Overcoming the challenges of homeschooling for special needs children and their parents
From a lack of internet access and computers to being removed from a safe and structured school environment, lockdown has revealed a lot about the impracticalities of learning from home for South African educators and school going children.
However, for special needs students, these challenges are amplified as parents and children attempt to acclimatise to their new routines without the personalised assistance of trained professionals.
Speaking to four therapists who, with a combined total of 35 years of experience, work at Khanyisa Developmental Centre, we learnt more about how the lockdown is affecting families and children with special needs.
Amy Rodger, an Occupational Therapist and the Centre Director at Khanyisa delved deeper into the centre’s purpose. “We believe that all children have strengths and potential, and we are passionate about uncovering this. We know that every child also has the ability to learn and excel if they are provided with appropriate learning opportunities.”
Much like Khanyisa, most developmental centres are equipped with teams of health professionals (Speech Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Physiotherapists) and educators (teachers, teacher assistants, facilitators, carers) who are highly skilled, experienced and passionate about working with children with multiple different needs.
How is the lockdown affecting children and parents of kids with special needs?
Speech Language Therapist at the centre, Prianka Parusnath weighed in, stating that she feels it’s been a difficult time for the families. “True to its name, isolation can be quite a lonely experience, so the element of emotional support that families receive daily not only from us, but from grannies, grandpas, aunts, uncles and other parents who have children with different needs, has also been reduced. But it’s about finding a new normal and taking time to create this within your home."
During the lockdown, families are confined to their homes, unable to continue with what a normal daily routine would look like. Christine Widdows, Occupational Therapist and HOD of the Senior Phase at Khanyisa said, “Children with different needs and abilities often thrive off a structured routine, where activities and environments are predictable, follow a structured schedule and fulfill many sensory and socio-emotional needs, thus providing a safe and happy space for the child.
The lockdown removes those safe structures and often leads to disorganisation, sensory over-stimulation and disrupted expectations leading to children becoming dysregulated in behaviour and easily overwhelmed. Many families are struggling with continued work demands, homeschooling multiple children whilst caring for and providing the best possible routine and stimulation for their child with special needs.”
How can removing children from their regular learning environment impact them?
Although grateful for the measures taken by our government to ensure our safety, there are challenges that arise from being away from a structured academic environment. Widdows said, “Children with different needs often require reinforcement and repetition throughout the day, let alone throughout the week. They benefit from skilled intervention and individualised education and development plans which require hands on facilitation as well as adapted structures and equipment. The lockdown has removed much of these adaptations and hands on facilitation.”
What challenges do parents face?
“I think the biggest challenge would be burnout,” said Parusnath. “It’s so easy to grow exhausted if you are carrying the responsibility of care-giving and teaching at the same time. Emotional, mental and sometimes even physical support is vital for a family to function,” she added.
How to make homeschooling less of a challenge for children with special needs
- Be Gentle on Yourself: If there is one thing I can say to parents, it’s that this time is uncharted for all of us and that the best you can do is take it one step at a time. We have been providing educational and therapeutic support throughout lockdown, but it is just that – support. We love it when families try our ideas but we also understand if they can’t get to the activities.
- Try to keep a routine: While we understand how difficult this can be, we have encouraged parents to create some semblance of a routine to help their kids (and themselves) through this time. It can be something as simple as using a visual schedule to divide up the day (e.g. toilet, brush teeth, bath, breakfast, play time, snack time).
- Play, play, play: ALL of our kids learn through play, and wonderfully so! Even if no traditional academic tasks are being completed, there are so many things that can be learnt through play. You can work on motor skills, language, communication, basic concepts all through games and play activities. This has been a large focus of our support during lockdown, how to emphasise play as a vehicle for learning.
- Engage with your children: Without any pressure of reaching a goal or doing academic tasks. A child’s work is play. That is the way they should be learning and that is the way they will learn if you get down onto the floor with them and engage. All they want is your attention and if you give them even 10 minutes of it, that could sustain them the whole day.
- Set non-negotiables: Choose one or two things that you don’t want your child/children to regress with during the lockdown and be consistent with that one thing and let the other things slide. It is impossible to address every goal/behavior every day on your own.
- Reach out to your support network frequently: Message your child’s teacher, call a friend who gets it, ask your child’s therapist for help. We are all in the same boat, we are all trying to make the best out of a hard situation and I promise you every therapist and teacher is ready and waiting to support you in any way possible.