Almost everyone is affected by the announcement on workplace and school closures. There is additional stress with the extended circuit breaker. A group of highly stressed population to look out for is the caregivers who work in the day, but with the disruption, have had to telecommute from home. Caregivers of children with special needs can be highly stressed and will need respite and support over this ‘circuit-breaker’ period.
Children with special needs will struggle with the change in routine. Unlike school holidays where parents can bring them on overseas trips or increase outdoor playtime, the stay-at-home regime has limited many options. Children with special needs are not the easiest group to engage in home-based learning as they have specific goals in their individualised education plan. Yet the extended circuit breaker period also posts opportunity for working on certain types of goals (to be elaborated later).
Looking after the child
Setting a new home routine for this group of children is important.
1. Draw out a schedule of daily activities.
First, draw out a schedule of activities that will take place every day, including work time, screen time, and daily activities such as shower, meals, and sleep. The use of visual cues and referring the child to this routine visually and regularly will help establish new habits. Parents can work closely with the special education teacher for a smooth transition, for example using ‘social stories’ – a specific type of stories written and tailored for children with special needs – to explain the change and expected behaviours.
2. Look for opportunities for physical activities.
Second, it is important to look for opportunities for the child to move and engage in physical activities. Without physical exercises in the regular school setting, a sedentary lifestyle is not good for health and can lead to frustrations and tantrums. Examples of physical activities include a daily short walk in the park, following dance steps from a video, and doing simple housework like mopping the floor.
3. Use an app to monitor the total time spent on digital devices.
Third, avoid the overly increased reliance on digital gadgets as babysitters.
Many children with special needs can spend hours watching YouTube videos or playing online games. Therefore, using an app to monitor the total time spent on digital devices is advisable. It will be very difficult to transition the child back into other activities if they grow addicted to their devices. Such addiction is increasingly common for developing children and can be an issue too for children with special needs.
4. Work on behavioural and self-care goals.
Fourth, use this period of time to work on behavioural and self-care goals that require consistency. This is a unique period where children will only stay with their primary caregivers (likely parents), unlike typical days where they can move from childcare centres to grandparents’ place. It also means there is more opportunity to work on goals such as toilet training, behaviour management, independence at mealtimes, sleeping in one’s room. Behaviour can take a few weeks to change and can get worse before improvement. Parents commonly comment on how hard it is to change behaviour as things can be different at grandparents’ place or childcare centres, or when it comes to goals on sleep, they worry about upsetting school routines. By establishing consistency between the parents and sticking on the new established routines (e.g., mealtime, toileting) over the next few weeks, there is a good chance that the children can be successful. Consult the therapists, get some concrete ideas, and make good use of the extended circuit breaker to work on these goals.
It is possible for the escalation of behaviour concerns because of a few reasons. For example, due to the change in routine, less opportunity to go outdoor, and lack of movement. In addition, to avoid temper tantrums and or children’s whining, many have given in to their children’s requests which they typically wouldn’t. Over an extended period, children can establish new unhealthy habits or behaviours. For example, excessive consumption of unhealthy snacks, extended screen time, sleeping too late, being fed/running around at mealtimes, snatching toys and getting away without being punished. Undesirable behaviour can continue and escalate over time. It is important for caregivers to agree on a consistent method of behavioural management over this period of time.
Looking after the caregiver
1. Communicate with employers
For parents of children with special needs, it is important to communicate with employers and seek understanding. Employers need to be empathetic and realise that fulfilling productive work from home while caring for a child with special needs are two different jobs. This is especially so if the family does not have additional support from grandparents or domestic helper. Requiring the same amount of work to be done probably means that the parent will have to work late into the night after the child has gone to bed. The risk of burn-out is high when asked to do this over a prolonged period of time.
2. Share the load.
In families where both parents are around, sharing the load is crucial. For example, drawing out some ‘me’ time for the mother to take a walk alone, or rest for 30 minutes uninterrupted can be very helpful. While it is common in many families that the child only follows instructions of a single parent when it comes to studying, the other parent can help by playing or exercising with the child during other parts of the day.
3. Look after oneself.
To be an effective caregiver, it is most important to look after oneself. Avoid thinking that you have to fulfill expectations of the additional roles, such as the special education teacher or therapist, on top of working from home. It is fine for the child to have pockets of unoccupied time, so do not feel guilty about that. Consider speaking to a social worker or other professionals in SPD to get ideas and support. Remember, self care is never a selfish act, but simply good stewardship. We do so not only for ourselves but for the many lives we touch and the people we care for.
About the Author
Dr May Lim is an Associate Professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) and a member of SPD’s Services Committee. May is also an experienced occupational therapist by profession, having worked with children with developmental delays and disorders in Singapore and Australia. In between her teaching, she continues to work as an occupational therapist in private practice for children with special needs. She has two children age 7 and 10.
All images: Toranosuke, Shutterstock