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How to Support Kids With Communication Disabilities While School Is Canceled

Dear Caregiver,

I am a mom who teaches her son at home. The current situation with the coronavirus pandemic in our country and the school closures do not affect our family like they would if my son went to school. My son has disabilities. He uses an AAC device (augmentative and alternative communication device) because he has complex communication needs. From my vantage point of spending years teaching him at home, I have three suggestions for places you might want to be in the days and weeks ahead.

1. Be present.

During times of stress and change, all children need grown-ups to show up. They need attention. They need extra patience. Their world has suddenly turned upside down. Everything feels out of control when the normal paths of life aren’t the ones we can tread. Our children need their adults to be attentive listeners, engaged problem solvers and people who can regulate our own emotions.

Children with communication challenges need all the above times two. The extra effort it takes for AAC users to communicate their needs and feelings requires more concentration and presence from their caregivers. Listen with your whole self. Respond in kindness. Suggestion: if there are two adults to help with the children, provide each other with breaks. When you are with your children, be 100 percent present. Set your phone down. Get on the child’s level. Be available to your children.

2. Be realistic with expectations.

I have seen a number of social media posts expressing the thought that thousands of parents have suddenly become homeschoolers. Unless the COVID-19 pandemic has caused you to withdraw your children from school, you aren’t homeschooling. Homeschooling is a commitment to be fully responsible for your child’s education for an extended period of time. Don’t expect that of yourself right now.

The teacher-student relationship in a homeschool setting is tutorial. If your child has been attending school, they aren’t used to that educational setting. Unless you, as a caregiver, have been a homeschool parent before, you aren’t used to that responsibility. Don’t expect more of yourself or your children than is realistic right now. Stay connected to your child’s school and teachers. Schedule time in your day to complete the work they assign. Find some fun, free, educational activities to do as a family. Trust in the role of play. Read a little more than normal. But don’t expect yourself or your children to complete eight hours of educational stuff at home just because they are usually at school for eight hours.

Also, have realistic expectations about incorporating AAC and modeling into your daily life. I am not saying set aside the communication device and don’t use it. I am saying don’t expect yourself to become a speech therapist overnight. It’s far better to be present with your child and model language in ways that are comfortable and natural to your relationship than spend an exorbitant amount of time on the internet trying to learn a bunch of new skills or set up a complete AAC intervention program.

And by the way — today isn’t the day to invest in expensive educational, AAC or homeschool materials and start down a path you had no intention of taking a month ago. A decision to homeschool should not be made abruptly, especially if your child has extra educational needs or receives therapy through school. Be sensible about your expectations of yourself.

3. Be consistent.

There are going to be difficult moments in the days and weeks ahead. Being home together more than usual is new to you and your children. Look for the little successes. Celebrate the breakfast with no spilled milk, the morning of keeping the AAC device nearby, the afternoon talking together in the sun on the back porch.

You can get through this by breaking the day into little bits of time and consistently doing the next thing. Do what you can with what you have steadily hour after hour. Skip the elaborate Pinterest project; color together on plain paper instead. End an activity when everyone is still in a good mood. Do a little more the next day. All of you need steady effort towards achievable goals. Be dependable for the duration.

What would you add? Let us know in the comments below.

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