Surviving Virtual School: A Guide for Special Needs Parents
As a stepparent of a developmentally delayed boy with autism, my life has changed during the past year. While I am happy with our decision to keep him home for remote learning, it has been exhausting trying to navigate virtual school, his care, and our work schedules. Here are some of the ways we have adapted to what has become the new normal.
Take Brain Breaks
I learned the importance of brain breaks from his teachers who pepper short, fun videos in between difficult school activities. It is wonderful to see him relax after struggling to keep his “eyes on screen” during the lesson. I have noticed how these brain breaks improve his behavior, making him calmer and more patient.
Brain breaks can help us parents be calmer and more patient, too. In order to care for others, we must preserve our own sanity by managing our own stress levels. I try to pay more attention to my emotional and physical responses now. If I notice my heart racing or my muscles tensing, or if I notice my stepson acting in negative ways, that’s my cue to take a brain break. I immediately stop and take a few deep breaths to calm my body’s fight-or-flight response. And I try to find moments throughout the day to release some of the tension, whether that means watching a funny video, playing upbeat music and dancing it out, or petting my cat. It actually works!
Keep an Organized Routine
I keep a daily calendar with each day’s therapies, Zoom classes, and meetings so I know where we need to be during each hour. I include the times I need to work, prepare meals, or go grocery shopping. The routine also helps set expectations for behaviors. My stepson knows that at school time, he must put away his toys and come sit at the computer. He also knows that he can “earn” his most coveted toy, the tablet with Nick Jr. videos, only when school is finished. I learned the hard way that letting him have his tablet before school is a recipe for disaster. Sticking to the same morning routine every day, even on weekends and holidays, helps him ease into the school day with less fuss.
Communicating with the experts at school and getting more actively involved with my stepson’s therapies has made a big difference. His teachers and therapists have been so helpful with tips, motivation, and advice from everything from how to manage challenging behaviors during virtual lessons to how to push him to reach higher goals at home. His physical therapist sent me some ideas for an obstacle course I could create with household objects, and it has improved his balance and coordination tremendously. We feel very lucky that we have been able to communicate concerns and questions to the staff at school. Their expertise helps us coordinate an at-home plan for progress that exceeded my expectations.
This past year has been exhausting, but in addition to the tips above, my biggest virtual school survival tip is to stay positive. Everyone is working so hard to make the best of this challenging situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so I try to focus on the good things that we are all accomplishing together.