The coronavirus outbreak is scary for everyone, especially children – even more so for children with disabilities who may crave predictability and structure more than most. There are steps that you can take to keep your child’s life looking and feeling normal. Dr. Erik von Hahn, Developmental-Behavioral pediatrician at Tufts Children's Hospital, offers:
- Your child’s schedule. Try to maintain the same schedule you had when your child was in school – get up at the same time, go to bed at the same time, and try and have your meals at similar times. See if you can break the day up into one hour increments, and have one small thing to do each hour. For young children, nonverbal children, and children with behavioral problems, a simple structure like this can really help. Like all children, children with disabilities need to know what’s coming up and not get surprised by unexpected demands. They also don’t know how to structure themselves, thus needing more support from adults.
- Visual schedules. Write or draw out a schedule for the day. Kids with disabilities are more dependent upon visual communication, in addition to verbal. So, talk to your child and explain to him or her what the day will look like. But also include some pictures so that they can “see” what you mean. You can ask your child to participate in making the schedule. You and your child can cut out pictures from magazine or find pictures for schedules online. By making the schedule together with your child, you are allowing your child some say in what’s going to happen and when. It also shows your child what to expect. Children who can spell and read can use printed words to describe the schedule, and decorate as they like.
- Movement. Be sure to take at least two movement breaks during the day. Take a long walk with your child, do a scavenger hunt in your yard or take advantage of some of the free online exercise classes. Fresh air is critical to maintain wellbeing for both you and your child. But remember - keep your distance from your neighbors and other people whom you might meet during this time.
- Work activities. Household activities can be shared and can be scheduled. Making your bed, cleaning dishes, tidying up, or cleaning can all be a shared task. If your child has learning difficulty, you might need to modify the task to their level. A tidy-up routine could be “put away five toys.” A clean-up routine could be “do five wipes of the counter, and then I’ll do five more.” As days go by, you can ask your child to do just a little bit more. For more capable children, assign one task per day and then review performance together. More advanced learners can maybe help in setting the table, preparing food, or doing more complex tasks such as getting rid of that clutter that you’ve been meaning to sort through for so long.
- Fun activities and shared time. Not all activities should be about work. See if you can find some fun activities that you can do together. If you are not sure where to start, start out by watching your child playing. Even screen time can be a way to have shared time with your child. What is your child interested in? Can your child explain that latest video game to you? As you spend more and more quality time with your child, you and your child might think up fun activities that you can do together, such as cooking together, doing an arts and crafts project, or reading.
- Screen time. Ease up on screen time restrictions. Many parents are now being asked to work from home and also provide child care. This is very challenging. You can be flexible with your screen time rules, but make sure that some limits are still keep in place. Try putting it into the schedule, so that there are clear start and stop times.
- Schoolwork. If you received assignments from your child’s teacher or school district, you can schedule some ‘school time’ during the day. It would be great if your child can keep their mind busy and learn new things. It’s much easier to do this if your child is already able to read and write. Children who are not yet able to read or write are better off doing some tasks around the house and learning about routines that they can complete on their own. All that said, it’s OK if you can’t be your child’s teacher. Not all children accept their parents as teacher. Keep your interactions positive. Your child needs to know: I love you and I’m going to take care of you. Those are your first two and most important jobs. If you can add “let’s do some activities and learning together,” then that would be great too.
Life outside the home does not feel normal right now, but it will go back to some sense of normal again. In the meantime, do what you can to make your life inside your home as normal as possible. Take care of yourself as well. Children pick up on adult stress. Give yourself time to relax, exercise and recharge. If you are feeling good, your child will feel good too. If you need support reach out to your friends, support groups, teachers and physicians. We are in this together.
Posted March 2020
The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.