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Virtual School Tips for Students with an Intellectual and Developmental Disability

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — August 17, 2020 — 7 min read
Going to school online is challenging for the parent or caregiver of any child. Heading back with no in-person instruction when you have an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD) multiplies the difficulty.

Teachers and clinical professionals locally and nationwide have grappled with the question of how to help all students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade get the most out of virtual school. They have come up with some great ideas to help parents this school year.

“The challenges were many,” said Brad Stevenson, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Director of Program Administration and Clinical Services at Melmark Carolinas, a program for students who have severe levels of disability, which operated remotely last spring. “There was the loss of services and a stable school schedule five days a week. Some families did not have the technology they needed for online instruction. Other families struggled with balancing work and their child’s needs.”

Melmark Carolinas petitioned the state to be declared essential and reopening in June after teaching remotely for three months.

“I thought a lot about prioritization of skills. What skills are lost outside of the school? There are a lot of naturally occurring skills that develop during in-person schooling such as social skills, the daily routines of school, managing their materials,” Stevenson said. “They may lose those skills when they are going to school online.”
But parents can take steps to help fill those gaps, he said.

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare IDD Clinical Director and Lead Psychologist Patricia Babin, Ph.D., PharmD, said, “The bottom line is that these kids need a routine and structure. They need to get up at same time, go to bed at the same time. If you can start at the same time each day, that would be helpful.”

Here are some more tips:

Set up a School-Only Workspace

Set up a place in your home where your child only does school work. Make sure it’s a space where your child will have as little distraction from school as possible. If you have a dining room, this is often a good option. A designated office is also good.

“I do believe strongly that there should be a part of the house reserved for learning,” Babin said. “Some kids may associate learning with something negative because it’s hard, so they need somewhere they can relax when school is out and formal learning is finished for the day. Designate a part of the house or a room of the house just for school.”

Idea: The dining room is a good option for an at-home school workspace.

The dining room is often the least used room in the house so it’s a great option for a school-only space. Avoid using a bedroom, though, because getting a good night’s sleep is vital to mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Commit to a Routine

Set up the expectations for the school day. For kids who can read, make a written schedule and keep that in their school zone as a reminder of what’s coming next.

If your child cannot read, create a visual schedule with pictures like they have at school to remind students about what they will do at each point in their day.

Keep in mind, too, that while schools follow strict routines, they also allow time for students to get up and move around and do different things such as art or music, lunch, or playing outside. Work these kinds of activities into your child’s school day at home as well.

“We can expect a child without an IDD to last through a couple of hours of virtual instruction,” Babin said. “But with someone with an IDD diagnosis, you’re probably going to need to break that up into 20 minute increments.”

The periods of time spent formally teaching will, of course, vary depending on the needs of the child.

Idea: Make time for other fun activities

“It’s not only about academic skills. I don’t want parents to forget the other skills. It’s just as important for these kids to have art or something creative to do,” Babin said. “With moderate IDD, maybe it’s a huge drawing pad and you give them chalk or colored pencils.”

Respect Your Child’s Internal Clock and Nature

If your child is a night owl, don’t fight it. Likewise, if he or she is a morning person who loses focus in the afternoon, don’t fight that either!

“Some kids are better off learning everything in the morning,” Babin said. “In the afternoons, they’re just wired and they can’t sit still. Know what times of day are best for them.”

Minimize Distractions from Learning

Sometimes, especially for children who have an intellectual or developmental disability, distractions interrupt a child’s focus and disrupt learning. It may take time to refocus that attention.

In the first week or two of school, pay attention to what interrupts learning for your child. Then minimize or remove those distractions.

Idea: Hang a do not disturb sign on the front door

If a delivery person ringing your doorbell distracts your child, hang a sign asking delivery people not to ring the bell when they leave a package for you at the door.

Reinforce a Job Well Done

What motivates your child? Use that to reward completed school work.

“A lot of times that happens pretty naturally in the classroom. Right there, they get reinforcement,” Stevenson said. “If your child is learning virtually, the parent and the teachers will need to get creative. If your child likes videos, you can provide videos in your instruction or as a reinforcement to what they’re learning.

“If the child is working for something more tangible, think about what can be used to reinforce the behavior you want,” he said.

Babin adds that you should never take away outside time or activities that get your child moving because of unfinished school work. This is activity you want to reinforce because it improves physical and mental health.

Talk about the Pandemic

In a way that your child can understand, keep them informed of what is happening. Explain why we need to wear masks, social distance, and wash our hands when we go out.

It’s also important for members with IDDs to talk about the pandemic. The coronavirus can be transferred easily from person to person and can be dangerous especially to people with certain health conditions. “They need to talk about what’s going on and the importance of wearing masks, she said.”

You can also talk about feelings they have about the pandemic and not being able to go to school in person and why that is happening so it is less scary.

Idea: Use the pandemic as a teaching moment

Try asking them questions about what they already know about the pandemic. Ask them what questions they have. Have them draw pictures to express their feelings about the changes.

Children need other children to learn social skills

If your doctor agrees, consider designating a small group of friends (two or three maximum) who you can interact with in person, and still carry out the recommended COVID-19 guidelines.

If both families are reliably isolated from possible exposure, this may be possible to do in person. If you can’t isolate, consider meeting outdoors with social distancing and masks.

Some children do well with online interactions and are able to fulfill this need by interacting with adults. In-person interaction can be easier for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Divide subjects by parents

One parent makes sure the student understands math. The other oversees reading.

If you do have another family that is isolating and socializing responsibly with you, you could also share this responsibility with those parents. (Check with your doctor first, though, before you decide to meet with another family.)

“If you can get other parents to help you teach, it probably would be a sanity saver,” Babin said.

Other Resources and Suggested Reading for Parents and Caregivers

In raising her own son, Babin said she often referred to one of her favorite child-rearing books, “1, 2, 3 magic” by Thomas Phelan, a registered clinical psychologist. Phelan wrote a follow up book titled “1, 2, 3, teen.”

In April 2020, the Illinois State Board of Education’s Special Education Services Department published a resource for Remote Learning for Students with Significant Intellectual or Multiple Disabilities. It contains tips to use while in-person learning is suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Babin said.

Stevenson recommends visiting the Vanderbilt University website, which has online modules to help professionals working with children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. They are free and available for anyone to view and may contain helpful information for parents as well.

The N.C. Department of Instruction also has created a Remote Learning Resources page to help parents and families. 
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