With COVID-19 running rampant, we are living in unusual times. Parents of young children face a particular set of challenges. With schools in New York (and elsewhere) closed indefinitely, children everywhere are now at home. That means it is up to us to not only homeschool them but keep them occupied as well. With strict social distancing in place, outside adventure options are limited, and kids and parents alike may feel cooped up. Complicating matters further, many parents of young children may need to simultaneously telework.
Helpfully, many schools have sent home recommended schedules and virtual assignments, but every parent will still need to figure out a structure and strategy that works for them. Here are some tips to help facilitate success, ease some stress, and get you in the groove of our temporary “new normal”.
Understand Where New Behaviors are Stemming From
We often see with our clients that even small changes in daily structure can prompt new behaviors that impede their success. Even with realistic goals and proactive strategies, the current situation is likely to motivate behavioral changes for at least some children. They may be afraid about the virus and not know how to express their anxieties. Children may sense the stress emanating from their caregivers and react. Being cooped up in an apartment or home all day can elicit challenging behaviors from some children.
If you experience some of this in your home, understanding why your child is behaving the way they are is the first step to making a meaningful, functional behavioral change. This is because we have to understand the function of a behavior in order to effectively address it. It may be challenging, but do your best to be observant. Then, address the functions. Maybe your child needs some education about COVID and what steps your family is doing to keep them safe. Perhaps they are cooped up and doubling the movement breaks in your home will be regulating. Possibly they are used to having all of your attention when you are home and don’t understand why things have changed now. If you’re not sure what’s going on, give us a call and we will help you figure it out.
Have a Visual Schedule
During pandemics or typical school days, children consistently benefit from knowing what is going to happen and when. Children with special needs who have processing challenges or are not yet able to read will especially benefit from a visual schedule—this is a schedule of pictures indicating what will be happening and when during their day. There are a lot of ways to make a fancy version of a visual schedule. Platforms like BoardMaker and TeachersPayTeachers.com offer ways to print visual schedules. You can also use free apps such as FirstThen, iCreate or Social Story Creater and Library (some of these have in-app purchases). Or you can use my go to which is writing and/or drawing a schedule on a white board or piece of paper. You can play around with these options and find what works best for your family.
When implementing a visual schedule, you will be more likely to find success if you intersperse demands with preferred activities. If your child sees the next four hours include cleaning their room, doing homework, and reading the dictionary; they are likely to resist. Try to intersperse breaks as often as feasible. Additionally, it can be very hard for children to separate from preferred activities. If you try to take your child off of their iPad to work on geometry, they will likely be bummed. As much as possible, try to transfer from a preferred activity to something that is also preferred. For example, transitioning from a highly preferred activity to a preferred snack can help ease the pain of separation. The great thing about snacks is that they are consumable and parents do not have to take them away—they are just gone when they are done. This can make it easier to move on to something new from them.
Here are some sample schedules for a few different age ranges. They can be tweaked and adjusted to fit your family’s needs.
4-6 Years Old
7:30 Wake up
7:45 Brush teeth/get dressed
8:00 Make/Eat/Clean Up breakfast
8:30 Educational games on tablet
9:00 Play break—if possible an educational game with a concrete ending like Zingo or The Sneaky Snacky Squirrel
9:15 Assigned School Work
9:45 Skype call with family or friends
10:00 Make/Eat/Clean up Snack
11:00 Assigned School Work
11:30 Movement break—take a walk outside, jump on an indoor trampoline, fill the stroller with heavy things and push it down the hallway, etc
12:30 Assigned school work
1:00 movement/play break
1:30 Art/Sensory play (again, an activity with a concrete end like coloring a picture or creating something specific)
2:00 Assigned school work
2:30 Tablet/Play break
3:15 Assigned school work
3:45 Movement break
4:00 Clean their room/play space
4:30 Skype call with family or friends
5:00 Free play until dinner and bedtime
7-10 years old
7:30 Wake up/Brush teeth/Get Dressed/Make Bed (Maybe aspirational but we are all spending more time at home and keeping our spaces clean will keep us healthy!)
8:00 Make/Eat/Clean Up Breakfast
9:15 Movement break
10:15 Make/Eat/Clean Up Snack
11:30 Tablet/Play Break
11:45 Social Studies
12:30 Make/Eat/Clean Up Lunch
1:45 Movement Break
2:00 Language Arts
4:15 Independent Reading
4:45 Clean up school supplies/study area
5:00 Free play until dinner/bedtime
Reward the behaviors that you want to see
Maybe you are managing two children who are different ages and don’t get along. Maybe you’re going crazy being the only person in your household trying to keep things clean. Perhaps you just want your child to sit and focus independently for 5 minutes. Whatever your goals, identify them for your family and figure out a reward system. Token economies are really effective in these situations.
A token economy is when a child earns tokens for good behaviors or completing tasks. Once a child has earned enough tokens, they can cash them in for a preferred isolated activity or reward that is specific to that behavior. For example, if your goal is to have your child help around the house then every time they clean something up without being asked they can earn a token. If they earn enough tokens (this is subjective), they can cash them in for an extra episode of paw patrol before bedtime, or a bag of chips or some extra screen time. Try choosing a reward that does not require supervision so that you can have a break. Again, you can be flexible with the number of tokens and rewards here—as long as your child is contacting potent reinforcement often enough to be motivated by the tokens, it should work well. As much as possible, they should access the chosen reward only when they have earned the requisite amount of tokens.
You can make token boards easily with a piece of paper. Just indicate however many tokens your child must earn and what their reward will be. If you want your child to earn 10 tokens by being nice to a sibling and then get a 30 minute tablet break, you can draw 10 boxes on a piece of paper and draw a happy face inside a box each time you notice your child behaving nicely towards their sibling. Your child will be able to see how many more times they need to exhibit the chosen behavior to earn their reward, and you will get a break to do your own thing while they are earning.
Set Realistic Goals
It would be great if you could use this forced time at home to potty train all of your kids, teach them to read, finish their future college applications, and have the whole family learn Chinese. But setting yourself up for too much will make you feel like you’ve failed if you cannot achieve all of your goals. Feeling like a failure is not a great way to cope or set your family up for success. Try setting small realistic goals at first and then they can get loftier if you achieve them consistently. For example, you can start with a goal of helping your child get 80% of their school work done while you meet your own career demands. If your child’s academic demands are not realistic for your current set up, talk to their teachers about making adjustments to fit your situation. If there is a stay at home parent who already can spend all day monitoring the kids—more power to you! If not, this is an unusual time and your child will not suffer permanently if they get shifted to a reduced virtual workload for a while.
What if I cannot implement these strategies by myself?
As always, we are here to help you to design and implement at home behavioral strategies via telehealth (phone, zoom, etc) if you need help understanding and/or executing these or other behavioral strategies during this time.
Written by Dorrie Barbanel, LMSW, BCBA, LBA