Helping Children With Special Needs Adjust to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Helping Children With Special Needs Adjust to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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COVID-19 has changed the way we all live and approach our daily lives. For children with special needs, the deviation from their regular schedule and normal daily activities often is much harder to cope with than it is for other children. 

Generally, a school day provides that much-needed stability for our children with special needs. However, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, school looks and feels very different for students as they adapt to new safety protocols. Students with special needs will need additional practices to find success this school year. 

If you are worried about your child adapting to these changes this school year, Juli Augustin, the board-certified behavior analyst supervisor at ABA Behavioral Specialists, came up with the following five tips to help students with special needs adapt to and succeed with in-person school during the pandemic.

Tip #1: Practice!

Practice makes perfect! You will need to continue to go over, repeatedly, all of the new requirements your children will face this school year to ensure they are comfortable with them and understand why they are important.

What to Practice:

  1. Taking their temperature. For in-person schooling, this is a requirement. Continue doing this! Take your child’s temperature before you leave the house — every time. 
  2. Wearing a mask. Your child will likely be required to wear a mask in school and all public places. Teach them how to put it on and take it off and why they must wear it. Additionally, make wearing a mask more fun by offering them choices in designs and fabrics. 
  3. Washing their hands/hand sanitizing. Make sure you do this between every activity and always explain why you are doing it. 
  4. Social distancing and appropriate ways to greet their friends. Make sure you give positive examples; don’t just tell them what they can’t do. Say, “Wave hello to your friends instead of giving a high five or a hug.”

Tip #2: Reward!

For everything they successfully practice, give your child a highly desired reward. 

  1. Use first/then language: “First we take your temperature, then we can go to the park.” Or, “First, you wash your hands for 20 seconds, then you can have a popsicle.”
  2. Break each task down as much as needed. Some children won’t be able to tolerate a mask for more than a few seconds. That is OK. As long as they wear the mask properly for 1-5 seconds (whatever goal you decide on ahead of time) without touching it, they earn their reward. Keep practicing and increasing the time as your child allows. 

Tip #3: Social Stories

Social Stories, created by Dr. Carol Gray in 1991, are short narratives of a particular situation — in this case going back to school in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — that help children with special needs understand what to expect in that situation and why. The stories are adapted for each child’s needs and help give them a concrete understanding of the situation they will face. They are told in words/descriptions the child can understand, often using first-person or familiar people. Examples can be found online or developed by your child’s therapist. 

Tip #4: Video Modeling

Video modeling is a great way to showcase a desired behavior. By showing your child a video of other children in school wearing masks or of people washing their hands for 20 seconds, they may be more likely to adopt the behavior.

Tip #5: Talk it Out, Repetitively!

One of the best things you can do is talk to your child about what they can expect — and do so often. If you think you’ve said it enough, say it again! Repetition is important in talking and in practicing. 

  1. Make sure your child understands that their teacher/therapists will be wearing facial coverings.
  2. Talk to them about social distancing and why they cannot physically interact with friends/teachers.
  3. Discuss the importance of hygiene, such as washing/sanitizing hands, not touching their face, not fidgeting with their facial covering, not putting their fingers in their mouth, etc. 

Preparation is Key

“It is going to be all about prepping them through practice, repetition and the reward,” says Augustin. “In applied behavior analysis therapy, we always try to replace the negative language with positive. So, tell them what they can do instead of telling them what not to do.”

To make sure your child with special needs finds success this school year, keep practicing and make it as fun as possible. Do your best. It will be a struggle, but the schools and the teachers are prepared, as well. Just remember, we will all get through this together.

For additional support, reach out to a specialist for more coping techniques. If you have concerns about your child’s at-home behavior, reach out to ABA Behavioral Specialists to explore learning opportunities. We are now accepting new learners. 

For more information, visit or call 330-655-6900.

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