For most parents, virtual learning has been one of the biggest challenges this past year. I was constantly bombarded with photos of beautiful, magazine-worthy workspaces, yet all I wanted was for my child with autism to actually enjoy virtual learning. I wanted her to get excited about school like she was when she could attend school in person. I wanted to see her face light up as she learned new skills and completed assignments with pride. These were my goals for her first grade year.
But every morning, my daughter struggled with anxiety as we prepared for virtual school and set up her laptop for the day. Some days the stress, anticipation, and meltdowns overwhelmed us both to the point of tears. However, as we began to find our new normal, we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Below are a few tips for success with virtual learning for elementary-school-aged children with autism.
Create the right environment
A warm, quiet environment with minimal distractions is key. My daughter has a small desk in her room that became her designated school space. I discovered the overhead lighting was creating a horrible glare on her computer screen, so we opted for natural light instead. We opened her blinds and let the sunshine cast a comforting glow on the room. Numerous studies have shown exposure to natural light improves student test scores and behavior. We also made sure she had space for all her materials without feeling cramped or claustrophobic. She thrives when her space is clean and tidy, and the less distractions the better at this age. We also keep a stress ball on her desk in case she needs to “fidget.”
Maintain a schedule
Each morning I write down a visual schedule along with expectations for that day; this way there are no unwanted surprises. Some teachers include the daily schedule in their virtual classroom, but for students who cannot read yet, this isn’t accessible. My daughter and I read over the schedule together as well as preview the day’s slides and allow her to count them. Counting them seems to calm her nerves and ease her mind. When we complete a subject on the schedule, we check it off. This provides a sense of accomplishment and can boost self-esteem in young learners.
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Provide positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcements have always been critical to my daughter’s success. Many parents agree rewards are more effective than punishments for children. With this in mind, I choose to celebrate and reward my daughter for every task she accomplishes, and this includes virtual schoolwork. In our family we use a weekly sticker chart for positive reinforcement. For every day she completes virtual learning without a meltdown or argument she receives a sticker. At the end of the week, if she has earned all five stickers, she earns a reward.
It is important to know what motivates your child when creating a reward system. My daughter is highly motivated by new tablet games and Lego sets. She always knows what reward she is working towards at the very beginning of the week. This is how she stays motivated and on task through the long days of virtual learning.
Make time for fun
When asked what her favorite part of virtual school is, my daughter will likely respond, “Dancing and brain breaks.” Her kindergarten teacher started incorporating “brain breaks” after each lesson to give the students a chance to get up and dance along to their favorite educational songs. I have witnessed the immense joy dancing brings to each and every student in the class. Besides improving mood, dance has many benefits for children with ASD. Dance can help improve attention and concentration. Dance gives children the ability to express their emotions through movement, while also strengthening fine motor skills. As a mom and educator, I know these brain breaks are not just fun but are critical to success with virtual learning and should be implemented throughout the day.
As we navigate this period of virtual learning, I hope you find a sense of ease and routine that works for you and your child. Remember these are unprecedented times for everyone, so do the best you can and give yourself and your child grace. We are our children’s first and greatest teacher and we will get through this together.
This article was featured in Issue 116 – Enhancing Communication Skills