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‘And How Are the Children?’ Supporting Students with Special Needs During COVID-19

April 28, 2020 | 9 comments

‘And How Are the Children?’ Supporting Students with Special Needs During COVID-19

Dr. Lisa Thomas discusses how educators and support personnel can help parents of students with special needs thrive during COVID-19 and school closures.


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Supporting Students with Special Needs in Uncertain Times

Kasserian Ingera?” is a common greeting among male warriors of the Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania. “Are the children well?” The response is typically “Sapati Ingera,” which means, “All the children are well.” The Masai tribe is a fabled and noble people whose focus on community and family has been elevated and integrated into Western social and relational practices.

Some of us are entering into month two of our stay-at-home order, and the financial, relational and emotional tolls are beginning to mount up. A few weeks ago, I pulled the curtain back and shared how Ms. K, in my humble opinion, helped me prepare for this pandemic as a parent of a young person with multiple disabilities. Dorian has Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, is on the autism spectrum with pervasive developmental disorder, is nonverbal but hearing, has scoliosis, and has learning and intellectual disabilities. Like many children and youth with disabilities, the severity of the impact of this pandemic—disruptions to highly structured schedules and routines along with changes in key school and community personnel—may largely be misunderstood or interpreted in a manner only that individual is capable of demonstrating.

Because most health protocols are now requiring face coverings, social distancing and other safety measures, Dorian’s program, probably like many other school and residential programs recently began introducing the use of masks. For most of us, this seems like no big deal, but if you are a parent of a child who is on the autism spectrum, who has an abhorrence to anything remotely close to their face, or has sensory sensitivities to fabrics, colors, textures or patterns, this exercise in social distancing has been gut-wrenchingly anxiety producing for our family. Dorian spent the better part of her formative years seeing lots of doctors and other health professionals, many of which caused her some level of discomfort whether it was drawing blood for routine tests, stretching her legs or arms as part of therapies, or palpitations during exams when she was quite adverse to being touched at all. Hence, she developed strong and aggressive responses to anyone who approached in a medical or lab coat, let alone a mask. In addition, when anxious, Dorian will engage in a number of challenging behaviors that have the potential to put her already immunocompromised system at greater risk and to affect those around her as well. She may engage in hitting, spitting, biting herself or others, or attempting to hit or scratch faces or hands of others.

Read Lisa's blog on how her daughter's special ed teacher prepared their family for COVID-19

supporting special needs students

We visit Dorian nightly via video chats and most evenings, and she’s happy to connect with us. There have been some evenings when she is clearly distressed and there have been times out of frustration or lack of understanding why we have not had our bi-weekly visits, when she has thrown the device across the room or refused to participate in the virtual chats (insert gut-wrenching pain here!) For families like ours, concerns about the child’s health, the health of caregivers and providers, and ours are layered.

Students with Special Needs: How Can You Help?

As educators and support personnel, parents like me are relying on you to partner with us in these uncharted waters. I am in a unique position to be on the same plane many are building while flying and holding a first-class ticket as a passenger. How can you help?

  • Review the individualized education plan (IEP) and focus on behaviors that were targeted—develop a simple plan with parents and caregivers on addressing behaviors that are likely manifesting at home.
  • Provide accessible resources. It is quite evident that resources, accessibility to technology, and the capacity of communities, families and caregivers to support a variety of learners is vastly different. I recommend:
    • Providing links to your district resources first; context matters!
    • Use disability-specific resources; do no re-create the wheel!
    • If copying materials and mailing or providing to families and caregivers for pickup is an option, please employ. Do not assume everyone has access to a device, the internet or a printer.
    • Provide resources in the family’s home language when possible.
    • Link to quick or short videos on YouTube or other media platforms that are accessible by smartphones or other types of devices.
  • Create opportunities to connect with your students and families that are not academic in nature but focus on maintaining relationships and connections during this time:
    • If permissible, create video messages for your students and families that they can download and view at their discretion. Please check your district’s policies and be aware of FERPA guidelines.
    • Determine if parents and families are willing to participate in virtual meet-ups to connect with peers.
    • Help families and caregivers create calendars, picture books or social stories to chronicle their experiences.
  • Create a simple method for data collection for families and caregivers. This may be helpful if an intervention is required down the road. Be mindful that parents and families may have limited capacity, resources or time to do this; however, providing them a simple data recording tool with instructions on use and submission may go a long way in getting additional behavior supports, revising a behavior intervention plan, or transitioning to the next school year.
  • Solicit help from other professionals and agencies. During this extraordinary and unprecedented time, many agencies and organizations are temporarily suspending restrictions or removing barriers for assistance. For example, The ARC of Montgomery County, Md., recently relaxed its income requirements for respite services.
  • Reimagine and employ other support groups like Best Buddies.
  • Did I mention, do not reinvent the wheel? The shift in many spaces has been to social emotional well-being and health and the impact on students, families, educators and service providers. Here are some resources to add to your arsenal:

Supporting Students with Special Needs: Self-Care

Next, manage your own care. Much of the focus has been on students and families and, yes, we think it’s great the rest of the world has come to appreciate how hard it is to “teach” and how crucial schools are to communities. However, do not lose sight of the fact that you too are working from home, more than likely responsible for meals, your own children and network of care, and a plethora of unnamed and, yes, unmanned responsibilities. Here are additional resources to help you help yourself:

Register for this free, on-demand webinar: The Big 7: Healthy Emotion Regulation During Uncertain Times

marc brackett webinar

And how are the children? They are not as well as we would like them to be; perhaps none of us are some days, but we are getting better. We should all be heartened by the coalescing of groups, entities and agencies, communities, and families, who are stronger together.

Dr. Lisa Thomas
Dr. Thomas is a Senior Education Policy Analyst, providing research and programmatic support to the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union. Dr. Thomas manages a portfolio of topic-specific special education, behavior, and classroom management courses within AFT’s Professional Development Program,... See More

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CMarochi716 April 28, 2020, 11:47 pm

This was most helpful! At times we overlook the care of ourselves, so that we are able and well to keep taking care of others. Thank You for the extended resources.

Sheree_W_3241696 April 29, 2020, 9:22 am

Wow this is a great article and incredibly written. I even like the opening. I used to live in Tanzania and would see the Maasai at times. This article really brought home how difficult it can be raising and living with a child with special needs. God bless those caregivers. Thank you.

Dr. Lisa Thomas
Dr. Lisa Thomas May 4, 2020, 11:15 am

Dawn,thank you for reading and hopefully sharing across your networks!

Dr. Lisa Thomas
Dr. Lisa Thomas May 4, 2020, 11:17 am

Thank you! I hope the resources will be beneficial not only to families like mine but to educators and other school staff. Self-care is incredibly important, especially during this time.

Dr. Lisa Thomas
Dr. Lisa Thomas May 4, 2020, 11:19 am

Thank you. I had the pleasure an benefit of meeting several members of a Maasai tribe in Bungoma, Kenya last year and it was an amazing experience. They really affirmed that it does take a village. Thank you for sharing.

Margdarsi Bhubaneswar
Margdarsi Bhubaneswar July 21, 2023, 2:52 am

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