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If you’re a parent or guardian, your morning routine with your kids might have once had a comfortable hum: Scarfing down breakfast; tying shoes; waving goodbyes.
As the coronavirus spread rapidly around the U.S., with many schools now closed to curb the proliferation of the virus, there’s a good chance the last few weeks have firmly uprooted your routine. Depending on your kid’s school system, it’s also likely that the burden of remote learning is falling largely on your shoulders, according to Lindsay Jones, the CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a nonprofit that represents students with learning and attention issues, and advocates to protect the rights of students with disabilities.
Jones notes that the speed with which schools closed has impacted families. “It’s falling so heavily on parents and families right now,” Jones said.
If you have kids with learning or attention difficulties or disabilities, at-home learning can pose even more challenges, notes Jones. Maybe you’ve already noticed that in the last few weeks: Your third-grader with attention difficulties might be growing restless by 10 a.m., or you might not feel equipped with the right tools to assist your teen with dyslexia. This breeds one major barrier to successful at-home learning unique to kids with increased learning needs, Jones points out.
“One of the biggest challenges is that many students [with disabilities or other learning or attention difficulties] receive one-on-one or small group support,” Jones said. “I don’t know if we have a good map for how to follow that.”
Indeed, students with Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, often have personalized assistance at school, relying on others in addition to their teacher for their learning needs. For families dependent on services provided in such a program, school closures can hit especially hard. Everything might feel overwhelming right now, and you’re not alone: Parents and students from all over are reporting difficulties managing distance learning. (And this includes those without learning and attention difficulties or disabilities.)
To this point, Jones and Christine Elgersma, senior editor of parent education at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that provides media and technology recommendations to parents and educators, both told Mashable that parents should release themselves from unnecessary pressure: You can’t expect to train yourself as a full-time educator in a matter of weeks, while also juggling all of the other health and financial concerns spurred by COVID-19.
“It’s a hard time for everybody. My overall message is: Take a deep breath, and let yourself off the hook a little bit,” Elgersma said. “It’s not going to be perfect.”
And even if it won’t be perfect, you’re probably still going to try: For those looking to help your kids with learning and attention difficulties or disabilities grapple with extended school closures, Elgersma shared some digital tools that you might incorporate into their schooling routine, as well as some overall tips. The tools and tips suggested here can primarily assist with completing assignments, maintaining daily schedules, and incorporating educational activities into your family routine if you have a kid with learning or attention difficulties and disabilities.
We focus on apps and websites that address a wide range of learning or attention difficulties and disabilities, including ADHD, dyslexia, and dyscalculia. Elgersma’s suggestions can help kids who have official diagnoses of ADHD, dyslexia, or dyscalculia, kids who have an IEP at school, or a teacher who is aware of their challenges and helps them. In instances that apps are tailored specifically to kids with disabilities, it’s noted. Most of the tools listed here cater to the needs of kids in elementary school, but those that might assist middle or high schoolers are noted as well.
While these tools might help your kids stay focused on educational activities, this likely isn’t the time to excessively stress over learning outcomes, Elgersma notes.
If your school is offering (or requiring) online learning videos, Elgersma thinks it’s worth taking advantage of those for their structure and social interaction, but kids (especially those with attention or learning difficulties and disabilities) might not get all the same benefits as they would with in-person instruction. She suggests that teachers and parents work together to determine what accommodations, like movement breaks or flexible seating, including bouncy chairs or exercise balls, might be useful for your kid.
“That said, teachers, parents, and students shouldn’t worry too much about kids falling behind, and everything should be gentle with themselves and each other,” Elgersma said. “It’s new and difficult for everyone involved, so we can only do the best we can.”
For kids with attention difficulties or disabilities, including but not limited to ADHD, Elgersma recognizes that being inside without regular social engagement can be especially difficult, which only makes focusing on learning even harder. Consequently, she recommends drafting some kind of daily schedule with your kids in order to help them focus their attention on specific tasks.
“Keeping some kind of structure is important for all kids,” Elgersma said. “As hard as it might be, you should try to work out a schedule, just to let them know what to expect. That will alleviate some of the disruption they might be feeling.”
If you’re looking for an app to help make a schedule for daily tasks, including both schoolwork or routine activities like washing your hands, Elgersma recommends the app Choiceworks Calendar ($4.99, Apple only). The calendar provides pictures to give kids a visual sense of what’s to come day-to-day for each month. (Elgersma points out that, in addition to kids with attention difficulties or disabilities, this can also help kids experiencing anxiety by providing a visualization of the days ahead.)
Another option Elgersma suggests is the app First Then Visual Schedule HD ($14.99, Apple only), where you can map out a daily schedule using your own photos to plan out the sequence of activity on a given day. And, of course, you don’t need to spend money or download an app to make a schedule: Your family can always make their own visual, daily schedule based on specific needs.
In order to assist kids in keeping their own homework schedules as they chug through assignments, Elgersma has some other recommendations as well. For younger kids with attention difficulties or disabilities, such as ADHD, you can try the app Bear Focus Timer ($1.99 for Apple, $.99 for Google Play), in which a friendly bear named Tom helps kids focus on tasks by providing allotted time for each one. For older kids, she suggests trying the app Focus Keeper (free, Apple only), which replicates the Pomodoro Technique (in which tasks are completed in short bursts, allowing time during homework sessions for breaks.)
It’s also important to make sure that breaks for kids with attention difficulties or disabilities involve some movement, notes Elgersma, so that they shake out some of their restlessness. This is especially helpful for kids with ADHD. If you’re looking for a digital tool to help encourage kids to move throughout the day, she says that Go Noodle, which offers online resources on its website in addition to its free app (on Apple and Google Play), can be useful for finding new, interactive ways to get younger kids to engage with movement and mindfulness. (And, of course, simple things like jumping jacks can do the trick too, Elgersma points out.)
Apps might help kids throughout the day, but to mark a clear end to the school day, Elgersma recommends completing other simple, physical activities (sans screens) right after you’re done with schoolwork, like playing a movement oriented game such as Simon Says. Doing so, she says, can help kids segue out of school mode. For kids with attention difficulties or disabilities, the clear distinction between school mode (online) and play mode (offline) can help them stay focused the next “school day,” knowing that it’s only for a set amount of time.
For kids who need assistance with learning difficulties or disabilities but have typically relied on targeted help at school for their learning needs, Elgersma notes that there are some digital tools that can help them navigate learning from home. Jones, from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, also encourages communicating with your school to see how online learning tools it utilizes can be made more compatible with your child’s learning needs.
If your kid experiences difficulty reading and writing at their grade level, or has a learning disability related to reading comprehension, which could include dyslexia, Elgersma suggests tools that are focused on empowering kids. For those with dyslexia, she recommends the app Omoguru, which allows kids to customize text to more easily interpret letters and words. (The app is free to download on Apple and Google Play, and most of its features come free as well. If you want to add your own content to read, or convert print text to digital, it requires a paid subscription of $4.49/month or $42/year, according to an Omoguru spokesperson.)
Additionally, there are also other resources for those who experience difficulty reading as the result of other disabilities (in addition to dyslexia), including those who have low vision or experience blindness. She suggests the online library Bookshare, a service that allows people to customize their e-book reading experience with audio, braille, large font, and other features in order to suit learning needs. For students in the U.S. that can confirm a print disability, such as dyslexia, blindness, or low vision that impairs their ability to read traditional print materials, Bookshare is free.
Depending on the books available, you might be able to use it for required school reading assignments, or for helping your kid practice their skills while they read for pleasure, Elgersma notes. And if your kid doesn’t have a disability that impacts their reading, but has difficulty reading for other reasons (such as routinely calling reading “boring”), she points to this list of apps, some of which provide interactive activities.
Finally, if your kid experiences difficulty with math, and you’re hoping to use this time to get them more comfortable with numbers, Elgersma suggests the website Bedtime Math (which also offers a free app on Apple and Google Play) where you can find a variety of math activities designed to become part of the family routine, thanks to the site’s daily, playful math problems. Additionally, there are also apps for kids who are reluctant math learners, which Elgersma recommends finding here.
Give yourself a pat on the back
Elgersma and Jones both note, though, that apps and other digital tools are primarily a salve for this unprecedented time. Jones hopes the sudden move to largely online, at-home learning will lead to changes in the way schools and teachers support students with learning or attention difficulties or disabilities down the road.
For the time being, Elgersma and Jones want parents and guardians of kids with learning or attention difficulties to understand the importance of supporting one another. Jones points out that NCLD is encouraging parents to share resources that work for them with its Facebook and Twitter accounts. More broadly, she encourages parents to do the same, on their own and on pages like NCLD’s.
And amid everything going on, Elgersma also stresses just taking a minute to pat yourself on the back for what you’ve done so far, and acknowledging that none of this is easy.
“It’s important for parents to be taking care of themselves,” Elgersma said. “The calmer and more contained we are able to feel, then that translates [to our kids].”