Words: Caroline Klage, Bolt Burdon Kemp
Lockdown has been disruptive for so many of us. Overnight, we have had to grapple with major changes in routine without access to the support networks we rely on. For a child with complex needs, who, to feel settled and happy, relies on routine, familiarity, and sensory regulation, this disruption is magnified.
Whilst many schools have moved from bricks and mortar establishments to online communities with families all over the country trying to recreate their children's classrooms within their own homes, this is simply not possible for families whose children have special educational needs, as so often the actual fabric of the building is designed to be environmentally supportive of the children who learn within it.
For parents trying to balance their own work commitments, home education, the practical stresses of lockdown, including socially distanced shopping and/or reduced deliveries, increased levels of cleaning and tidying and all the meals that need to be prepared and then cleared away, it’s no wonder so many parents feel totally frazzled, overwhelmed, spread too thinly and trying to do too much and not very well…..
Help is at hand in these wonderful tips and reassuring points kindly shared by a number of leaders in their respective fields:
Your mental health and well-being: Do not be too hard on yourself. You are not a teacher. Fully acknowledge this time is especially difficult for families of children with special educational needs.
Prioritise your family’s emotional and mental well-being: Do what you can, but it should be workable, fit in with your family's circumstances, and not put extra pressure on you all.
Keep a healthy and helpful routine: This will help reduce anxiety. Consider creating a daily visual timetable, and a separate area or room for learning activities.
Lockdown activities: Try and find simple things to do together such as treasure hunts on a daily walk (looking for feathers, daisies, etc), creating a family memory book, or growing fruit and vegetables.
Accept screen time: Do not feel guilty. There are some great educational apps to download, as well as fun ones, so with some thought and planning, screen time can contribute towards educating at home!
Meet your child’s sensory needs: Physical exercise that gets the muscles moving (dancing, jumping, walking, biking!), repetitive movement that can help self-soothe (running, drumming, skating, hopping), focussing on attachment through physical touch and verbal reassurances during play, will all help the body regulate, reduce anxiety and let your child know you are there for them.
Eat smart: When anxious, our need to chew/eat/suck with our mouth increases. Use snacks and drinks to help meet this need - crunchy snacks such as carrots and apples, or chewy snacks such as cereal bars are ideal. ‘Alerting snacks’ such as cut in half frozen grapes, apples from the fridge, or an ice-cold drink can be stimulating. Sucking is regulating, so drinking through straws or squeezy yogurts are good options.
Physiotherapy: Engage your child in simple recipes for family baking which helps develop fine motor skills, bi-lateral integration skills, sequencing skills, and sensory skills. Messy activities are ideal!
Change position: For more profoundly disabled children, frequent changes in position are key, as when a child is at school, they have many changes in position during the school day. So when at home, using different chairs, side-lying, working in a prone position (on tummy) over a wedge, working on a plinth or therapy bench are all beneficial.
There is uncertainty as to what the next 12 months will look like and when teachers and children will return to school in the more conventional sense. In the meantime, you can best support your child by really focusing on looking after the whole family's emotional and mental well-being.