For kids with neurodevelopmental disabilities, back-to-school can be a tricky time

September 2, 2020

A UM-Dearborn lecturer has some practical wisdom for special education families who are navigating a complicated new school year.

A collage graphic showing a back to school scene of students learning both remotely and in-person.
A collage graphic showing a back to school scene of students learning both remotely and in-person.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

UM-Dearborn Education Lecturer Angela Capuano says there are a number of reasons why the sudden spring transition to remote K-12 education was particularly hard for children with special education needs. Capuano, who’s a clinical psychologist and board certified behavior analyst, says the sheer upset of a routine can be a far bigger deal for kids with neurodevelopmental disabilities like autism. And many students rely on their schools not just for more personalized in-person instruction, but access to behavior therapies that have a big impact beyond their education.

Now, after finally getting settled into new summer routines, special education students are set to navigate a new disruption — a back-to-school transition that’s anything but typical this year. To give families a leg up, Capuano and some colleagues from universities across Michigan put together a guide that’s packed with useful tips — whether a family is embarking on a fully remote learning experience or sending a child back to a school that now has lots of new health and safety rules.

“Each district is approaching things a little differently, but I’ve seen some where the majority of students are doing online instruction, but special education students are allowed to go back and meet with their teachers and therapists,” Capuano says. “That seems like a really encouraging model, because for a student with special needs, you can’t just sit them down in front of a computer and expect them to pay attention for hours at a time. Plus, there are fewer of them, so they can really spread out and take advantage of all that space.”

A headshot of UM-Dearborn education lecturer Angela Capuano.
A headshot of UM-Dearborn education lecturer Angela Capuano.
Lecturer Angela Capuano

Capuano says along with those potential benefits come some new challenges. New safety routines like handwashing, mask wearing and social distancing could be difficult for many special education students to adjust to. Her recommendation? Practice those skills at home during the lead-up to school and in those first few weeks so kids can get comfortable with the news rules. For example, Capuano encourages parents to experiment with different kinds of masks to see which fabrics are most comfortable for kids to wear during hours-long school days.

Whether a student is learning in-person or online, Capuano says reestablishing a routine is probably one of the biggest ways to help students. “Even for remote learning, the expectations are going to be different than the spring,” she says. “I know some schools are requiring students to be online at a certain time every day — and even be dressed, as in, no pajamas. So if that’s the expectation, it’s going to be really helpful for families to practice a regular bedtime, wake-up time or breakfast time. It reinforces that learning is a separate part of the day — even if every part of the day is probably still happening at home.”

Despite the stresses the pandemic has placed on the education system, Capuano says she’s encouraged by the resourcefulness of many families. Some have taken advantage of the pleasant summer weather and created more outdoor nature-based learning experiences. And she loves that neighborhoods are banding together, creating sidewalk “obstacle courses” or window displays so that kids can have new learning experiences every time they head out for a walk.

“I think the important thing to remember is education is more than just school, and kids are pretty resilient and adaptable. Adults have to model and lead the way, but a lot of the kids I’m working with are really surprising me with how quickly they can adapt to these new situations. Being younger, they have fewer expectations, and in some ways, I don’t think this is as disruptive to the kids as it is to the grown-ups. So I make sure to tell everyone I see that if you’re doing the best you can, that’s enough.” 

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Check out Capuano’s guide for more tips on how families can have a smooth transition into the new school year.

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