Families with Special Needs Students Navigate a Virtual World

Families with Special Needs Students Navigate a Virtual World
Words by Melanie Cissone

Westonwood Ranch in Freeport, Florida, an experiential farm program for teens and young adults with developmental differences, is keenly aware of the need for routine and consistency among its students. So, in a world turned on its end by COVID-19 and shelter-in-place mandates, restoring a balanced environment is fundamental to families with special needs children temporarily at home. With an important emphasis placed on learning life skills at the ranch, Westonwood’s Clinical Director, Maddie Kolovich, a Board Certified Applied Behavioral Analyst (BCBA) offers some suggestions to parents and caregivers: 

  •       Reach out. If your student’s teachers or therapists haven’t already been in communication with you, call, text, or email them. Connect and communicate.
  •       Ask for help. Ask the people who have been interacting regularly with your student what they recommend doing to maintain the skills they have learned so far and to give a sense of routine. Maddie says, “I know it may be difficult, but by having your student do just a little bit of their usual work will help them tremendously.”
  •       Help your student create a daily schedule. An easy and beneficial thing to do together, your student (and your family) gain consistency and predictability. “We have given our families different tools and resources to help them create individualized schedules that work for their students and entire family, and that include things their students do daily at the ranch,” Maddie says.
  •       Do what’s needed and do what’s enjoyable. Incorporate life skill tasks like laundry or picking up toys and schoolwork if applicable with physical activities like walks and backyard games with siblings. Try to add some independent work or play to the schedule so that you the parent or caregiver get some time to get things done.
  •       Seek self-care and support. Take time for yourself. It’s not selfish; it’s essential. Put the oxygen mask on yourself first so that you can navigate a turned-around world and help your loved ones. Find resources that support your efforts. Whether it’s a friendly chat with a parent encountering similar challenges, webinars about basic behavioral tools, or parent support video chat groups, specialized agencies have plentiful sources that are usually free. Westonwood Ranch has created parent forums for discussions between and among its students’ families, to share ideas and as a simple way to check in and stay informed.
  •       Do consult your student’s therapy team before trying anything new

When other children are attending their virtual schools this Spring, students with special needs who flourish in a therapeutic environment with structured days like those at Westonwood Ranch are somewhat stymied now. The practice of Applied Behavior Analysis therapy also known as ABA, a data-driven therapy used at Westonwood Ranch, is happening virtually but it has some practical limitations. Maddie reminds, “This is a chaotic time and we all need a little more grace in our day to day efforts.”