Their neighborhood school, the real one, is now out again, because of the coronavirus. “Mom school” is back in session for at least a month, although I suspect (and weep) that it could last a lot longer as our communities work to contain the spread of the virus.
Amid the uncertainty and fear, it’s a relief to post funny memes and laugh together at our collective experience of being thrust into isolated “home-schooling,” but I am really worried that my autistic son will lose — or fail to maintain — skills while he’s learning at home. It’s a concern for many parents of kids with diverse learning needs, for good reason.
“Diverse students, especially students from low-income households and students with disabilities, are more likely to regress after a break in school during the Covid-19 pandemic than most children,” says Karin Fisher, assistant professor of elementary and special education at Georgia Southern University.
Regression is a particular issue for children with disabilities because it’s impossible to duplicate their school environment at home. “They are not receiving the structured education provided during the school year from professionally trained teachers and therapists,” Fisher says.
My 8-year-old is already behind in reading, and he requires repetition and scaffolding — breaking up the learning into chunks — to stay on track with math. He is solidly average, but it’s a lot of work to keep him in the middle, which is why he has a specialized learning plan under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That federal law requires his teachers to tailor his education to his specific needs to make it accessible to him. (The U.S. Department of Education recently released guidance that stipulates this instruction must continue during the coronavirus outbreak. Figuring out how it will be delivered is up to the schools, and parents will need to request compensatory services once their children are back.)
We have a schedule for this round of “mom school” because both boys desperately need to stay regulated, a lesson I learned during the strike when we still walked to school at our regular time even though they didn’t go inside the building. In addition to reading and math, I’ve added science (zoo webcams) and social studies (more zoo webcams). We sing songs from our favorite Disney movies for music time — okay, they watch the movies and sing while I try to work from home. We have a lot of recess.
What I am struggling most with at the moment, though, is how to teach — not necessarily what to teach. I’m not a special-education teacher.
Fisher says it’s important for parents to figure out where their child is at the start of the coronavirus-related break through an informal assessment.
“If you are unsure, email your child’s special education teacher and ask them how they take data on your child’s goals and if they can provide you any assistance,” she says. Parents of children with IEP and 504 plans should already be familiar with the concept of goals and accommodations. “Try different accommodations and note what does and doesn’t work,” Fisher said.
Then it’s important to do the assessment again after school starts back, whenever that may be, to document any learning loss. “If your child needs more services after this break in schooling, your data will help you advocate for those services,” says Fisher, a member of Georgia’s State Advisory Panel for Special Education. One of those services may be an extended school year, or summer school.
In some ways, I feel more equipped than my neighbors with typical kids. I already had the flashcards and workbooks, which are now on back-order at many online shopping sites. Since he was in kindergarten, I’ve had to study and analyze how my child learns so I can advocate for him at school. I know that he gets overwhelmed by a worksheet cluttered with graphics and word problems because of a visual processing disorder. I know that comprehending fictional texts is hard for him. Like many autistic kids, he does better with nonfiction texts. I’m probably more in tune with my child’s learning style and my child’s learning than most parents. Because I’ve had to be.
None of this is easy right now, especially when parents have students in different grade levels at home. (My twin sister has four, ranging from a first-grader to a senior in high school.)
But while my nephews are mostly able to work independently, neither of my boys really can. My kindergartner has a hard time staying on task, especially when he is required to write, which he doesn’t like to do. My autistic son has a dedicated aide at school, and while he is doing much better at working by himself, at least at home, he needs much more assistance than a typical second-grader.
I lamented recently to friends that I feel like Miss Beadle from Little House on the Prairie, teaching in her one-room schoolhouse. Only I don’t have Mary Ingalls. I have two Willie Olesons. My kids would much prefer to be outside in the backyard, or riding their scooters around the block or goofing around, than stuck at the dining room table.
“Our kids are outside of their structured school environment and that is impacting their motivation and behavior,” Fisher says. ” I know that is what I am seeing with my 16-year-old son. Home is for break time, not learning. That is his routine for his whole life. He is not transitioning well to learning at home and doing his work. Whereas at school in his structured environment he is more motivated to do his work.”
Heather Haynes Smith, associate education professor at Trinity University in Texas, says it’s important to tailor instruction at home around a child’s interest.
“If the books or materials aren’t engaging to the particular child, the work can become a struggle,” she says, even for her as a former elementary school teacher and a state-level reading specialist, with a doctorate in special education. “Even though I know what to do to assess and teach all children to read, doing this at home with my own 5-year-old with sensory and behavioral challenges is super difficult.”
Smith says her go-to strategy is to teach when her son is in the mood or build on an activity of his choosing. “When he’s playing trains, I grab a book or a dry erase board and teach or practice important skills like phonological processing,” she says. An example would be finding a word that rhymes with train and then making up a story about trains. “When he’s not in the mood, I don’t force it,” she says. “It’s balancing our relationship and continuing to learn and practice early reading/literacy skills.”
I’ve been grateful to have the support of our teachers who have been uploading instructional material to the school website and reaching out by email. My son’s kindergarten teacher read a book by video, and he sat cross-legged in front of the computer, interrupting her with questions she couldn’t hear because it was prerecorded.
But by last Friday, after our first week of “mom school,” I reached out to my son’s special education teacher. I don’t know how to do this, I confessed.
I had struggled for several days to teach my son collective nouns such as herd and colony, which was part of the assignment given to his whole class. I wanted to scale it back and focus on nouns and verbs, which I didn’t have the sense he had yet grasped. I needed her to prioritize for me what was important for him. “We will get to as much as we can,” I wrote. “I’m finding this all very overwhelming while working.”
She reassured me that it was okay to simplify his lesson plan and sent me worksheets and a modified curriculum. She came up with a list of seven things that I could focus on, including “a little reading” and “a little math.” The last item on the list: “Breathe.”
Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now a filmmaker and associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago.