This is a live recording from a Facebook Live I hosted this week. It took place in a group aimed at general support through the Covid-19 Crisis, in the island of Jersey, where I am from.
I took this opportunity to talk to parents and carers about potential strategies that could be helpful for families with children with special needs, when spending all day at home. I also answered questions that came up during the Facebook Live.
We are living in difficult and unpredictable times. This is very challenging for all of us, most especially those with additional needs.
Every family has very different needs, as well as access to different sized space and resources.
We all have very different circumstances and therefore we need to think about what is manageable for our unique circumstances.
We want to try to avoid becoming stressed.
Stressed parents and carers equals stressed children.
Recognise how we are modelling being calm and if there is anything we can do further to support the children to be calm. If we show that we are anxious, our children will inevitably also be anxious.
Do what is manageable in our own, unique circumstances
Go back over previous advice from professionals, this will be specific to your child’s needs and there may be helpful strategies that you can implement at home. Everyone’s needs are so different.
Creating calm times throughout the day
Do some calming activities together.
Examples of calming activities could be: listening to soothing music, massage on hands or feet with cream, sensory play or looking at a book. What are some activities that have a calming effect on your child? Is this something you can do together? Is this something the child prefers to do alone? Can you structure this into the daily routine at specific times, to create a familiar and predictable pattern?
Movement activities throughout the day
Alerting and energising movement activities are great to get the body moving, get children exercising and also using any hyperactive energy!
It can be helpful to structure in times throughout the day where movement activities take place. At school, I would often structure movement activities before we took part in learning, to get the children’s bodies all warmed up and regulated.
This would often get them ready to focus on the learning task. For some children, I would have very regular movement breaks, such as every half an hour. It depends on the needs of the child, but for some very active children, this can be very helpful for them to keep their bodies moving.
Ideas for movement breaks include: a circuit or a visual structure of different exercises (such as star jumps and stretches), rolling the ball to each other, a dancing, yoga or exercise video on YouYube.
5 minutes movement break examples:
Structure of the day
Implementing a consistent routine can help the children become familiar with what will happen in the day.
For example, planning ahead when you and the children will do calming activities and do movement activities.
Over time, a predictable routine can help children feel safe and in control, as they know what will be happening.
Any school learning that has been planned with your teacher can be timetabled in at a specific time in the day.
Break down the tasks that you know will happen in the day.
It can really help children to know what they will be doing through visual structure or a ‘visual timetable’. How effective a visual support will be will depend on what meaning a child will take from the pictures (or text).
Pictures, images and symbols can be very helpful in giving meaning. Therefore a timetable of pictures can be very supportive.
Lets take all of the above information and put it into a visual structure. For example, a following schedule of a session with the following routine:
- Rolling the ball
- Reading a book
- Counting socks
- Hand massage
Finding these images on Google, taking photos or even drawing images and putting them in a clear structure, can help the child by showing them what is coming next. Over time you can change these images, as and when necessary. Visual structure helps give the child a clear beginning, ending and helps them to know what they will be doing. Here is a visual schedule I made using images from Google.
If a child can read text confidently, a written list of upcoming tasks will support them to have a clear idea of what they will be doing. Perhaps they can tick or cross them off as they move through the activities to clearly show where they are up to.
If your child is familiar with using symbols at school, Widgit Online are currently giving free access to their online symbol writing program. The Code is WIDGIT30.
A dedicated ‘work’ space
Having somewhere in the environment that is dedicated to ‘work’ can be helpful for autistic children by making it clear what will take place there.
This could be a desk, a table or a corner of cushions in a specific part of the room.
It can be set out in a way to make things clear to the child, showing them what they need to do. For example, having the work task in a basket to the side of the desk.
Do what is manageable – you might start with 1 learning task, building up to 2 after a few days and 3 tasks after a week, depending on what is achievable for your child.
Don’t be afraid to repeat tasks. Repetition allows a child to become more familiar with the learning activity and over time, build up confidence and enable them to do the task more independently.
There are lots of opportunities at home for practical learning throughout the day, supporting a child to generalise the learning, to different contexts.
Think of any task or activity as a learning opportunity!
For example, depending on your child’s learning outcomes, there can be opportunities throughout the day to work towards these learning outcomes.
– if turn taking is one of their specified learning outcomes, could they do a turn taking activity with you or their siblings each day?
– If they are learnign to count, could you count with them during practical activities such as cooking or gardening?
– problem solving and life skills tasks such as pairing socks, folding clothes and cleaning are important skills and sequences with lots of learning opportunities.
Question: Any tips for an autistic 7 year old who now won’t leave the house at all?
What could be the reasons why they don’t want to leave the house? Understanding the reasons behind a behaviour, can help us know what strategies will be helpful to support the child.
Could it be anxiety related to the COVID-19 situation? Is it in understanding what is happening right now? Social Stories can be really helpful in increasing understanding about a specific situation. They can be personalised to the child to further help understanding.
Here are some great free Social Stories and resources about the COVID-19 crisis, to help children to understand what is happening and why they cannot do their usual activities or see their friends.
Ensure that we are truthful
We do not want to give misinformation in uncertain times as this will cause anxiety. Avoid saying anything you are not sure of. For example “we will go back to school in May”. We do not know this, so we must not say this to the children. This would only cause further frustration.
We can however say phrases such as “it is ok to feel a bit worried. We are not sure when we will go back to school yet”.
Using children’s interests to engage them
Excite and motivate children through their interests or favourite toys.
For example, if they love playdough, you can do lots of different learning activities through playdough such as counting, making words, size, shape, role play, fine motor skills and so on.
Cooking: following a sequence, measurement, counting, fine and gross motor skills, creative decorating and so on
Gardening: fine and gross motor skills, sequencing, counting, shape, size, colour and so on.
It may be they have a favourite character or story that you can use to do different activities with. We do not want a struggle to try to get a child to do a work task that they do not find fun or engaging.
Question: Any advice for transitioning from one activity to the other, being indoors a lot?
We want to support the child’s understanding of what is coming next and that this activity has finished. Strategies that can help:
- A sand timer can help to show a child that an activity is coming to an end. When used often, a child becomes familiar with when a sand timer is shown, the activity will soon end. A sand timer also helps a child to visually see the time and when the sand finishes, this is when the activity will finish.
- A count down from 10 or 5, using words and fingers, gives an extra visual cue that the activity is coming to an end. The more consistent and often this is done, the more effective it becomes. If this strategy is used inconsistently, it will become ineffective as the child will not learn what it means.
- Model tiding up with the child, so the child sees what to do and if necessary, help them to put at least one thing away. If a child is capable of tidying up themselves, ensure they do so, helping along the way if necessary.
- Use the object related to the next activity to show the child what the next activity is. For example, after tidying away a puzzle and the next activity is snack; show the child the plate to support that transition. If the next activity is cooking, show them the cooking bowl and picture of what you will be cooking.
Question: Do you have any tips on phrases to use or visuals that you recommend?
What we are aiming for is come consistency in all of this unpredictability.
For the child to know that when you say something, it will happen. So for example, “The puzzle has finished” – if I use this phrase each time, it will support the child’s understanding of what will happen. If I use different phrases, this may not support the child’s understanding. Again this is very dependent on the child’s abilities and needs. Any phrases that you know your child understands or that your teacher has mentioned, it is important to use these same phrases consistently.
Consistency in what we do and consistency in what we say, will support the child’s understanding (which should help to reduce frustration and behaviour that challenges).
Question: Any activities to wear out a very hyper 4 year old as he is getting super aggressive?
It would be good to think about times in the day to implement physical activity, for example, a series of fun exercises. This could be every hour or as often as you feel is necessary. Do it with the child if you can, to model movement, having fun and showing them how to do it.
Research shows us that when children are moving and having fun, they learn better.
Implement physical activities that include movement throughout the day, such as cooking, gardening, building and making.
You can incorporate physical learning activities relating to your child’s learning outcomes.
Maths: Jumping whilst counting, adding, multiplication. Run to different numbers to answer the sum. Throwing into different baskets or bins with numbers, letters or words on
Fun science experiments using hands and arms (fine and gross motor skills).
Gardening: digging, planting seeds, watering, learn about the different plants and insects.
Also implement calming activities to support their sensory regulation and help to calm their bodies and minds.
Strategically implement physical activities and calming activities to support regulation throughout the day.
Question: We are struggling to get our child to do anything as his concentration is so poor, developmentally like a 2 year old apart from maths, so love your maths ideas, we also have a 2 year old and baby, so if I do anything with them, he gets aggressive.
Is there time where you can have specific time for him and he knows this? Something he loves, he knows he’s got that time with you and this is time he will receive positive attention from you.
Can this be visually represented so he knows when this time is coming? Such as a picture timetable of the activities that are coming up.
These are some of the challenges that families are facing, so please do only what is manageable, so that it is a calm and fun experience for the child, rather than stressed. This may need careful planning of exactly when this can happen and how often. This may need to be immediately followed by an activity that he can self occupy with so that you have time for your other children. A structured plan may help.
A project idea for encouraging communication, talk and recalling past events.
Take a photo each day and make a book. This can be printed out if you have printer or made on the computer or phone. You can look at this each day with your child and talk about what is happening in the photo. If it is printed out, the child can make marks or write about what is happening in the photo. This will provide lots of opportunities for learning vocabulary and recalling previous activities. This will also be great to take into school when we go back to school!.