Social distancing orders mean we lack a channel that connects the drought to the flood. We lack a way to save one another from our respective disasters. This has been my experience as a school psychologist supporting parents of children with special needs. Since schools closed in March, I’ve been stuck at home reading harried text messages from parents such as:
"We’re so overwhelmed over here, I can’t even find time to call you”
“Can we talk ASAP? Sabrina’s not getting any of her e-learning work done. She can’t seem to concentrate. She’s overwhelmed all the time”.
“Jose stands at the door with his backpack crying. He doesn’t understand why he’s not going to school anymore. His behaviors are off the wall right now. We just don’t know what to do anymore.”
All students with an IEP are entitled to a FAPE (free and appropriate education). Their IEP provisions and accommodations must be upheld even during current school closures. And from what I’ve seen in my district, special education teachers are working their tails off to continue teaching (video “circle times”, You-Tube channels, Zoom speech therapy lessons). However, children with disabilities are still affected disproportionately by distance learning than their typical peers.
At school, students with disabilities receive individualized attention and instruction. They often have a whole team to support their academic, adaptive, and emotional health including special education teachers, counselors, reading interventionists, speech, physical or occupational therapists. For students with socialization deficits (such as in autism spectrum disorder or with intellectual disabilities) school provides students scaffolded and guided practice in interacting with peers, learning to identify and name emotions, playing collaboratively, solving conflict, sharing toys, and saying kind words. Earlier this spring, my heart nearly exploded when I witnessed Daniela, a preschooler with autism, walking hand in hand into class with a little boy. When Daniela first started preschool two years ago, she was rather ferocious. (I say this lovingly!) She wanted nothing to do with her peers. She hit, screamed, or hid under the table when other kids tried to play with her. Now, two years later, Daniela has a favorite friend at school. They hold hands at circle time, they play tag, they show each other their favorite books. The social improvements Daniela has made in preschool have been dramatic. It’s these supports that our children currently missing.
Parents of children with disabilities are trying to do it all, to be their child’s therapist, teacher, and playmate, all while balancing their own responsibilities at home, at work, or with their other children. But a recent article from The Atlantic sums it up: “No amount of love and care at home can turn the average parent into a special-education teacher overnight. Nor can it enable them to practice occupational, speech, or physical therapy.” (Hill, 2020)
What can be done to help families of children with disabilities survive the “flood” during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Research has indicated that teletherapy counseling services are just as effective as in-person sessions. It’s counterintuitive but true. I’ve hosted many sessions over zoom and despite my initial insecurities, I have found it a meaningful way to continue building relationships and teaching skills. Together over Zoom, we’ve practiced mindfulness, played coping skills “bingo,” body mapped our feelings, and practiced turning thoughts from unhelpful to helpful. If your child experiences anxiety, depression, difficulty with coping, or behavioral disorders find out if your child’s school counselor, psychologist, or social worker would be willing to meet with them, online. If not, is there a mental health clinician in your church who would be willing to provide services this way?
Expect and accept regressions
Children with special needs often thrive on routine. Grief over changed routine, loss of friendships, or lack of control may manifest as loss of skills or inability to regulate behavior. This is to be expected and is not the fault of the parent. Parents can minimize regressions by 1) setting up your own daily routine and following it, 2) helping children understand Covid-19 (Click here
for excellent resources), 3) providing your children opportunities to express themselves using visual aids
Stress and anxiety pass from parent to child, so care for yourself in order to care for your children. This may mean staying connected to friends virtually, getting outside, practicing self-forgiveness, letting go of expectations for yourself, seeking spiritual direction, trying meditation or mindfulness for the first time, or asking for help.
Make time for play and joy
It can become a burden thinking about how far behind your child will be when school starts up again. It’s easy to obsess over the missed academic development. But it’s important for you and your child’s mental wellness, to put those concerns aside for parts of every day. Consider activities to spark humor and goofiness such as a family dance party, fashion show, or themed dinner.
For the church community:
As social distancing enters its third month, it’s time for the church to forge a channel between those of us in drought and our families of children with disabilities, in the flood. Here are some ideas how:
Church members, family, or friends can step in to help children with disabilities continue to socialize. One small group in my church established a “show and tell” for the adults and children to participate in. This enabled the children to practice sharing an interest and listening to an interest of others. Charades, Battleship, or Pictionary are examples of games that can be played over video and that promote practicing turn-taking.
Prioritize the well-being of the caregiver
Consider a zoom support group to provide parents a place to share their experience and be prayed over. Sometimes, this opportunity needs to be suggested rather than waiting for the parents to ask for it.
Support the practical needs of the family
Consider taking over meals, mowing their yard, picking up groceries.
Send notes, flowers, or drop off a favorite book. Help the family feel understood and less alone.
It’s simple, but the best way to know how to help, is to ask.
During this pandemic, Romans 8:38-39 has taken on special significance. Consider these revised words: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor pandemics, nor social distancing, nor school closures, nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Read these words and be encouraged to continue revealing God’s love to one another.
Denise lives in Goshen, Indiana where she works as a school psychologist. She is passionate about the inclusion and belonging of all peoples and families in the church. Denise is a field associate for ADN and attends East Goshen Mennonite church along with her husband Tony.
Hill, F. (2020). The pandemic is a crisis for children with special needs. The Atlantic.