Expert advice on how parents of children with special needs can help them during the COVID-19 pandemic

Ricardo Mosquera, MD, examines a young patient. (Photo by Dwight Andrews, UTHealth)

Ricardo Mosquera, MD, examines a young patient. (Photo by Dwight Andrews, UTHealth)

A month into a new COVID-19 world that has sent thousands of schoolchildren home, parents are now faced with the possibility of keeping them at home for the rest of the academic year as school districts make decisions about whether to reopen their campuses.

This leaves parents, who are already feeling worn down, facing another six weeks of keeping children focused. For parents of children with disabilities, the task may even feel more daunting.

Ricardo Mosquera, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), offers advice to parents of children with disabilities on how to manage the unique challenges they face as a result of extended school closures.

Communication is key

While it is important for parents to keep informed about COVID-19, oversaturation of information can lead to unnecessary stress, especially for children with special needs who may not comprehend why their days are now different. Parents should make it a priority to talk to their children at their level of understanding about COVID-19.

“It is important for parents to explain COVID-19 to their children, because you want them to hear it from you,” said Mosquera, medical director of the UTHealth High Risk Children’s Program at UT Physicians. “First, parents should find out what their child knows, express understanding, and speak calmly. Parents should address the topic to their child’s age level with easy terms of understanding. Explain that it is a virus-like ‘flu,’ or something similar, but because this is new and people have not seen it before, we are worried. Explain what they can do, such as social distancing and washing their hands to stay safe.”

Additionally, parents should make it a point to communicate with their child’s health care providers, such as therapists, to see if there are any at-home therapies they can incorporate into their daily routines. These providers may be able to provide personalized treatments, or offer telemedicine assistance.

Maintain a routine

It is very important to keep a routine, not just for all children, but for caregivers as well.

“Children like to know what the plan is. Therefore, setting a schedule that includes time for homework, afternoon activities, and noneducational structure, like eating meals and going to bed at a certain time, is important,” Mosquera said.

He suggested writing the weekly schedule or plan, including a breakdown of what should be expected every hour, on a sheet of paper or whiteboard.

Set attainable goals

It is also important to keep children productive by giving them something new to learn each day and setting goals.

Children with disabilities face different barriers mentally and physically, but there are a lot of things around the house and out in nature that parents can use to help them continue to build strong skills.

“Besides communicating with teachers about their homework and educational activities, parents should make time for extracurricular activities as if they were in school. Activities could include painting, dancing, drawing, taking a walk, or crafts. It is also important for some free time as well, maybe for electronics. Lastly, integrating the family and other children in the household with children with disabilities is important for maintain normality for children and within the family,” he said.

For parents looking for additional resources to help keep their child focused, Mosquera suggests checking out the following sites:

“Managing the role as parent and teacher can be difficult, but it is important to understand that following these steps can help any child maintain a sense of normality during these difficult times. Additionally, parents should know that it is OK to look for help on the internet to assist with new ideas or explain homework,” Mosquera said.

Written by
Jeannette Sanchez