Our Special Needs Kids and the Return to School After COVID19

The COVID19 crisis and the attendant shutdown has affected every one of us and will continue for some time to come.

Our Special Needs Kids and the Return to School After COVID19

As a School Safety and Security Consultant, I am constantly watching for trends, changes in best practices and emerging threats; in this unique moment of our history my concern turns to our special needs population and how they are dealing with the shutdown and remote learning at home now and how schools can prepare for the eventual return to regular classes.

As we move through the initial wave of the crisis and begin to anticipate the end of the shutdown, we all need to take this time to reevaluate where were stand on many topics as the return to school, either late spring or next fall gets closer.

Some of those topics include:

  • Our relationships to other people
  • What we need to update in our security practices, policies and plans
  • How we will coordinate and facilitate the needs of all of our students and staff, with a particular look at how the return to school will affect our special needs kids
  • Understanding what affects the prolonged school closure and the extended time at home can have on this vulnerable population
  • How we can plan for their return to class
  • How we can connect with the parents and guardians now, and as the opening of school gets closer.

These unprecedented events created by the COVID19 virus outbreak will be a building block and a guide for how we can possibly handle future events that may require drastic changes to our routines and other life activities.

When it comes to school security, we must consider how the stress of the shutdown and the isolation that comes with it can affect all of us, and how it may affect our behavior, both good and bad, as we interact with other people after the shutdown ends.

I recently wrote an article that addresses the concerns of potential violence in our schools brought on by the effects of the shutdown when the students return to class. And while I addressed the overall concern for potential problems, I was looking at a broader scope of the student body and staff within the schools.

In this article I want to focus on our special needs population specifically to make sure they are included from the beginning of any planning that schools make for the resumption of classes.

To get the best possible information to you I asked for help from Katherine, “Keb” Neff, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified School Social Worker with a great deal of experience. Keb also has her own private practice focusing on child, adolescent, and family therapy in Red Bank NJ.

My goal was to identify some specific areas for consideration as schools finish out the academic year, remotely in most cases:

  • What schools and parents can do as a team to ensure we address the needs of our special needs population while the shutdown is still going on and what we can anticipate after it is over and they get ready to go back to school.
  • How we are connecting to our students as the school year comes to an end
  • How we will maintain a connection to our students during the summer.
  • What preparations we can make in our schools as the new year as the new year approaches.

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To addresses these concerns, I posed the following 10 questions to Katherine “Keb” Neff.

Pangaro: With the trauma and stress of the COVID-19 shut down and school closings what affect can that have on the special need’s community?

Neff:   The stress and possible trauma response of children with special needs will vary greatly and cannot really be predicted.  Children who are living in homes that are able to implement schedules and routines along with the ability to have some time outdoors being active may adapt better to the school shutdown than students in other situations.  For all students (and adults), many of the factors in this situation – lack of predictability and control over the situation can lead to poor mental health outcomes.

Pangaro: The change in routine can often disrupt the lives of our special need’s communities, what can school officials anticipate being some concerns when the special needs community returns to school?

Neff: Increased agitation and expressions of dis-stress may be observed. Students will vary in their ability to readjust to the routines and expectations of school.

Pangaro: What can school officials do now, during the COVID-19 lockdown, to help the special needs kids who are confined at home to cope with the changes and stress?

Neff:  Keeping in contact with the parents and students via video chats or even drive by visits is important to maintaining connections to school.  Schools and teachers should be providing work for students to complete but should also be very flexible about expectations. Putting additional pressure on parents and/or students during this time is not helpful.  Teachers and therapists can create social stories for children and parents to help understand the changes we are all experiencing.

Pangaro: What are behavioral cues you think we might see in our special needs kids when they return to school and how can schools and parents work with the children to deal effectively with the effects of the post lock down period?

Answer:  While behaviors will vary for individual students, responses may depend on what new expectations and/or requirements are introduced in schools. A gradual re-introduction to school will be helpful in decreasing negative behaviors. The transition from many months at home with reduced demands and increased choice time will be difficult for many students.

Pangaro: If you were to plan for the return to school of the special needs community what do you suggest the schools have in place day 1?

Answer:  At this point, I’m not sure we can adequately plan for this without more information about the changes that kids will experience.  Schools will need to follow guidelines for safety provided by the scientific experts and kids will need to be prepared for their school experience to be different than it was previously. Once teachers and therapists have an idea of what these changes will look like, they should prepare social stories and activities for parents to introduce to the students to help them acclimate (e.g. wearing masks, distance from others).  The ability to comply with new expectations, such as wearing masks, may be very difficult for some students; administrators will need to make decisions about how schools will handle situations where the students are unable to tolerate the required safeguards. Whenever possible, these should be introduced for short intervals by trusted adults prior to the return to school. Many students may need a very gradual reintroduction to school routines and expectations. This transition may be shortened days initially with few expectations other than getting re-familiarized with the classroom and staff.

Pangaro: Do you think the lock down and stress from it can lead to more violence among our special need’s kids, if so, how could that manifest itself?

Neff:  For many children, stress can manifest in increased agitation, but this should not be characterized as ‘violence’.    These may appear as behavioral outbursts with physical or verbal dysregulation, the moving of limbs/body, loud voice, but are a physical manifestation of an internal experience of discomfort or anxiety.  We need to be planful about anticipating and reducing the obvious stressors and having a plan to help students return to a state of safety and comfort as quickly as possible. These plans will vary based on individual student needs but may include sensory activities such as a gentle balloon toss, swinging or blowing on feathers. Teachers and therapists familiar with the student should work with the parent/caregiver to plan for these prior to the return to school.

Pangaro: What would you suggest parents of a special need’s student do to help their child at home during the crisis and then when they return to school?

Neff:  The best thing that families can do during school shut down is try to maintain consistent schedules and routines.  These might include:

  • Learning periods with time for movement interspersed throughout the day as well as outdoor time.
  • Movement activities should include calming activities such blowing bubbles, quiet space activities such as blanket forts, stabilizing activities such as, cooking/crafts, rocking chair, digging in a garden, activating activities like jumping/chasing, playground, and dancing.

For all families, finding a balance is a challenge at this time.  Children and adults need time apart – finding a way to do this can be difficult.  While video games/YouTube/screen time is a common quiet time activity, limiting this is also important.

Of course, these are ideals and we know that many parents have their own jobs during the day, limited space or other obligations which prevent the ‘ideal’.  The reality is that students may be spending the majority of their time on devices and not have consistent structure or schedules. The return to expectations and structured activities will be more challenging for these students and the re-introduction to this should take place slowly.

Pangaro: What, if anything, would you advise schools to tell the other non-special needs kids in the school to be aware of as the special needs community gets back to school?

Neff: I think all students will need reminding that what we have been through has been challenging in different ways for everyone and that reactions to these challenges will vary.  Students and staff will need to be patient with one another as we adjust to returning to school and the new safety requirements that we will likely have.

Pangaro: Are there any special programs, equipment or anything else that schools should consider getting to help the special needs community at home now and when school resumes?

Neff: This is a question that school administrators will need to answer. I think the key part of this will be to help students get adjusted to any new equipment or programs, such as plexiglass shields, masks, routine temperature screenings, as much as possible.

Pangaro: People always ask what we should do in a crisis like this, if there anything we should avoid doing during this crisis that could further upset the special needs kids as they try to cope now and when they return to school?

Neff:  Avoid exposing children to too much news.  Discussions about the pandemic should be brief, factual and geared to the developmental needs of the students.  There are many resources available regarding this that parents can access online.

As we move forward and the dynamics of the COVID19 crisis become more clear as to how long it will last, when we can emerge from lockdown and how we will resume a more normal life, whatever that will look like, we have to keep ourselves aware of the short and long term affects of this unusual situation.

How we prepare for the return to school is paramount because of all the uncertainty that many people feel. How anyone will react to the stress this lockdown has caused will be hard to specifically define until we get back to the real world. We should take this time to reevaluate all of our policies, protocols, plans and training for our staff and students so we can be as ready as possible to face whatever comes our way.

We are moving to a new era of interaction and education, we must be prepared to adapt to the changes so everyone can grow, learn and flourish. -JPangaro

This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD

Joseph Pangaro

Joseph Pangaro is a retired police lieutenant and former director of school security. He is currently the CEO and Chief Security Officer for True Security Design, a national company that provides safety and security assessments and staff training for Schools, Businesses, Houses of Worship and Summer Camps. Lt. Pangaro is also an award-winning writer for several publications and the author of “Securing Our Schools, a Roadmap to Safety”

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