If you’re a parent whose world has been turned upside down by COVID-19, you’re certainly not alone. In the span of days as the virus spread, America’s parents took on a new role—co-teachers. And as students around the world have transitioned to remote learning, parents of students with disabilities are facing particular challenges. While everyone’s situation is different, we’ve compiled a few tips to consider as you move forward.
Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First
Parents and caregivers are facing a host of new stressors during this pandemic, ranging from performing risky essential work, working from home, navigating new unemployment, or taking care of sick family members. This balancing act can be even more complex when caring for children with disabilities who may need complex supports or face additional health risks. While your child’s education is vitally important, your family’s safety and mental well-being—including your own—needs to come first. As much as possible, work to fit your child’s education into your family’s schedule in a way that feels sustainable over months, not days or weeks.
Understand Your Child’s Rights
Students’ right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) as laid out by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) continues to apply during pandemic-related shifts to remote learning. If schools are operating remotely, they must continue to fulfill students’ IEPs and provide accommodations, modifications, and supports under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. If any changes to a students’ placement are necessary, the IEP team should be convened remotely to identify the most appropriate adjustments and ensure the student has access to required assistive technology, internet access, etc. If certain services cannot be delivered in a remote environment, an IEP team and, as appropriate to an individual student with a disability, the personnel responsible for ensuring FAPE to a student for the purposes of Section 504, would be required to make an individualized determination as to whether compensatory services are needed under applicable standards and requirements.
Parents should also be aware that districts cannot require guardians to waive their legal rights in order to receive special education services during this time. Some districts have attempted to implement this practice, but it is clearly illegal.
Communication is Key
Your child’s teacher is an expert on how they behave in the learning environment, just as you are an expert on how they behave outside of school—so don’t be afraid to open up a dialogue about what behaviors and patterns you see. Tell your child’s teacher what’s working and what isn’t during remote education, and ask them what they’ve seen work for your child in the school environment. Two-way communication will help you form a partnership and best work with your child. Identify the ways that you can stay in touch with your child’s teacher and school to share updates, ask questions, and ask for additional support in the way that works best for you. If you need additional guidance in a certain area, ask their teacher or paraprofessional if they can talk you through their strategy or show you how they teach certain material via video.
Some key questions to ask your child’s teacher and school leaders include:
- I’m doing a lot that’s new to me right now—how is my child doing academically? Where is their progress?
- Have you seen any trends in my child’s social-emotional behavior?
- How can I help my child interact with their peers remotely?
- How can I adapt my child’s lesson plans to fit within the schedule and needs of my family?
- What can I expect over the summer in terms of updates for next year? How regularly will the school communicate with families?
Develop a Routine
Children thrive on routine—and this is even more true for children with certain disabilities. The structure that most students had before COVID-19 is all but gone, so it’s especially important that parents provide some sort of alternate structure to create stability. Our experts suggest writing out a routine and talking it through with your child each morning—even if it’s filled with very simple tasks. This doesn’t need to be a Pinterest-worthy, color-coded project—just a simple list will help provide guideposts for your child to navigate their day.
Ditch the 8-3 Model
The school learning environment, with its frequent breaks and interaction with a variety of people, is very different from sustained home learning. An older child’s attention span maxes out at about 20 minutes, so it’s not realistic to expect any child to sit in front of a computer screen and learn for many consecutive hours of the day, especially if they have attention issues or other disabilities. Quality is more important than quantity.
While your child may have some synchronous classes or meetings that must be done in real-time, break up the day as much as possible otherwise. Consider how your child’s learning needs can fit around your existing schedule to reduce stress on your family—and think in terms of the whole day, rather than the standard school schedule.
While you are in learning mode, take frequent breaks—especially if you begin to sense burnout on your part or your child’s. Quick, physical tasks like emptying out the dishwasher can be made into games and are a good way to redirect energy and focus.
Adapt Learning to Fit Your Family’s Needs
Learning doesn’t need to be limited to workbooks and carefully structured activities. Take a look at the concepts your child is working with and find ways to integrate them into your daily life. Working on counting or addition? Practice those skills while making breakfast or putting away toys instead of using a worksheet. Use outside time to talk about how plants grow and learn about birds. Families have a unique opportunity to teach students in a more hands-on way than can be managed in the classroom. Fall back on the experiences that you would create for your child outside of school normally, and look for ways to bring them into the every day.
Understand Behavioral Challenges
Kids know that their parent is not their teacher. These are different roles in their lives, and children are very literal—we see this even more in children with certain disabilities, like autism. These two roles coming together can cause resistance and conflict, especially since students are more likely to be vocal and talk back to their parents than to their teachers. The integration of learning into daily life can be helpful here, as well—as can taking frequent breaks and taking time to cool down when either party becomes frustrated.
Parents may also find that certain teaching methodologies are particularly challenging or frustrating, and may not realize that their child’s teacher presents things very differently in the classroom than virtually. If you’ve gone through a concept several times verbally and it isn’t clicking, for example, look for a way to illustrate it visually or using physical objects. Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s teacher for advice about teaching methods that have worked for them.
This situation, difficult as it is, can present you as a parent with a unique opportunity to see how your child learns and how their IEP functions from the inside. Watch how your child’s teachers and paraprofessionals work with them. That knowledge will help you understand your child’s learning moving forward and build your toolbox as a parent advocate. Ask for help when you need it, and push for personalization if the remote learning curriculum isn’t working for your child.
At the end of the day, it’s important to recognize that every family—like every school and district—is facing unique challenges and traumas during the pandemic. Caregivers are being asked to do a lot, and for many, assisting students with remote education has presented a series of impossible tradeoffs. Prioritizing the health and emotional well-being of children and families must always come first, and parents should never hesitate to ask for help.