Supporting a child with special educational needs during Covid-19 times
As the UK emerges from full lockdown and begins to move into the 'new normal,' many of us will struggle to get our heads around the changes. But if you have a child with special educational needs (SEN), you may well be finding it harder than most.
‘All children like routine and structure, but those with difficulties such as autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) depend on routine more than most,’ says Dr Hannah Bateman, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist with specialist interest in neurodevelopmental disorders and SEN at Priory Hospital Chelmsford.
Changes of routine can be very unsettling and provoke anxiety, and at this time where guidance and rules are changing from week to week (or even day to day), parents of children with SEN may notice increased behavioural difficulties or emotional dysregulation.
Why SEN children find coronavirus changes hard
Although school life can be tricky for children with SEN, the structure and rhythm of the school day often helps them feel secure.
They know what to expect, and when. There’s a predictable pattern to each day, with assemblies, classwork and break times. They’ve built up relationships with teachers and other children, and they’re supported in areas that they find difficult.
But thanks to Covid-19, the rug has been pulled from under them and school life might look very different from what they're used to, with new procedures and routines at school, such as different start and end times, new classroom layouts, and social distancing at playtime. Unsurprisingly, this can have a big emotional impact.
Home life is changing, too. Many children haven't been to school for six months, and have got used to being at home, with the comfort of having a parent nearby. Now, not only do they face leaving the security of home, but their home routines may also have to adapt around the school day: for example, getting up and going to bed at different times.
They may also have to be a lot more flexible than they're used to. The shape of the school day may well change as Covid-19 evolves, and there's always the possibility of quarantine if another child in the school becomes ill with coronavirus, local lockdowns, and even sweeping school closures as the pandemic progresses.
As children negotiate this strange and unfamiliar situation, their emotions may be expressed through their behaviour.
‘The changes to lifestyle and routines are likely to cause heightened anxiety and frustration,’ Dr Bateman says. ‘This can lead to increased aggression, hyperactivity, clinginess and sleep disruption.’
Setting a routine for your SEN child
If your SEN child is one of the many who depend on routine, it’s important to set a clear structure to your days, especially if post-lockdown school life is unsettling for them.
‘Children thrive on knowing what’s coming next; this prepares them for different activities in the day and also allows them to feel more in control,’ Dr Bateman explains.
A good routine will include all daily activities at regular times to avoid unsettling your child. Dr Bateman suggests the following elements:
Wake up and bedtimes: it’s important to maintain sleep routines whether schools are open or closed.
‘Disruption to sleep routines will be particularly difficult for SEN children: for example, a child with ADHD taking stimulant medication needs to get up at the same time every day to take their medication, otherwise it may affect their ability to fall asleep at night,’ says Dr Bateman.
In addition, any child who’s tired is going to find it harder to cope during the day.
Food and drink: breakfast and dinner times need to be scheduled, otherwise your child may demand food constantly when they get home, or, conversely, lose all interest in food.
‘Children can be involved, to their own individual ability, in food preparation, setting the table, clearing the plates away and washing up,’ suggests Dr Bateman. Use plastic dishes and blunt cutlery if necessary.
It's also a good idea to take a snack and drink with you at pick-up time. Some children with SEN may find it difficult to eat at school - particularly if lunch is now eaten in their classroom rather than the dining hall. Others will be hungry and thirsty after the effort of the school day, so being able to provide food and drink quickly could prevent after-school meltdowns.
Homework and learning activities: if your child is set homework, spellings and/or times tables practice, try to do them at a fixed time each day. This will help your child know what to expect, and prevent frustration and procrastination.
Exercise and physical activity: it’s vital that children with SEN stay active. Giving your child the opportunity for some physical activity - whether that's walking home from school, playing a game in the garden or stopping at the local park - will help them release the energy that has built up throughout the school day.
Chill-out time: make sure your child has time for their favourite relaxing activities like computer time or watching TV: essential for helping them decompress after a school day that might look very different from usual.
Other ways to support your SEN child during the pandemic
As a parent, you’re the expert on your child, and know what sort of things they need to feel secure and in control.
However, it’s worth giving some extra thought to the different ways in which you can support them at this time.
‘It’s important to help your child feel safe to express their emotions safely, and develop skills in self-calming,’ Dr Bateman explains.
‘If they have sensory needs, make a “safe space” – possibly with some soft blankets and cushions in the corner of the room – where they can go to calm down and escape for a while after what might have been a stressful school day. Ensure there are plenty of sensory toys available.’
You can also ask your child's teacher what they can do if they're struggling at school. Sensory spaces may not be the same as usual, with soft toys, beanbags and cushions packed away for hygiene reasons, so see what alternatives there might be: could your child go outside with a member of staff and kick a ball against the wall, or have a corner of the school library where they could have some time out?
Visual timetables are a series of pictures and words depicting each day’s activities in chronological order, including mealtimes, toileting and bedtime.
‘Many children with neurodevelopmental disorders and SEN benefit from using visual timetables to support their understanding of their daily activities,’ Dr Bateman says. They can be especially helpful in getting your child back into a school routine, or coping with changes such as a sudden school closure.
There are lots of examples online (you can buy ready-made visual timetable materials from suppliers like Sense Toys or download files of images), so you can make your own visual timetable. You could have two versions, one for weekdays and one for weekends.
Visual social stories
Social stories are series of written or drawn storyboards with associated people and emotions: for example, a picture of your child getting angry, the resulting behaviour (for example, hitting another child or turning their table over), how that makes other people feel, and what they can do instead (for example, taking five deep breaths). They were originally devised to support people with autism.
The social story about coronavirus and school closures above, created by SEN Inclusion expert Julie Steele using Communicate: In Print 2, is available to download for free from TES Resources. There's also a social story explaining how to wash hands properly. It's easy to make your own social story (for any situation your child finds difficult) in a word processing program by copying and pasting images.
‘Social stories can enable children to prepare for and tolerate events that may otherwise overwhelm them, due to high levels of anxiety,’ Dr Bateman explains.
‘They provide a narrative for the child and should be specific to their needs, using their own words or sentences.’
Rewards are a great incentive for children to complete a task or behave in an appropriate way - for example, getting ready for school each day without a meltdown.
‘They should be non-monetary, non-food and not technology-based if possible,’ says Dr Bateman.
‘Try stickers, points, bottle tops or buttons in a pot, adding up to earn bigger rewards such as playing a board game or making playdough with a parent.’
Supporting a child who’s reluctant to learn
Because of the Covid-19 pandemic lines between school life and home life have become blurry.
Once they've returned to school, your child may be less accepting of your instructions than their teacher’s - or vice versa. They may find it hard to sit still and focus on their classwork after having more freedom at home. And depending on their level of additional needs, they may not fully understand why schools closed and have now reopened with coronavirus measures in place.
Schools should be aware that may children - not just those with SEN - have forgotten what school is like and will find it hard to get back into a learning mindset, so don't panic if your child is kicking back against learning. Initially, the focus will be on going over the work they were set during lockdown, rather than introducing new concepts, with lots of support for children's mental health, too.
At home, try not to put too much pressure on your child to 'catch up.' They're likely to be buzzing with pent-up energy and frustration at the end of the school day, and have used up all their concentration and listening resources.
If your child is really struggling with work, either at school or at home, talk to their teacher or SENCO: they should be ready to support you and your child as they transition back from home learning to the more formal learning style of school.
Looking after yourself
Parenting a child with SEN can be tough at the best of times, so if you’re finding it particularly hard at the moment, with the Covid-19 situation changing frequently, you’re not alone.
‘This is a highly unusual situation, so it’s essential to give yourself a break,’ says Dr Bateman. ‘It’s likely that you will be feeling anxious and worried, so acknowledge this and talk to others about it, seeking support from friends and family.’
There are lots of ways to ease your anxiety alongside your child’s, such as mindfulness apps, breathing exercises and online yoga like Cosmic Kids.
If the strain is getting too much, ask for help. Schools can often direct you to sources of support, from parenting classes to SEN support groups (although these may be running remotely at the moment, rather than face to face). You can also contact your GP if you’re worried about your mental health: they can offer telephone support or, if need be, an appointment in person.
‘Overall, just take care of yourselves and your family: you’re doing a great job,’ Dr Bateman says.