It’s been a dramatic start to the decade. Perhaps this will be the decade of change and evolution we all need. Change starts with us as individuals and families. News of Covid-19 has swept the globe so rapidly, it’s hard to remember what was in the news before – let me remind you: Brexit, climate change, record floods. See? As human beings, we adapt through many difficult circumstances and live to tell the tale. Maybe this is a bit different, as it affects all of us; we can’t pretend it’s happening ‘over there.’
The impact on families is undeniably huge; especially for families who have a child with special educational needs. Children with EHCPs (education, health and care plans) are a group who are considered ‘vulnerable’ by the government, and as such are invited to attend school during the Covid-19 outbreak. This is because if children have an EHCP, the local authority has a duty to deliver specific supports and services to enable these children to access an education.
This is what has created some confusion and concern amongst this parent group. How can I best support my child? Will the local authority allocate funds for my child to continue with their therapies at home if they are unwell and unable to get to school? How can I be sure of my child’s health and well-being at school, if their usual key worker or teacher is ill or self-isolating? It’s hugely complex, especially as we haven’t experienced anything like this before.
But families who have children with special educational needs are used to adversity and rising above significant challenges. Here are my suggestions to help cut through the noise of panic many are feeling:
Autistic children and young people are sensitive to atmosphere and mood. They will listen to your tone of voice, read your body language, and absorb all of the tension you feel. Try your best to keep your voice low and soothing. Answer questions using short clear sentences. Try not to tell them to be quiet, or stop asking questions – if you don’t know, say so. Or suggest that you will answer their question when you’ve found an answer or had a chance to think about it.
Listen to any worries they may have. Try to identify the cause of their anxiety – are they concerned about catching the virus, about something happening to a family member? Are they worried about things that are left at school? Or not seeing a special teacher? Try to respond to specific concerns. Refer to official sources if you need guidance on the facts. Use social stories to illustrate what’s happening in a simple way, such as how to wash your hands, what social distancing means.
Loss of routine is deeply de-stabilising for children on the autism spectrum. Any change can create huge anxiety, leading to a meltdown. You will need to be patient and understand this is a natural, chemical reaction for them, they’re not attention-seeking or naughty, they are being themselves.
What helps? Start to establish a new routine, use visual timetables, collect pebbles for each day you are isolated or away from your friends. Scientists claim it takes about 21 days to form a new habit. It may feel strange, but you will all adjust. Be aware, when they go back to school, which is another transition, they will need time to re-adjust back into the social interaction demands of being at school.
If your ADHD is on medication whilst at school, it’s important to take advice on how to stop them during this period, if that’s what you want. When they come off, they can experience a variety of symptoms, so be prepared for a bumpy ride until their brain chemistry stabilises. And if you want them to stay on medication, work out when you need to re-order the prescription.
Do what you say – even if you’re not a super organised person (and some of us aren’t) try to be reliable at this time. If your child knows they can count on you, this will ease their anxiety. Even simple things like saying you will run them a bubble bath, read them a story, or make their favourite dish for dinner, stick to the plan.
Anxiety is the body’s response to fear – a physical sensation which can be hugely distressing for the autistic and ADHD child. Your autistic child may need to ‘stim’ (self-stimulating behaviour, such as arm flapping) more. You need to be relaxed about this. They may require the feel of their favourite tactile toy. If you need to wash a favourite stim toy, try to do it overnight so it’s dry for the next day, as the loss of familiar things adds to their distress.
Journaling, doodling, painting or crafting are great low-stimulus ways to calm your anxious child as well as provide a creative outlet. Having a release for the mix of emotions is vital, whether it’s anxiety, excitement or panic. Use an emotion flow chart, like Zones of Regulation, to help your child explain how they are feeling emotionally, especially useful if they have speech and language issues.
Yoga and mindfulness are other great tools to help lower anxiety levels and can be done by everyone in the family.
Kids with ADHD will need a physical release, so hopefully there’s an outdoor open space nearby where they can let off steam, scream and run about in a socially distanced way.
Resilience is about managing life’s changes and the anxiety that change – especially sudden change – can cause. Teaching children that there are some things in life that they can’t control is a difficult, but important, lesson. The key thing to remember that most situations in life are transitory, ‘and this too will pass’.
Resilience is a buzz word that some autism/ADHD families have mixed feelings about. Children with special educational needs are in the highest categories for bullying, social isolation, discrimination, school exclusion and mental health issues. They already cope with quite a lot, so they’re pretty good at resilience. My take on this is to reflect back to them every day how well they are coping with their changing circumstances. How proud you are of them. We also need to recognise that for some children being away from school in the safety and security of their home, is a godsend. Being at school creates lots of stress and anxiety if they struggle to make friends or are teased because of their difference.
Praise goes a long way for children with neurodiversity, we are asking a lot of them to be away from their friends and the stability of their daily life. And when this is over, reward them for being grown-up, mature, kind, helpful, tidy.
Creating a timetable is a good idea, but keep it loose. Discuss your plans with your child, encourage them to be an active participant in their education. There are loads of online resources available; one of the most comprehensive is Chatterpack and BBC Bitesize.
If you’re not sure what your child’s Key Stage is or what they need to learn from the National Curriculum, it’s here: https://www.gov.uk/national-
The thing to remember about homeschooling is that it won’t be anything like school! If your child isn’t calm, forget teaching or learning. Once they’re calm, here are a few pointers:
- Keep learning to small blocks of time (35-40 minutes).
- Supervise closely to ensure they stay on task.
- Read out loud. It’s easy to misunderstand the questions so reading out loud is so helpful. We miss things by skim reading, so reading out loud is helpful even for older children.
- Use humour to diffuse tension.
- Ask your child to repeat instructions, this is great for improving brain function (language, recall, details).
- Carry out ‘temperature checks’ to gauge feelings and emotions.
- Break tasks into smaller chunks. Younger children work in shorter bursts. Twenty minutes/half an hour/forty minutes! If you get to forty minutes with an ADHD child or young person, wow. They must love that subject. Or you should train to be a teacher! After forty minutes, a break is essential. Have a ten-minute break. Move around. Be silly. Repeat.
- Give heaps of positive feedback and praise, helps to refuel the emotional tank which will be depleted by any background worry or anxiety.
- If your child messes about, stay calm: reacting to anger with anger will only escalate the situation and we need to find the de-escalate button. Quietly restate the task. If you need it done, use a statement not a question. ‘We need to read three pages of your book’ rather than ‘shall we read three pages of your book?’
- Smile and praise in detail when a piece is done. Have a break before you start another piece.
- Feed their brain. Fresh fruit/biscuits/hot chocolate—and some for you too!
Article by Suzy Rowland, founder of the #happyinschool project, and author of S.E.N.D. In The Clowns due for release in July 2020 by Hashtag Press