How to Care for Kids with Special Needs During COVID-19

Parents of children with special needs know what it is to live with uncertainty. It comes with the territory. These parents are often experts in rolling with the punches. But the current pandemic situation is bringing new stressors and demands that are challenges for even the most seasoned parents. 

Parents of kids with special needs are doing a lot

All parents are being called upon to participate more formally in their children’s education. Online or distance schooling can be an increased challenge for children with disabilities, who often require more one-on-one attention and tend to thrive with the structure and routine of the school day. And while school provides children with the necessary academic and social stimulation they need to learn and grow, it also provides parents with a necessary respite while knowing their children are safe and looked after. 

How to manage the balance of parenting kids with special needs

1.   Sometimes, less is more.

There is an incredible amount of resources circulating right now. Many online teaching programs/apps offer extended free trials and the internet is an endless stream of home-schooling and distance learning resources. For some parents, this may feel overwhelming and, while aimed to support families, being faced with too many options can make things more difficult. Take a breath and remember that you have a team of professionals who can guide you. Teachers and school staff have also been scouring the internet for these resources. Reach out to your child’s teachers and related service providers. They know your child – they’re familiar with what works and what doesn’t. Ask for help and advice. 

2. Establish a schedule and routines.

Make the schedule visible, keep it consistent, and review it regularly. Most children, and especially those with disabilities, benefit from predictability and routine. Familiar routines can provide safety and security – try to incorporate aspects of your child’s normal school routine when feasible (e.g. morning meeting over a bowl of cereal to discuss the calendar, the weather, and today’s schedule). Here are some scheduling tips: 
  • Take your own schedule into account and be realistic with regard to how much “school time” you can manage. Expect that your child will need close proximity during this time.
  • Break the day up with different activities: school time, playtime, chore time, etc. 
  • Make sure to schedule times when your child can be independent, so you can work or take a break. This might be where you utilize the power of screentime. Let this time be planned so you can both count on it.
  • Schedule a more preferred task after a more difficult or less preferred task.
  • Let your child know if a change in the schedule is going to occur as soon as possible. 
  • Provide warnings and countdowns during transitions. Visual timers can be helpful (Visual Countdown Timer).
  •  Pro Tip: Involving your child in the planning will increase their participation.

3.  Build motivation.
While some kids with special needs are internally motivated to complete schoolwork, some are not. Here are some tips for increasing motivation and compliance with school tasks: 

  • Create benchmarks and incentives for reaching them.  Set up incentive contingencies using a “when..then” structure – “when you complete the worksheet, then you can have 5 minutes on youtube.” These contingencies should be pre-determined and agreed upon. Remember, rewards should be immediate.
  • Incorporate short breaks into work times. You can use a visual timer to help structure work and break times. The length of work time will vary by child – meet them where they are (e.g. work for 15 minutes, take a 5-minute break).
    • Be careful here, breaks are not the same as incentives. Breaks can be a good time to stretch and incorporate movement, but should not be the high-interest level activities used for play/free time or as incentives. You will have a hard time getting your child to transition back to math once you give them access to their tablet or gaming system. (Ideas for breaks include 5-minutes of free dance, holding a yoga pose, doing jumping jacks, singing a song, coloring a picture). 

4.  Get moving.
If your child has an especially hard time sitting still and maintaining focus, you’re not alone. Here are some tips that might be helpful: 

  • Start the day with exercise ( has lots of fun videos).
  • Provide additional active movement breaks throughout the day to support the release of built-up energy in a pro-social way.  Heavy work (activities that push or pull against the body) are especially helpful. (e.g. Wall push-ups, wheelbarrow race, bear and crab crawls). 
    •  Pro Tip: You can also incorporate these helpful breaks by adding chores such as carrying a full laundry basket or pushing a vacuum or broom. 
  • Holding something or even eating or chewing something can sometimes help kids focus.  
  • Repeat instructions and check for understanding. It’s helpful to write things down or provide visuals so you do not have to keep repeating yourself. This also fosters independence. 
  • Help your child break activities into smaller chunks or smaller, more manageable tasks.
  • Listen to calm, quiet music. 
  • Reduce visual stimulation and keep the work area free of clutter. 

5. Sensory strategies.
While some children are easily overstimulated, others require more stimulation for an optimal level of arousal. If this is your child, you’ll want to incorporate stimulatory strategies into their breaks. Here are some ideas: 

  • Have a 5-minute dance party, spin in circles holding hands, run in a large circle, play jumping games.
  • Incorporate multisensory activities into lessons and breaks can also be helpful. For example, you can practice writing letters and numbers in shaving cream or in a pan sprinkled with salt or sugar.

6. Remember that learning doesn’t occur under emotional distress. 

If you find that you or your child are experiencing heightened levels of frustration or anxiety, take a step back and re-evaluate. Model effective emotional regulation strategies. Say, “This is hard and I notice myself feeling frustrated. Let’s take a break.” After the break, get back to the activity and modify it as necessary. You don’t want signs of frustration to be associated with escaping a non-preferred or difficult task. If you notice high levels of stress, incorporate more breaks and high-interest activities into the schedule and let your child’s teachers know what your plan is. Know that even professional teachers find teaching their own children difficult. Find what works for you and your family. That is enough. 

7. Remember that all children, not just those with specialized needs, act up and misbehave from time to time. 

Here are some proactive strategies aimed to decrease or prevent negative behaviors. 

  • Children often seek control. This may be especially true when their world feels unpredictable. Rigidity or willful behavior can occur as a response to feeling out of control.  Providing structured options can give children a sense of control without overwhelming them with options and also maintaining your boundaries. For example, “Should we try to hop like bunnies to the table or walk on our tiptoes?”  Notice that when you give choices, they should be aimed at the same goal, NOT do you want to take a walk or get your computer time taken away.”
  • Catch your child exhibiting good behavior and label that behavior. Reinforcing pro-social behaviors lets your child know what behaviors are of value, rather than just telling them what they can’t do. Such praise explicitly defines the pro-social behavior and increases the likelihood that your child will engage in that behavior again.
  • Pick your battles. It’s important that you follow through on your word and stay consistent. So before you demand toys to be cleaned up or the bed be made, make sure this is a battle you’re willing to see through. Ask yourself how important it is and if it’s worth your energy right now.
  • When you do make a request, be clear with your expectations and state it as a request (not a question).  If you ask your child if they want to clear the table or if they want to get started on their work, the likely answer will be “No.” Instead, try something like, “It’s time to clear the table. Please put your toys in the bin.” 
  • State things in positive terms. Tell your child what you want them to do instead of what you do not want them to do. It is important to model the words you would want your child to use and behaviors you want them to display. “Those stay on the table,” rather than saying “No” and “Don’t do that.”
  • Validate and label your child’s feelings, while setting boundaries on the behavior (e.g., “I see you’re feeling frustrated. This is really hard. Throwing the pencil is dangerous and it’s not an option. Let’s choose a break option to help us calm down.”) 
  • Be aware of hunger and fatigue. Many children communicate their need for a snack or a nap through their behavior, not their words.

8. Tantrums happen.
When tantrums happen…and they are going to happen, remember that this is not the time for a lecture or a teachable moment.  You will likely be tempted to start taking away privileges or bribing them with anything to make it stop. Punishment attempts will not work and will likely make the tantrum worse. Giving in to demands will teach your child that tantrums are the way to get what they want. Here are things to remember during a tantrum: 

  • Once a tantrum peaks, your only option is to ride the wave. During a tantrum emotionality is so heightened, comprehension is next to impossible.  Keep responses brief and your tone neutral.  Ignore behavior as much as possible while maintaining safety. Provide occasional validations of feelings, prompts, or directives as necessary. Maintain safety and be on the lookout for signs of recovery where you will have an opening to offer a calm down tool or activity.
  • Remember, try not to take it personally.  If you hear yourself thinking, “He’s doing this on purpose,” or “I know she knows what to do,” or “Why won’t she just behave,” take a deep breath and remind yourself that what your child is feeling is real to them at that moment and they are still learning how to navigate their emotions.  It’s not personal. 
  • When your child is calm, reinforce their behavior with verbal praise (“I’m so glad you’ve calmed down”). You can offer a calm activity or a hug. 
  • Once your child is in a calm state and has had time to recover, you can revisit and problem-solve together. Try to find a way to support your child in restoring anything damaged during the tantrum. Did they throw blocks all over the living room? Have them help you clean them up together. This is not a time to remind them of their misbehavior, but to praise them for their helpful behavior. 

9. Schedule in time for fun.
There are many games that are high in interest and also help build important skills. Simon Says teaches listening skills, Red Light Green Light teaches behavioral control, and most board games help kids practice one to one correspondence. 

We’re all figuring it out

Remember, these are unprecedented times. There’s no roadmap for the demands facing parents and students right now. While it may feel that you’re in this alone, remember, parents all around the world are facing similar challenges. We’re all figuring it out together. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others, share ideas, or talk through problems with loved ones. Remember, learning does not occur under distress, so the priority must be emotional and physical health for all family members. It’s important for parents to take care of themselves so they can support their children. 

Reach out for support

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or noticing new, concerning behaviors in your children or yourself, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for support. New York Behavioral Health therapists have flexible availability and offer individual, couples, family, and group therapy for a variety of mental health conditions. 

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