As a special education teacher and during my training as a school counselor, I worked with many children who were struggling with emotional and behavioral challenges. I know that during this unusual time, all of the needs of these children are falling to their families to address and that families may be feeling overwhelmed and perhaps unsupported. I also know that to a certain degree, all families are feeling in need of strategies to help children deal with the stress and anxiety that results from a global pandemic. Below I have included three strategies that are helpful to all children and then specific recommendations for parents who may be dealing with difficult behavior that has escalated due to the current health crisis.
Let Children Know that They are Safe
Explain to children what you and the other adults in their life are doing to make sure that they are safe. Provide them with extra attention, comfort, and patience and let them know that you are there to listen if they are feeling upset, worried, or scared. Teach them things that they can do to feel safe like washing their hands for 20 seconds when they come home or before meals to get rid of germs or covering their mouth with their elbow when they sneeze. Parents can also teach children how to deal with difficult emotions and the behaviors that may result from feeling anxious, overwhelmed, or not in control. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network lists common reactions to stress and anxiety by age group in a chart here. You can try these three strategies with your kids to help them calm down when they are feeling overloaded: Tucker the Turtle Technique, breathing exercises, and mindfulness like yoga or meditation. Kids may also like to use activities like physical activity (jogging, riding a bike, or playing basketball) or art (painting, drawing, writing, or dancing) to help process their thoughts. Determine a quiet place at home that your child can go if they need time alone to calm down. Let your child choose the location and items to go there such as books, blankets, stuffed animals, or a journal. This should not be viewed as a punishment but a way to help manage strong emotions. In addition, you may want to consider limiting excessive exposure to media or social media that may promote fear or panic.
Use Routine to Plan Your Weekdays
Sticking to the same basic routine each weekday helps children to feel secure because even though things are not as they normally are, they know what to expect. Make sure that there are consistent routines each day for activities like physical activity, sleep, and meals. Let children know what the schedule for each weekday will be using visuals and words to represent each part of the day. Make sure that the schedule is not too rigid and instead involves flexible blocks of time. This will make it easier to stick to and helpful instead of limiting and anxiety-inducing.
It is important to have consistent age-appropriate expectations during the at-home routine just like kids would experience at school. For example, at school the expectation may be that the class is quiet while the teacher or other students are speaking and that students raise their hand to talk. At home, the expectation may be that there is quiet and no background noise while children or parents are meeting for work or in online classes. Offer kids choices about what they would like to do where each choice works within that time period. For example, “Would you like to go outside and ride your bike before or after my phone call?” or “Would you like to watch a read aloud on the computer or trace your letters while I check my email?”. Always have a plan B built into your routine in case you need additional time to work or things do not go as planned. Have several activities in a specific place like a bookshelf or activity bin that children are able to do independently. You may also want to make a list nearby with words and pictures. For example, “When Mom or Dad are busy I can…..”. Then find activities with your child and list them with pictures, if needed, to help them remember. Another idea is to plan activities that children can do with family members like reading a book together and discussing it on Skype or Facetime. Lastly, consider planning simple but fun family activities that everyone can look forward to like calling family members or friends on a video conferencing platform, watching a movie, having a game night, or celebrating a special occasion.
Make a plan for staying connected with friends and family members. Even though children may not be able to play with their friends or visit family members, they can talk with them on the phone or participate in daily activities with them via video chat. Another way to stay connected is to participate in distance learning activities. Most schools are offering meal distribution, some therapeutic services, and online classes during school closure. Find out how these are being offered and make sure that your child is participating in programs that reflect what they would normally receive within their regular school day to the extent possible. Other organizations such as museums, extracurricular activities, and community groups are also offering online sessions. Children may enjoy participating in these activities to explore interests and connect with other kids their age.
Managing Challenging Behaviors
You may want to consider including the following strategies from Vanderbilt University Peabody College of Education within your routine if you are parenting a child who requires additional behavioral support. Detailed graphics are linked below with additional strategy information provided by clicking the links embedded within each graphic.:
- Consider antecedents, behavior, and consequences
- Use transition warnings with detail about when the transition will take place
- Provide positive feedback and attention
- Set clear behavior expectations
- Intentionally avoid attending to challenging behavior/s
- Provide verbal reminders
- Wait until your child is calm
For additional information see the following resources:
Nina Parrish, M. Ed.
Co-Owner and Director of Education
Proud mom of two adorable girls. Teacher who has developed an education business that started at a kitchen table and has grown into a thriving small business... Click here to Learn more about Nina.
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