My daughter’s school is closed due to COVID-19. Her teacher and I have been in contact about what I can do to support her learning. Do you have suggestions to increase the success of my home schooling efforts?

Answered by Marcia Questel, MSEd, BCBA
Clinical Director of Robinson Center for Learning
Consultant for 121 Learning Works, LLC

Since the arrival of COVID-19 across the nation and around the world, many parents, like you, are now home 24/7 with their children with autism. At first, school closures may have led parents to envision days filled with the freedom and flexibility to spend increased quality time with their children. By now, parents everywhere are coming to grips with how they are going to teach their children at home (some for the first time) with very limited resources or support. They may be struggling with financial instability, worrying about when they will return to work, filing for unemployment, or juggling working from home— all while homeschooling.

So many parents are overwhelmed with demands to provide structure for their families while remaining flexible with their ever-changing situation. They are trying to keep their children safe and healthy while attempting to engage and entertain them and figuring out how to allow socially-distant interactions with their friends. Parents are learning to balance teaching their children academics without neglecting their emotional and mental health needs. They are doing all of this and simultaneously striving to maintain a sense of security and calm. Still, the typical demands remain. Beyond addressing all of these new challenges, they continue to manage their homes, prepare even more meals, balance their new budgets, perhaps even work from home, and still hope to make room for increased quality time together.

While some families may still be able to receive in-person services, many parents and providers are attempting to maintain a strict quarantine. This has led to a reduction— or entire removal— of crucial intervention services including, but not limited to, a wide range of special education services, behavioral consultations, speech therapy, group therapy sessions, and more. Although this may be supported by remote “telehealth” provisions, the swift and wide-sweeping changes to children’s routines may lead to a wide array of behavioral and emotional challenges. Parents of children with autism may be faced with many concerns related to increased screen time and sedentary activities, dietary issues, unwanted behaviors, compliance issues, rigidity, and/or emotional dysregulation— with service disruption causing an enormous upheaval. My colleagues and I at 121 Learning Works and the Robinson Center for Learning are happy to provide the following suggestions and resources to help during these challenging times. Here are some quick tips to help you make the most of these days out of schools/center-based programs:

  1. Establish a Routine: You’ve probably all heard it by now, right? Establishing a routine during times of emergencies is extremely important and beneficial for children regardless of neurological differences. Furthermore, it helps the entire family to pass the increased time at home with some amount of structure. This benefits the quality of life for everyone. While you and your children might enjoy some extra down time, a rough schedule will keep everyone moving, oriented, and focused. Go ahead and give yourself and your kids plenty of breaks and time to have fun – but build it into an overarching structure. Some parents and caregivers find it helpful to make a daily schedule (8:30-9:00 breakfast, 9:00-9:30 hygiene and getting dressed, 9:30-10:00 math, etc.). There are a lot of examples of these online and instructions on how to implement them (see the link in #12). When conducting the routine, make sure that you utilize pictures and/or text along with your verbal reminders to provide the most salient information that resonates with your child, as every child is different.

Here is an example:

autism home schooling activity

A note of support for the schedule: Make sure that you provide plenty of support throughout the first several days! Be prepared to provide immediate prompting and assistance, which may at first feel like it is more than your child usually needs. At this time, he or she may struggle with consistency or compliance due to the upheaval in their routine. While your child may be fully capable of certain skills, remaining available to provide a bit more support and/or reinforcement for these skills may promote smooth completion and help to prevent errors.

Parents should remain focused on chaining skills to the previous and next steps. This proactive approach should help to yield a more successful completion of the activity schedule and, with practice, become a more fluid and more rapid routine.

But, remember, don’t sacrifice great learning moments in order to stick to rigid structure. That’s where Tip #2 comes in:

  1. Flexibility: This is also a time where your child’s education can be entirely individualized. Take advantage of that! If they become interested in an activity and it is taking up more time because you’re expanding on the topic, they are asking questions, or they need more time because they are struggling a bit, allow the extra time. Avoid rushing them through it. You may find that you need to back up, slow it down, or teach a prerequisite skill. Go ahead! You have plenty of time! At school, teachers spend time doing things such as handing out materials, getting the class settled, dealing with interruptions, collecting materials, etc. that you do not have to deal with. Research shows that their “time on task” at school isn’t nearly the entire 6 hours (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, 2014). You can teach your lessons much faster with only your children. This gives you more time to teach more precisely to their needs, preferences, and interests – moving faster or slower as they need you to. Be flexible!
  1. Approaching Tasks: Once you’ve decided on your schedule (keeping it loose), you need to show your child that this homeschooling thing isn’t going to be too aversive. First, before you start anything, focus on the approach to any new task as a separate opportunity to provide reinforcement, rather than focusing on the actual task itself. It is important that your child receives positive feedback for simply accepting that there is a new type of demand coming and engaging in compliant behaviors with a willing demeanor. Teaching washing dishes? Maybe starting with just putting soap on a sponge is enough on the first day. Learning to make the bed? Prompting everything but the last step of putting the pillow at the head of the bed may be reasonable. Think of this like being proud of yourself for simply going to the gym for the first time rather than getting hung up on how many minutes you lasted on a piece of equipment. All of this is new and simply engaging in any responses to new demands is reason to celebrate. Start slowly.

If you are teaching an academic skill, or something that requires sitting, get your child to the table or desk with an engaging and short task, or even access to a preferred activity! Perhaps you want to look up a quick science experiment (like the one in this video about soap getting rid of viruses!) or do a brief assignment that is in their “wheelhouse,” something that they are good at and in which they have confidence. No matter what, avoid starting off with hard work that you must struggle through with them. This is a learning experience for everyone! Get started on the right foot and try to make it light and fun whenever you can.

Note that throughout this article, the emphasis is on helping children feel successful and establishing norms, it’s not about attempting to teach so many skills as fast as possible. Pace yourself. This will help to alleviate your and their anxiety and help everyone involved to feel more successful. Reviewing previously learned skills throughout the first several days is completely acceptable and beneficial, especially if you’re able to incorporate them into a work schedule as described above.

  1. Consider Discussing the Virus Using Stories: PBS made a great article about discussing the virus with children. They have described how to address their concerns, correct misinformation, and provide a sense of security.
  1. Explore: Use this list of free resources to find many online learning tools! So many companies on that list and this one, called “Coronacation!,” are offering free subscriptions to websites like Headsprout, and special programs like Scholastic’s free daily courses and their list of “learn at home” projects.. Many of the resources listed typically have a monthly fee. Take advantage of these being free right now! Also, many museums are offering virtual tours (like the National Museum of Natural History); aquariums and zoos are offering live streams, and there is even a list of thirty virtual field trips that kids can take, to provide immersive learning experiences while we are all stuck at home. If you’re like me, you might feel overwhelmed at how much is actually out there to explore versus how much time is in the day (while also juggling all of the things mentioned in the introduction). It is not expected that you will click all of the links or read all of the lists. Just remember that they’re here when you need them and, when you do have a moment, take that time to explore. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what is out there for you to utilize within your teaching right now.
  1. Use Themes: One way to use those sites is when you’re creating a conceptual theme in your lesson plans. Teaching with themes can be really beneficial to tie all of the information together. For example, if you were teaching about life or water cycles, you could start with an English Language Arts (ELA) section with non-fiction information to read and write about. Then, you could read a fictional story about a chick or caterpillar. The sites above have incredible online books with vibrant pictures and audible text. In math, count eggs or do addition by popping open plastic eggs with different numbers of pom poms inside. Then, you could explore a virtual zoo or aquarium. When you go out for your walk for your Physical Education (PE) section, talk about the clouds in the water cycle or try to find evidence of a life cycle. Themes keep children engaged in the topic, build up the concept in a multi-faceted way, and engage all of the senses with various learning experiences. Think of ways to build themes when you can and don’t forget to incorporate topics into PLAY! Making learning fun whenever possible is important for promoting engagement and connecting separate ideas into “big picture” concepts. Play, as shown in the following example, provides opportunities that allow a child to own the material and use it, to demonstrate their understanding, and may help to reveal any blind spots that the instructor didn’t plan for in an otherwise didactic delivery.

Here is one example of teaching through play experiences: In this video, you will see the results of teaching several skills including opposites and problem solving. To begin, the main “problem” is the classic emergency “The floor is lava!” This child has recently learned that ice can cool things down and that heat melts ice. He is learning to solve problems creatively and to engage in longer scenes of pretend play, including displaying feats of strength and superpowers. He suggests that an “Ice gun” can cool the lava down, but the result is a very slippery floor! The following consequences lead to the need for more problem solving and understanding of opposites, while hysterical fun ensues.

For more engaging teaching videos, subscribe to our channel on YouTube!

  1. Exercise: Exercise and fresh air are mandatory components of the school day. Children in the United States are required by law to have physical education and recess periods. Be sure to take breaks to dance, play in the backyard, go for a quick walk only if it is safe to do so (even 5 to 10 minutes will help!), do a short workout video from YouTube (such as Go Noodle Pump It Up!), or do some yard work. It is important that children get exercise, not just for their physical health, but for their mental fitness and emotional wellbeing. Check out Five Keys to Keeping Your Kids Active and Healthy at Home and Exercise Tips to Help Kids, Teens and Families Stay Balanced at Home. You’ll find that you have a much easier time teaching them, that their attention is better, and that they have an elevated mood. Not to mention, it will entice them to drink water, which is especially important during this viral outbreak.
  1. Try to Regulate Diet and Sleep: Throughout this time of school closures and social distancing, it’s easy to fall into unhealthy routines and habits. Are your kids making poor choices? Establish some rules NOW so that you can all get used to them. The first few days might be hard, but everyone will acclimate over time, and some of the rules that seemed difficult to adjust to will eventually become the “new normal.” Make meals that include plenty of protein to keep kids fuller for longer periods of time. Remaining active (learning through themes and play, and exercising) can help to stave off cravings that occur when children are sedentary or bored. Also, try to keep sleep and wake times consistent. Planning for good “sleep hygiene” is vital because a solid night of sleep can make all of the difference for everyone in the family (that exercise component can help to improve sleep, and vice versa). For more on improving sleep, diet, and exercise, you will find helpful resources following this link by Autism Speaks. If you fail to promote the best of these for a day or two, don’t worry! This has been hard for everyone. Just start fresh!
  1. Patience and Grace: We need two giant helpings of these every day. Start your day with some deep breathing or children’s yoga videos. Maybe your children can kick off their day with a favorite game or physical activity to get them started off in a good mood. When things go off the rails, and they will, simply pause and reset. It’s ok. Even the best educators are home with their own kids figuring out what to do on the fly. Be patient with yourself. Be graceful towards yourself. Then, you will have an easier time expressing these qualities to your children and you’ll set an example of how we handle crises.
  1. Any Questions or Concerns? Avoid keeping these to yourself. As is almost always the case, there are others with those same questions who would also benefit from you asking. This may mean that you raise these concerns to your remote educator or clinician. Doing so provides an opportunity for them to appreciate that particular concern (you may be the second or third parent to bring the issue up) and they can, in turn, discuss what they’ve learned from other parents so far. This would help these professionals to serve you and the broader community better. It is likely that this unprecedented situation is providing novel windows of opportunity for teaching your child, but there are also many new challenges to face. Therefore, the next point is vital for you as an individual, for your family and community, and for the broader good of society.
  1. Make sure that you form a virtual circle of support around you and your family. We are hearing so much about how communities are coming together in quite inspirational ways. From neighbors in Italy joining in song from their balconies, to the families celebrating birthdays with drive by caravans, many people are out there trying to support one another. They’re doing it for their loved ones but they’re also doing it for their own mental health – to feel connected and to beat back the encroaching worry that this may go on longer than they originally thought. Know that you are not alone and that there are many people willing to support you during this difficult time. Bringing your friends, family, clinicians, and telehealth providers into your circle will help to ensure that you are supported. It is crucial that you continue facilitating open lines of communication with those that you typically had physical contact with, through remote options like phone calls and video chats. Doing this will benefit everyone while we all get through this difficult time together. Right now, SPAN has many great resources for families, including weekly discussions.
  1.  For links to scheduling assistance and examples, ready-to-print schedule formats, as well as many more resources regarding COVID-19 and other topics, please see this list of related links created by Amy Redwine for the Robinson Center for Learning and 121 Learning Works. For more information about these programs, other resources, and services provided, please visit the websites linked above.

Some references related to this article:

Benner, M., Partelow, L. (2017) Reimagining the school day: Innovative strategies for teaching and learning. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2017/02/23/426723/reimagining-the-school-day/

Heitz, R. P., Schrock, J. C., Payne, T. W., & Engle, R. W. (2008). Effects of incentive on working memory capacity: Behavioral and pupillometric data. Psychophysiology, 45(1), 119-129.

Esterman, M., Noonan, S. K., Rosenberg, M., & DeGutis, J. (2013). In the zone or zoning out? Tracking behavioral and neural fluctuations during sustained attention. Cerebral cortex, 23(11), 2712-2723.

Lim, J., Lo, J. C., & Chee, M. W. (2017). Assessing the benefits of napping and short rest breaks on processing speed in sleep‐restricted adolescents. Journal of sleep research, 26(2), 219-226.

Massar, S. A., Lim, J., Sasmita, K., & Chee, M. W. (2019). Sleep deprivation increases the costs of attentional effort: Performance, preference and pupil size. Neuropsychologia, 123, 169-177.

Mavilidi, M. F., Drew, R., Morgan, P. J., Lubans, D. R., Schmidt, M., & Riley, N. (2020). Effects of different types of classroom physical activity breaks on children’s on‐task behaviour, academic achievement and cognition. Acta Paediatrica, 109(1), 158-165.

OECD (2014), “Indicator D4: How much time do teachers spend teaching?”, in Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/888933120005

Stapp, A. C., & Karr, J. K. (2018). Effect of Recess on Fifth Grade Students’ Time On-Task in an Elementary Classroom. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 10(4), 449-456.

Teng, J., Massar, S. A., Tandi, J., & Lim, J. (2019). Pace yourself: Neural activation and connectivity changes over time vary by task type and pacing. Brain and cognition, 137, 103629.

Citation for this article:

Questel, M. (2020). Clinical Corner: My child is home with me. Any suggestions for home schooling? Science in Autism Treatment, 17(4).

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