By Sheryl R. Frishman, Esq.
As summer approaches, our children get excited for the end of school year and summer vacation. Summer is usually a time when adults can ease schedules and relax. If you are a parent of a school aged child with special needs, the arrival of summer is exciting, but it also comes with a sense of dread, significant stress and anxiety. Summer means a change in routine, excruciating amounts of down time, travel, visiting family and friends, outdoor outings, barbecues, too much noise, and too much food.
As a mother of a child with significant special needs, I have developed some coping mechanisms and methods to use summer as a learning opportunity for my child. I hope these are helpful to you!
Set and Stick to a Schedule and Keep Routines in Place
A break in routine can often lead to an escalation of behaviors or regression for some children. Even if your child receives Extended School Year ("ESY") services from your school district, this program can often be different than the regular school year program and is often only six weeks in length. During down time it is critical to stick to a schedule. Taking a few minutes to plan out the day or a week can be the secret to a successful summer vacation. Whenever possible, maintain as much of the usual structures. For example:
- Keep consistent bedtimes and wake up times even when there is no school and also try to keep similar limits set during school
- Keep "screen time" allowances limited
- Maintain reading routines
- Meals should remain around the same time
Keep up the Learning
Learning does not have to stop just because school is out for the summer. The summer is a great opportunity to incorporate authentic learning experiences. Additionally, it is important to build time into your child's daily or weekly schedule to research experiment and investigate a topic that interests your child. Choose activities that play to your child's strengths not just their preferences. You can go to homeschooling websites to find various resources.
Set up Play Groups and/or Social Skill Groups
The summer can be a great time to get involved with other families with special needs children. Create your own play or social skills group and plan dates for activities or field trips. It is important that your child has opportunities to continue to develop their social skills and not lose touch with their classmates.This can also be a good networking opportunity for parents.
Get Activities from School Personnel
Before the school year ends, ask teachers and therapists for activities that you can do with your child over the summer. This can help you establish a routine and can also help you understand, first hand, what your child has been working on and whether they can generalize skills.
Try to Schedule Ample Help
If possible, try to schedule extra help to assist you during the summer time. You can seek out special education teacher aides that work for a school district and have the summer off. They may have some time and you can enlist them for help.This help can also take the form of a "mother's helper;" someone to come along with you to activities and gatherings. You may be able to find mother's helpers through a local high school or college. One thing that I want to emphasize: it is OK to leave your child with special needs behind (with proper supervision) if you are attending an event that you feel will be difficult for your child. Many parents feel very guilty about leaving their child behind but it is usually preferable than putting him or her in a situation that would be overwhelming or difficult.
Keep Expectations Reasonable
We tend to have high expectations for summer vacations and want them to be "perfect" family times. Try not to get frustrated if the occasions do not go as planned. Instead of setting many goals for your special education child, set one goal or family project that you can all work on together.
It is a Good Time to See How Your Child is Truly Performing
We recently had or are about to have our annual CSE meetings. At this meeting, the teachers and therapists spoke about your child's progress (or lack thereof) in certain areas. The summer is a good time for you to make an assessment of your child's progress and see if you agree or disagree with the CSE. Take the time over the summer to really get to know how your child is doing and review his IEP for the upcoming year. You may find that the goals are not relevant or are set too high or low. You may want to call a program review at the beginning of the school year to address your concerns.
Use Time with Family to Discuss Plans for the Future
While visiting with family and friends over the summer, it is a wonderful time to discuss your plans for the future of your child with special needs. It is a good time for your extended family members to see, first hand, what it takes to raise your child and for you to see how these family members deal with your child. Use these family gatherings to discuss guardianship and other special needs planning ideas you may have.
Count Your Blessings
While it is hard to raise a child with special needs and you may wish you could just have a "normal" summer and not worry about all of the above, summer is an important time to try to stop for a moment and count your blessings and try to realize all of the gifts your special needs child has given you. Even though summer is a difficult time in my own home, I realize that I have become a better mother, a more patient person and a better attorney helping families with special needs, all because of my son. This makes me feel very lucky indeed!
Have a wonderful summer!