Updated: Dec 13, 2021
Covid-19 has changed the way we live. One of the biggest and perhaps most difficult lifestyle changes has been the increase in distance education for school aged children. Understandably, many parents may be overwhelmed by the prospect of teaching their children at home, even with the involvement of teachers and the use of computers. For many children, distance education will be a smooth process, with little disruption. However, for many other children, learning in the home environment will lead to disruption in behavior that may impede the learning process.
Distance education means that parents will have the responsibility of keeping their children on task, not always an easy feat for active children. For parents of children with special needs, it can be particularly daunting. Having been a classroom teacher for students with special needs for several years, I have seen my share of challenging behavior in the school setting. Many children struggle with behavior in school, even with the professional resources available in the school setting. Thus, learning remotely may increase behavioral challenges. Moreover, younger children may have difficulty distinguishing the behavioral norms and expectations in the home versus school; behavior and expectations differ in the home and school environments. Moreover, the structure is different in each environment.
Elementary classrooms provide opportunities to move around during the day. Also, there is lunch and recess with their peers. Specials such as music, physical education, and art, provide a chance to leave the classroom and learn in a different environment, stimulating neural connections. Learning in isolation, in the same environment may be challenging for children.
For children with special needs, distance education becomes even more difficult and so does challenging behavior. Furthermore, children with special needs have a variety of accommodations that professionals provide in the school environment such as behavior specialists and classroom paraprofessionals. However, implementing some simple behavioral strategies will certainly help parents navigate this new territory and make distance learning a positive experience for the whole family. For more severe behavior problems associated with distance education, an individualized behavior plan developed by a professional or a behavioral tutor may be necessary.
Here are a few recommendations that will make distance education easier to navigate:
Perhaps the most important components in distance learning is structure, routine, and consistency.
Establish a routine and stick to it. It may be a different routine than it was before, but routines are important for children. Following a consistent routine will increase the effectiveness of remote learning.
Create a dedicated space for school. Use the same space everyday even if it is the kitchen table. This creates a clear signal that school is in session and establishes a routine and a set of behavioral expectations for that time period. You could decorate the space with your child to make the space more inviting. The goal is to make this a space for learning at a specific time.
Develop behavioral rules. Behavioral rules are posted in every classroom. Keep them in a visible place at the workspace. Have a few important rules, but not too many as to make remote learning aversive.
Have a conspicuous signal of when “school is in session” versus “school is out” Use a sign that is visible at the workspace. For example, write School in Session on one side and School is Out on the other side.
Have a reinforcement system in place. This will be critical for keeping your child engaged and motivated to work. The reinforcement system should be age appropriate. For younger children, it can be breaks with their favorite toys. For adolescents, you could use a point system that leads to timed activity breaks such as computer games.
Take frequent breaks depending on the difficulty of the work and your child’s tolerance level. It is difficult for children to sit at a computer for long periods time. However, keep the breaks short. The longer the breaks, the harder it is to go back to work.
Take energy breaks. This is a good time to get up from the chair and stretch, do some jumping jacks, jog in place. Go outside if the weather permits. These breaks will refocus your child. Keep these breaks short and not too vigorous. The goal is to refocus, not to tire them out!
For difficult assignments that may lead to some problem behavior, break the work in chunks. For example, if it is a math worksheet, do five problems at a time. Take a short break, then do five more and so on. Another effective strategy for difficult assignments is to rotate the difficult assignment with a more preferred or easier assignment.
Take snack breaks in addition to lunch during the day.
Follow the school schedule. Complete assignments early in the day.
Be consistent with structure and behavioral rules but make it fun!
Whether distance education is temporary or a permanent solution for some families, keep in mind, this is a new territory for you and your child. Although it will be challenging, it should be a rewarding experience, a time to create good memories. Implementing some simple, effective behavioral strategies will help ease the many challenges that lie ahead.
Lena Sankovich, PhD, BCBA-D