford Children’s Health are here to help.
“It’s really important for everybody to realize, ‘This is hard!’ Nobody’s really feeling like we’ve got this,” said pediatric psychologist Barbara Bentley, PsyD, clinical associate professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a specialist in developmental and behavioral pediatrics. “Being gentle about the expectations for yourself and your child is really important.”
The first hurdle is recognizing the scale of the challenges.
“An online class is not like watching a cartoon on TV; it’s a hard way to learn,” said Kathy Ho, a high school teacher at the hospital school located in Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. Normally, Ho works face-to-face with children and teens receiving medical care in the hospital. Right now, like other teachers across California, she is instead providing remote instruction and online resources for her students. “Kids want that one-on-one,” she said. “They need to have someone to interact with them, and they need to interact with each other.” In most cases, one-on-one interaction is now coming only from members of a child’s household, putting new demands on parents and siblings.
While it’s difficult enough for any parent to suddenly facilitate distance learning, some families face additional challenges because their children have developmental or learning disabilities usually treated at school.
“Children with special needs may be going without the behavioral treatments they usually receive, which can lead to serious escalations in challenging behavior and real lack of developmental progress,” said Grace Gengoux, PhD, director of the Autism Intervention Clinic at Stanford Children’s Health. “Many kids can’t participate independently in online learning, and this is much truer for children with special needs, so their parents are really having to provide a lot of supervision.” Read more about helping children with special needs below.
How to help?
For typically developing children, one big challenge is prioritizing their academic tasks. Bentley knows from supporting her own fourth grader that, faced with a list of online assignments, kids need help planning their school day.
“I help my daughter with writing out her schedule for the day, prioritizing so that things that are challenging are done first,” Bentley said. Parents working from home need to keep their own schedules organized too, dividing their workday into small chunks and using their breaks to keep kids on track. Parents should also remember that the normal school day isn’t exclusively focused on academics: Kids usually have PE, music, art, library visits, recess, and lunch, and their days at home should also include a mix of activities. Bentley and her colleagues on Stanford’s Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics team have put together a comprehensive list of additional tips and online resources for parents.
“I’ve also supported my daughter with having a lot of social time,” Bentley said, adding that plans for virtual meetups in the afternoon have helped her daughter stay motivated to do schoolwork in the mornings. Some extracurricular activities are possible using virtual platforms. Bentley’s daughter has been able to continue music lessons via FaceTime calls with her piano teacher, for instance.
At least half an hour of daily outdoor time and physical activity is important for maintaining mental health for both kids and adults, Bentley said. And it’s also important for parents to have open conversations with children about the things they miss: Maybe they are sad that the school play or spring sport has been canceled, or they feel disappointed about missing an eagerly anticipated field trip or birthday party. Giving kids room to vent about their difficult feelings is the priority, rather than trying to “fix” the situation.
The interruption of in-person schooling means that educational gaps may occur, but parents should feel reassured that these can be filled in when school starts again, Ho said. “If children miss a few months of school, they’re generally going to be fine, and there’s value in different types of education,” she said. In their days at home, kids can learn life skills that get less emphasis at school, such as how to tell time, measure ingredients for recipes, help with gardening, perform chores around the house, and problem-solve with siblings or other family members. It’s even OK for them to become bored.
“Skills like patience, waiting your turn, and finding a way to amuse yourself are valuable,” Ho said. “Kids need to learn to deal with being bored, and learn to use their imaginations to stay entertained. All of that counts.”
It’s also a great time for families to expand their use of kid-friendly educational resources online. A princess- or pirate-obsessed kid might enjoy watching a video about a famous jewel, for instance, while a science-minded student might like learning about the genetics of rare white monarch butterflies or conducting an experiment about how soap inactivates the novel coronavirus. (Many more ideas are available here.)
Helping kids with special needs
Keeping organized and maintaining predictability are very important for children with special needs, Gengoux said. “It’s more important than ever to have predictable daily structures and visual schedules to help the kids keep track of what’s going on,” she said.
Some providers are offering online appointments for speech therapy and other treatments, as part of a larger shift to telehealth. In some cases, in-person treatment for children with developmental disorders is considered an essential service and can continue; further information about this and many online resources are summarized in the COVID-19 information provided by Stanford Children’s Health’s Early Support Program for Autism.
Families can also experiment with how interactive technology may fit for their child’s needs. For instance, some of Gengoux’s patients are using multiplayer computer games to help them get regular social interaction. The structured nature of this type of interaction might actually feel easier to handle for a child with a social impairment than the more freewheeling back-and-forth expected at school, she said.
Focusing on a child’s existing interests to engage them in online learning is a great strategy for any kid, but that’s especially true for children with autism who have restricted interests.
“There are so many amazing resources available now to all of us: We have zoo cams, astronauts reading books to kids from space, Mo Willems doing lunch doodles,” Gengoux said. “Families of kids with special needs can really embrace the child’s special interests and use those as an opportunity for a lot of self-directed learning.”
Parents should also continue to check in with their child’s caregivers, such as their pediatrician, child psychiatrist, or other therapist. “It’s important that parents have a professional partner to help them navigate these tough times,” Gengoux said. “That way, they don’t have to make all the decisions alone about what to do.”