Virtual learning opportunities abound for children of all learning abilities. (Shutterstock) Teaching the neurodiverse child
Virtual learning opportunities abound for children of all learning abilities. (Shutterstock)

Michigan mom and therapist Erica Carulli advocates for creating an impactful learning environment for all.

MICHIGAN — How does virtual schooling work for children with special needs?

I asked myself that question because educating our children during COVID-19 is not without its challenges. 

Virtual school is useful because it is recommended to keep everyone safe and healthy. However, students in special education are a unique population who need to be educated differently because of emotional, physical or learning disabilities.

Neurodiverse students, when attending physical school, have a smaller student-to-teacher ratio with extra assistance from trained paraprofessionals. At home, it’s generally one caregiver, and in most homes, it’s mom. 

Some school districts are using a combination of both in person and virtual options for special education students. School districts that are offering a hybrid approach are using the proper safety protocols for gatherings, such as completing a brief symptom check and temperatures. 

Special education is unique in many ways; it is not a one size fits all structured education. Each student is assessed and a learning profile is developed to meet their individual needs. This is referred to as an Individualized Education Plan/Program (IEP). Maintaining IEPs via virtual classrooms is incredibly difficult. There is an intensive process to obtain an IEP. If you don’t already have one for your child, but believe your child should, contact your school district as soon as possible.

RELATED: Super Mom Syndrome: Setting Realistic Expectations for Parenting During a Pandemic. 

Advocate For Your Child. You Are Their Voice. 

Communicate regularly with your school social worker and depending on what your child is experiencing, an outside clinician specializing in a particular disorder may be needed to further help your child. Not all children needing an IEP necessarily have mental health disorders, but some do. It’s important that if there’s a concern, it is evaluated by a professional. Your school social worker is a great place to start. 

Another way to advocate for your child is by reaching out to your local youth assistance program or other programs in your area that offer tutoring and extra assistance for children that are having difficulty. If you feel as though your child may benefit from more individualized attention, these programs may be able to assist, or at least point you in the right direction. 

Consistency’s Key

Remember that regression is not only possible, it is likely, and also to be expected. Everything a child has grown accustomed to is different right now. Parents of children in special education programs have told me this is one of the most frustrating parts of virtual schooling. 

I’ve been encouraging families who tell me this to try two things: try to be as consistent as possible and maintain as much of a routine as you can.

Teachers in special education classrooms put an incredible amount of thought into their lesson and classroom planning. Sensory bins, alternative seating options and utilizing visual aids to engage children are just a few examples. These are a few things that can be recreated in your home fairly easily and are useful because they are modeled after the classroom, hence creating a sense of consistency. Ask your child’s teacher directly to discover specific classroom activities and/or organizational structure.

Another way to help fight against regression is by maintaining all regularly scheduled medical, occupational and physical therapy, speech-language pathology and mental health appointments. The child is used to these scheduled sessions and will likely not understand the loss of them. They are helpful to keep the child in a routine and also continue receiving the care they need.

SEE ALSO: I’m a Mom of 3 and a Therapist. Here Are My Tips for Embracing Virtual Learning.  

Breathe in And Out

One thing you can do to help your child feel more in control of their body and mind during virtual school and such a change in normalcy is relaxation and breathing. I like teaching children (and adults too!) a simple breathing technique for calming, triangle breath. If your child is able, I recommend practicing with them triangle breathing:

A triangle has three sides and triangle breath is a simple way to explain deep breathing, mindful breath and relaxation. 

  • In the shape of a triangle, breath in for three seconds, rest/hold for three seconds, breath out for three seconds. 
  • Try it: Inhale 1…2…3… 
  • Rest/Hold 1…2…3… 
  • Exhale 1…2…3… 

After School

Social skills are an important part of many special education curricula, akin to a built-in playgroup. Consider joining local groups both virtual and those safely following social distancing guidelines to maintain and enhance social skills. Organizations such as Special Olympics Michigan have an events calendar listed on their website with things such as virtual runs and virtual fall games. 

Playing outside and doing things your child likes to do are still important, just as they are with a neurotypical child. Recess, taking walks, reading stories, building blocks, and all of the other things your child enjoys, keep doing them. They are valuable and can help maintain a sense of normalcy (read consistency/routine). Play is learning, play is their work, we know this is an important part of our child’s emotional growth. Let your child play, explore, learn. 

SEE ALSO: Michigan Mom Learned to Navigate Her Son’s Special Needs–and Now She’s Passing It on

Flexibility

There may be things we have to be flexible on during the school day. Special education students sometimes have the ability to utilize a portion of their physical school day for extra one-on-one attention or help with their school work. This time could be recreated in your home, simply by offering more time to complete a task, or the ability for a child to take a break from working on a task and come back to it.  Offering nutritious snacks options, more frequent brain breaks, and more physical activity may be exactly what your child needs. 

Caring For The Caregiver

Take time to take care of you. The primary caregiver of a child has a difficult job. Replenishing and refueling your energy are going to be vital in the longevity and sustainability of caregiving. You are working so hard at taking care of your child and making sure they have the best education, the best opportunities in life, but I want you to remember you can’t pour from an empty cup. Caregivers experience burnout quickly because they often forget to renew their own depleted energy. You are important and worthy of a break, of relaxation, of time off. You can’t take good care of your child if you aren’t taking good care of yourself. Your child needs you to be fully charged and ready to go. Don’t forget to charge the battery within you. 

Michigan Department of Education Special Education Resources

Coping Skills for Kids

Special Olympics Michigan

SEE ALSO: Online Only: These Michigan Moms Are Gearing up Their Kids For a Virtual 2020-21 School Year