Every day, occupational therapists (OTs) get their hands dirty as they work with students who struggle with fine motor and sensory skills.
OTs guide children’s hands as they learn how to correctly grip a pencil and draw letters, and they help children use various manipulatives, like Play-Doh and blocks, to build strength. They set up Sensory Rooms, where children can bounce on balls and jump on trampolines to release energy so that they can focus on learning. Sometimes, when children are upset, the OTs hold them to calm them down.
But since last spring, when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, most occupational therapists have been unable to touch and guide students in person—and have had to completely reinvent how they work. The adaptations have been especially challenging because many children with special needs depend heavily on parent/caregiver oversight to help them with tech tools or even to sit still to focus during remote education.
“I’m incredibly proud of myself and my team here, because we weren’t even sure how to get kiddos to the screen at first. I really didn’t know much about technology when we went to remote learning in March. We’ve come so far,” said Monica Keyser, an occupational therapist in San Ramon Valley Unified School District in California.
OTs like Keyser say they’ve found new apps and tech tools or modified their traditional methods for use in virtual and in-person sessions. All said that they are most successful when a parent is available during the day to assist their child, but that equity issues tied to families’ resources can create barriers to that engagement. While exhausting, these experiences have helped therapists evolve their work, which will benefit kids long after the vaccine arrives.
“My learning curve this year has been a mountain. It has been huge,” said Linda Kinkade, an occupational therapist for the Warrick County Schools in Indiana. “I figured out that I’m not too old to still learn, which is kind of a weird blessing in disguise.”
With a college kid rooting around the fridge for yet another meal, a husband conducting loud Zoom meetings about two feet from my desk, and a teen with autism freaking out from a lack of structure, 2020 is not shaping up to be a banner year for productivity as a freelance education writer. I only published two pieces since the schools were shut down in March.
Across professions, working parents had a tough spring as they attempted to do their jobs while reviewing math facts with their 7-year-olds and building Legos with toddlers. One survey found that the average parent spent 13 hours per week helping their children with their schoolwork this spring. Experts say that this burden has fallen most strongly on women, with many speculating that this new load may set a generation of women permanently behindin the workplace.
If I were going through this alone, I would have adjusted to the “new normal” eventually. But the school closure was particularly tough on my son with autism. I struggled to find blocks of uninterrupted time to get into the flow of writing when so many hours were spent filling in the vacuum that school left. I questioned my ability to continue to write about schools objectively, given our family’s experiences. Despite these difficulties, I am more committed to my career more than ever, because this pandemic has shown a bright light on the vital role that schools play in our society and economy, and how writing about education and children matters.
When ben started flipping desks in the classroom, his teacher Heather Boyle ushered the rest of her first-grade class into the hallway for safety.
Things had begun to unravel a few moments earlier, when Ben—whose real name isn’t being used, to protect his privacy—struggled with a math lesson. He crawled under desks, bumping into other children’s legs. When his classmates complained, Boyle asked him to come out. “I don’t know how to do this stupid math,” he screamed.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You’re going to come sit with me, and I’m going to help you.” But as his frustrations grew, furniture went airborne. Boyle was forced to clear the room, call the principal for help, and wait until Ben calmed down.
Boyle, who has been teaching young kids since 1997, took charge of a new, trauma-informed classroom in Bartlesville’s Ranch Heights Elementary School: the ATLAS program, or the Alternative Therapeutic Learning Academic Setting. Based on research, and in partnership with a local mental-health center, ATLAS helps kids who have experienced early trauma or dysfunction learn to process and manage emotions so they can return to a typical classroom.
I’m a parent of a high school student with high functioning autism and epilepsy. As schools all around the country announce shutdowns and move towards online education, kids like mine are going to suffer the most.
The move to online education, which has been largely driven by the imperative to maintain the 180-day minimum without taxing already stretched budgets or running afoul of teachers’ contracts, will be difficult to manage. To date, nearly 42 million students. have already been impacted. Will teachers and administrators manage to create an entire system of online K-12 education from scratch in a handful of days? Do teachers have the technological skills, equipment, or experience to implement those plans? Do families have enough computers for themselves and all their children? The questions are endless.
We’re in the midst of a huge educational experiment and really have no way of knowing how it will work out. There are even more problems and questions around online special education.
With plumed caps and braided epaulets for miles, marching bands are a staple of the high school football game. Students stride purposefully around the field with piccolos and tubas, and synchronize their steps to Billy Joel medleys, homages to Mary Poppins and even a snappy march or two from John Philip Sousa. Girls in flared skirts and knee-high boots triumphantly wave flags or twirl wooden rifles.
In some ways, marching bands are anachronistic today. The frozen smiles and stiff-legged choreography of these bands harken back to a 1940s Esther Williams technicolor movie. The twirling rifles feel vaguely sinister in this post-Sandy Hook era. Yet they hold a certain magic, too — a place of innocence and sincerity not found elsewhere in the dystopian world of the modern American high school. They hold a different kind of magic for the kids who participate in this activity.
Along with the A/V club and the stage crew, marching bands have long been safe places for kids like the socially awkward girl, Michelle, from the 1999 cult flick American Pie, who annoys everyone with tales about band camp. The typical participant is not a super star on the football field or in student government.
Marching bands also draw in kids with various learning differences, including those with high-functioning autism. For these students, marching band is an activity in which they can participate with peers. With its unique combination of exercise, dance, music and rigor, it also may be a place where they heal.
The aging school buildings of Arizona’s Glendale Elementary School District were no match for the late summer monsoons of 2016. With foundations made brittle after years of prolonged water damage, flooding seeped in. A structural engineer feared that walls would give way.
School leaders scrambled to find new spaces for nearly 1,500 students until outside contractors could remediate waterlogged walls and floors and reinforce foundations in two buildings. Some students were shuttled to another school in the district; others were sent to a neighboring town.
Superintendent Cindy Segotta-Jones didn’t want to make the students relocate. But with aging buildings desperately needing repair after years of underfunding, she had no choice. “You can’t tell me that it doesn’t impact their learning when they’re in a different environment,” she said. “These disruptions are not fair to children.”
America’s schools, many built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, are due for a major overhaul after decades of inadequate funding made worse by the 2008 recession. These old buildings are only getting older — in Glendale, where some schools date to the 1940s, drainage problems make them vulnerable during the rainy season and aging air conditioners frequently conk out as temperatures soar to 115 degrees.
Starting when he was in middle school, I could have taken a stronger role in overseeing his schoolwork by editing his papers, re-teaching certain subjects and hiring tutors in others. I could have checked his online gradebooks daily. I could have supervised homework and nudged him to schmooze with teachers. In high school, we could have hired one-on-one tutors to prepare him for standardized tests. I could have pushed him to take on leadership positions in clubs he didn’t care about. I could have written his essay and filled out the Common Application for him.
With our backgrounds in higher education, my husband and I have more relevant skills than many other families in our community. We likely could have micromanaged our kid into Harvard. But we didn’t. Between our son’s stubborn resistance to our help, and our own ethics and laziness, we did very little to turn our kid into a tidy package for colleges. Instead, I taught my son how to be a good education consumer.
In this article, I look at online groups that special ed parents form to help each with the crazy, complicated world of special education.
When Stasi Webber decided it was time to uproot her family from their Michigan home to find a better school for her 11-year-old son with autism, she turned to the internet for answers.
The public schools in her state don’t provide the specialized behavioral and life skills training, known as ABA therapy, that her son needs; he skips school every Tuesday and Thursday to receive these essential services. But recently, Webber learned from parents on social media that her son could get both academics and ABA training in schools in New Jersey, where she grew up.
With a tentative plan of returning to her childhood home in Mahwah, she found three or four local social media sites run by special education parents and asked about ABA services at the local district, its willingness to send students to specialized schools and comparisons with nearby towns. She put her house on the market.
“I knew I had to reach out to the internet, because moms are willing to help other moms,” Webber said. “You find out the most information that way.”