Navigating special education and care amid COVID-19
By Annelise Krafft
As we continue to navigate COVID-19, parents have taken on several new roles: teacher, personal chef, at-home entertainer and more. For parents with a child who has a developmental disability, the list also includes specialized therapist, behavior analyst and wellness advocate.
With last school year’s transition to distance learning, students who have developmental disabilities were left without many options to supplement in-person therapies and individualized support while at home. As the upcoming school year approaches, their parents are worried once again that their children might fall through the cracks.
That’s where organizations like ACCEL and The BISTÅ Center come in. ACCEL, a recognized leader in special education, is a nonprofit private school serving students who have developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, cognitive disabilities and behavioral disorders. The BISTÅ Center, a division of ACCEL, is an applied behavior analysis (ABA) agency, specializing in early intervention services for children with developmental disabilities and behavioral disorders.
Whether your student is returning to special education full-time, part-time or on a hybrid model, use these tips from experts to set them up for success.
If you’re anxious about navigating your child’s education and care amid COVID-19, the best place to start is by identifying what resources may be available. According to Matt LeVac, occupational therapist and therapy supervisor at ACCEL, the Arizona Department of Education is a great online resource for such things as identifying where to find free school meals to information regarding Exceptional Student Services such as special education programs, policies and procedures. If your child utilizes an augmentative and alternative communication device, its software company may also offer free resources, according to Sarai Baker, a special education teacher at the school.
Several online websites also offer free tools that help improve the experience with virtual learning. LeVac likes tarheelgameplay.com, which incorporates natural pauses into YouTube videos to help students take screen breaks. Baker utilizes padlet.com for webinars for English language learners, as well as socialthinking.com for read-alouds, social stories and worksheets. When your student needs a movement break, Emily Davis, assistant director at The BISTÅ Center, recommends gonoodle.com. “We love the free dance and wiggle breaks they offer, as well as mini meditation videos,” she says.
If you’re still looking for more, seek out services from reputable organizations and agencies for individuals who have disabilities. ACCEL and The BISTÅ Center offer virtual and in-person services to their students, clients and their families. “ACCEL has digital assets for all kinds of therapies, online parent resources, videos teaching activities to try at home, telehealth options for therapies and virtual group sessions, and we’re even dropping off hard copies of activities to our students’ homes, if that works better for them,” says Baker.
According to parent Ramona Vargas, “ACCEL has been wonderful working with students and parents via Zoom. In the five months my son has attended, he has learned more than he did attending other schools for years.”
The BISTÅ Center also offers its ABA services via telehealth, has virtual training services for parents, online social groups and even addresses Zoom etiquette with its clients. “We’re also servicing our clients from their homes, when possible, and can bring children into our office for one-on-one support, in special circumstances,” says Davis.
For individuals who have disabilities, frequent and in-person therapies are part of their daily routine; including physical, occupational, speech and music therapy, among others. Typically, there is access to specialized equipment and technology when receiving services in-person. Try getting creative to explore your options without these tools at home. “Household items can get the job done, like using kitchen tongs to practice fine motor skills and pouring water back and forth between two cups to work bilateral skills,” says LeVac.
Take it up a notch by considering tasks you have to do around the house and finding ways to make them occupational therapy exercises. “Putting clothes into laundry baskets or even mixing cookie dough are great ways to apply your student’s therapy exercises and get things done around the house,” says Baker. Another pro tip: utilize activities your child already likes and find ways to incorporate skills.
Talk To Your Team
The care providers and professionals in your student’s life are there to help. Make sure to lean on them when times get tough! Consider your child’s entire team: teachers, therapists, individualized education plan staff, extended school year team members, school district staff, pediatricians, doctors and more are all on your side.
As a special education teacher, Baker is “trying to be really flexible with families, working around their schedules and maintaining open communication on the channels that work best for them.” According to Kari Mochel, a board certified behavior analyst with The BISTÅ Center, “your child’s care team is there to do exactly that: care for your child. It’s our job to help and we want more than anything to support you however we can: professionally or personally.”
Some overlapping members of your team are even working together to make sure your child’s needs are being met. “ACCEL works with about 40 school district partners and we have a very specific and detailed reporting strategy where we tell them exactly how we’re working with each student and maintain an open channel of communication so everyone knows exactly what is being done,” says Baker.
Find Your Support System
In addition to your care team, identify the people around you who you can turn to when you need support. Whether it is family, friends, neighbors, religious communities or government agencies in your support system, these people also want to see your child succeed. Knowing your available services is also important, according to LeVac. “For some families, the Department of Developmental Disabilities may be able to provide respite hours to help care for your child,” he says.
Seeking out groups online is another way to find support, according to Davis. “There are several helpful Facebook groups that are specific to Arizona, like ‘Arizona ESA Networking,’ ‘Developmental Disabilities in Arizona’ and ‘Phoenix Area Special Needs Parenting Support & Swap,’” she says.
Help Your Child Succeed
When it comes to your child’s education, it is important to be their advocate and actively seek out ways to help them stay engaged in their learning. “With your child’s therapy team, ask specific questions like ‘What are two things we can work on before our next session?’ Therapists like when parents are eagerly seeking out skills to work on,” says LeVac.
One factor that all of these experts agree is essential for student success is to maintain a routine. “Routines help students self-manage and stay consistent with expectations for the day,” says Davis. Baker sticks to her typical classroom routine even if her students cannot join her, hosting a daily check-in meeting at 9:30 a.m. – now via Zoom.
Incorporating short breaks also helps students maintain stamina throughout the day. “Weave in breaks to get up and move, and create some sort of reward system to help your student stay motivated,” says Mochel, who also notes that it’s crucial to maintain social skills by attending virtual social groups and interacting with peers.
“Above all, the most important thing is to be patient and compassionate, because your child might not be able to communicate their own frustrations to you,” says Baker.
Take Care of Yourself, Too
Caring for your child’s emotional, mental and physical well-being can get overwhelming. To make sure they’re getting the best care, you need to take care of yourself first. “Juggling the roles of both the parent and caregiver can be a lot to manage. Take time everyday for yourself – even if it’s only a few minutes hiding in a closet!” says Mochel, who also recommends utilizing mindfulness apps, yoga practice or basic calming and grounding exercises to help relax your mind.