Learning At Home

These are strange times. The current Covid-19 emergency has suddenly put us at the beginning of a time of family isolation. As parents of kids with disabilities, we are used to having a circle of support to keep our kids engaged and learning. Now it’s on us. We still have other things we have to do. How is this going to work?

Lots of home schooling posts and ideas are flying around on the internet, some optimistic and others cynical. Most of us are probably pretty uncertain of what learning at home will look like.

It’s going to be okay. Learning at home is different than learning at school.

It might be helpful to consider why we send our kids to school in the first place. These are some general objectives that are on my children’s IEPs as a reminder for our team:

  • Physical and Emotional Well-being – habits and knowledge for taking care of ourselves
  • Social Learning – giving our attention to other people, understanding and responding with empathy to nonverbal, verbal and written communication of feelings, ideas and perspectives
  • Competence – learning ‘how-to’, for independent living and working, both with physical and thinking-based learning: problem solving, goal setting for academic and life skills
  • Expanding world knowledge and experience
  • Communication – expanding abilities to share feelings, ideas, experiences, and knowledge

Can we work on these things at home? Absolutely. Does it have to look like a school day? Not at all. Your family’s interests, routines and hobbies are a natural starting point for the development of language, literacy, planning and problem solving, and other areas of competence.

Mental Health: The Foundation of Everything

Stressed parents have a hard time guiding their children, and stressed kids can’t learn well. So it’s wise to begin by making rest, nutrition, and physical activity a priority.

Acknowledge the frustration and worry that comes with uncertainty, but also try not to dwell on it – even if you aren’t sure how much your kids understand, be careful about constant exposure to the news. It’s probably not good for your mental health either.

If your children benefit from sensory-based activities, do them. Keep moving. Go outside every day, if you can. On the Facebook page of Diary of A Mom, the family goal is to go outside every day. She started by inviting her child to take three pictures to talk or write about when they come home again. Go for walks, hang out in parks (but not playgrounds). Use bubbles or frisbees or anything fun to get your kids moving. It’s okay to go outside as long as you keep the social distancing rules.

Do what you can to make your home environment comfortable and soothing. Offer emotional support in whatever ways your child appreciates. My daughter is repeat-watching her favorite movie: Inside Out. She takes comfort in knowing there’s a team behind her eyeball. My son just wants to be close to us. For me, keeping up with the housecleaning creates a space where I can relax. Music is good for our emotional health, and presents another opportunity to move!

Practice gratitude. Take time to consider what you do have and enjoy together.

There’s nothing wrong with taking some time to regroup after disruption and uncertainty, and make sure everyone is settled and regulated before you add anything else.

If this is all you do, you’ve done well.

Social Learning and Communication: Staying Connected

This goal is essentially about maintaining and building relationships. What you will do depends on your child’s personality, preferences, and development. RDI talks about how children move from coregulation (a child’s social-emotional well-being is supported by the parent), to coordination and collaboration.

For some kids on the spectrum, being able to pay attention to the same activity as an other person is challenging (joint attention). Perspective taking is about recognizing that the thoughts and knowledge of others might be different than what we know and perceive. I don’t see or feel what you do, or I might not know what you know or feel what you feel.

These are really important areas of social understanding that can be explored through nonverbal or verbal play. Whatever your child enjoys and is ready to do in interaction with you or their siblings, it’s good to offer more of it. This might mean simple ‘people games’ like tickling, or it might mean play with building toys, or anything else that your child is interested in and you can do together. If your child is verbal, talking about shared memories is another way to explore social understanding. Get out the photo albums! Other ideas:

  • Board games and card games are another way to expand social competence while having fun.
  • We can use email, recorded videos or video chat to contact friends and family and help kids learn about conventions and ‘rules’ of online communication. Even nonverbal kids can wave to family members on video calls.
  • Just for fun, try doing a task together using gestures only, without talking. You’ll find out pretty fast if your child is tuned in to nonverbal communication. If they aren’t, you can make a game of doing tasks without talking so they can learn to pay attention to nonverbal signals.

Building Competence

What are you doing for your child that they are ready to do for themselves? This can be a hard shift for parents to make, as it’s often easier to do things for our kids long past the point that they need it. In our family, we’ve handed over making breakfast to the kids, so one is making egg sandwiches and the other is learning to do grilled cheese. They may make a mess of the margarine, but eventually they’ll get better at it – and think of all the fine motor and problem solving skills they can practice, every day!

We find it works best to take an “I do – we do – you do” approach. We show how first. Modeling is the first and most important step. A child will need to see and process before they are ready to join in. Then we invite the child to join us and do the task together. Sometimes physical support or chunking the task is needed: hand over hand with the butter knife, until the child gets the hang of spreading, for example. My daughter wanted to learn to crochet, which is quite challenging. We found it works well to share the task. I am using my left hand to support the yarn, and she is only doing the right hand part with the hook. It works, and she is successful! You can also break down the sequence of tasks and take turns – you might do the beginning (folding laundry) and let them take on the end of the task (putting away), gradually working backwards to give them more to do as they are comfortable. It’s a process of letting go and backing off until they are doing the task on their own.

  • Meals have to be made. If they are enjoying cooking, explore new recipes together.
  • Household chores have to be done. What is your child ready to do? Let them know the expectation ahead of time, start by being a team to get it done, and celebrate success! Start with one or two and add tasks as they feel competent.
  • Mistakes are messy, and that’s okay. Teach your child how to clean up.
  • What about hobbies that you enjoy? What might your child like to join you in doing? Kite flying, gardening, photography, crafting, woodworking or home repair are all great areas to build skills and knowledge, and you like doing them anyway.

Expanding Knowledge of the World

There are lots of ways to learn about science, literature, and history from home. The following can be ways of supporting school topics, or exploring your child’s interests:

  • When you are trying to support school learning, grab the “big ideas” as a focus, rather than worrying about the details. For example, you really want your child to understand that electricity is a form of energy that does work in our homes, and that there are safety rules when working with electricity. Everything else is built on those concepts.
  • There are many ways to read. Try regular books, e-books, magazines, webpages, learning apps, recipes, maps, instruction manuals (e.g. Lego), virtual museum tours, and audiobooks. TV is of course a great source of learning too. Turn on the closed captioning to support understanding and literacy.
  • There are so many interactive online platforms for learning. Virtual museum tours, Khan Academy, Duolingo, TinyCards, games like Poptropica and Minecraft…sometimes kids enjoy learning more when they can do it on a screen.
  • Explore family history. Talk to relatives, look at family albums/stories, find relevant places on maps.

Communication

I’ve listed this one last, but it belongs with every category I’ve already discussed and may be the most important. We communicate to express our needs and experiences, build relationships, work together for common goals, and demonstrate what we know. We also know that there are a lot of ways to communicate what we know and think, beyond words. Maybe time at home can be an opportunity to put some more tools in the toolbox for our kids. There has been some research showing that communication difficulties are less evident when people with autism switch to other modes, like writing or artistic expression.

  • think beyond written words.  Doodles, comics, pictures and photographs can be a great way to communicate ideas. So can drama and videography. Would your child like to build their artistic expression skills? There are artists offering free drawing lessons online every day.
  • If your child needs help with structure, try using graphic organizers (just Google search for a variety of options) or try out a new computer or iPad app. Are there apps on your child’s iPad that they don’t yet know how to use, but might be good tools when they need to show their ideas?
  • Have them write about their interests or experiences.
  • Communicate with real people. Write letters or messages to friends and family, to people who are lonely, to favourite celebrities, to the newspaper or to politicians about issues your child cares about.
  • This is a great time for us all to work on how we listen to each other. When you and your child are having a conversation, really focus on the feelings behind the words. What is important to them? Affirm their attempts to communicate – focus on their meaning – before modeling correct grammar or vocabulary. Try to always respond to their thoughts and feelings by giving them a little bit more information based on what they said, or expanding their ideas just a little bit.

Measuring Success

So there’s a long list of suggestions for keeping our kids healthy, happy and growing during the time we spend away from school. This is really a memo to myself – like everyone else, I’m thinking about how to handle the current situation and I’m not sure how it will all turn out. There is no way I’m going to do all of these things. I’m finding it best to start with one daily goal, and when we get used to that one, then I will add another. Exercise, chores, and taking in some new information will be the beginning priorities for my children.

I do know that we need to be kind to ourselves. We can’t do everything at once, but just choosing a couple of daily goals will go a long way.

What does inclusive education mean in a time of distance learning? It’s important to have a conversation with your child’s teacher and/or resource teacher to talk about priorities. Don’t be afraid to let them know what is working or not working for you. They are there to help you work this out.

Stay well, everyone, and don’t forget to stay in contact. We still need each other, and we are not alone!

Further Reading and Resources

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