One Goal at a Time - Updated title: The first month of the pandemic with my children at home
by Heather Dukes-Murray, Ph.D.
* Originally posted on 4/6/20 on Meghan Barlow & Associates.
As I was moving my website over, I looked through my blog posts and realized I had not published this one on my own site. Reading through it - more than 2 years later into the pandemic - I feel a little like I have been punched in the stomach. Ugh- we thought the kids would be out of school for 3 weeks - and then it lasted 1 year! It is amazing how much my youngest has grown and developed over the last 2.5 years. It is also surprising how quickly I forget the difficulties after they have resolved (he now can walk around the block with me, but still needs reminders to stay close). It is also unsettling how much learning loss has occurred across our nation as a result of the pandemic. It is amazing that I am now evaluating 2 year olds who have only known pandemic life. But here is the post - it feels a little like a time capsule that I am not sure I want to revisit, but I think the message and steps are relevant to refer to during times of stress. I sincerely hope you won't need them.
This last month many of us were unexpectedly thrown into a new endeavor – teaching our children at home. This sudden added role is further complicated by several other factors, including our own work expectations, meeting the learning needs for multiple children, and managing stress levels in this chaotic time. If you have a child on an IEP or with a learning difference, this new endeavor also includes the added pressure of providing intervention. When school let out almost a month ago, I was stressed, but felt that I could manage the learning needs of my own preschooler on an IEP. About 2 weeks later I was crying in a Zoom meeting with his intervention specialist. To say this has not gone as I had expected is an understatement. Now, my house is a month into the chaos and I have made some adjustments to my expectations. Below are some things I have learned in the past month that have worked for me in trying to “teach” my littlest one, while balancing the needs of my other children and working. While I hope the ideas below are helpful to you, please know that this is stressful to us all, and the biggest thing I try to remind myself is to have patience with myself and my children. * Identify a “goal” to work on for a week or two that will actually be helpful at home.
My little guy has IEP goals that, in theory, I could work on at home. However, with my other 3 kids running around, I don’t have the time or a distraction-free area to really work on those goals well. We work on those goals during the brief “center” times recommended by his teacher, but otherwise, I let them go. Instead, I created a new goal for my little one. This goal we could work on, while including my other 3 children, in short bursts throughout the day. And the new goal is one that would actually be meaningful to our family during this time. I decided to target his behavior on family walks. His behavior on walks is much like a feral cat. There is a lot of resisting, distracted behavior, attacking my legs, and trying to run away. My goal for the end of this stay-at-home time is for my little one to go on short walks with us, while tolerating my holding his hand the whole time without going “dead weight” or trying to run away. We “work” on this goal a couple times a day by going for short walks with his siblings. I prime him of the expectations beforehand (“hold my hand, stay with mom”). I remind him multiple times and provide his options when he goes “dead weight” (“walk or carry?”). It has been difficult, and some days he just isn’t having it (what my neighbors must think when I am bolting after an abnormally fast preschooler while yelling – “stay with mom!”), but he is getting better at letting me hold his hand for longer than 3 minutes without fighting it. The goal of walking with our family may seem trivial, but is important for his safety, as well as being able to include him in family outings. This at-home time is a good opportunity to work on something that may not be academic or related to being “learning-ready” but will improve life at home. Try to think of a goal or skill that you would feel confident working on with your child and that would be helpful in their daily functioning. * Ask for and accept help
My son’s preschool teacher offered to make him a visual schedule when we met the day after it was announced school was closing. I politely declined, thinking that I already have those tools and skills to do this for the little ones I work with – surely I can handle making a visual schedule for my own child! Fast forward to my previously mentioned Zoom breakdown at the 2-week mark and his teacher said, “Please let me make you a visual schedule.” This time I accepted, and I am glad I did. I cannot do it all. We cannot do it all. His teacher was right – my little guy functions better with the help of a visual schedule. I also needed to remember that I function better when I accept help. If you are struggling with aspects of your child’s learning or daily activities, reach out to the teams who usually provide you support and talk out the difficulties. * Remember the tools you may have not had to use in a while – A.K.A. Go back to basics
I haven’t had to use a visual schedule at home before this. My other 3 are typically developing and the littlest guy was either in daycare or school during the day, with very routine evenings, so I didn’t really need one…until now. Now, I am moving through each day in chunks of 4 activities. Similarly, I haven’t had to use a visual “First-Then” mat for almost 6 months, as his language skills have improved. However, being with the little guy 24/7 has made this mat useful again to help him understand that he needs to color before he can play with his monster truck. I am priming about the expected behavior on the walks. I am prompting with language and to make eye contact. I am reinforcing skills with preferred activities. I have reset and am relying on the things that I know work for my little guy. Go back to the tools that historically worked for your child, even if it has been a while since you have needed them. I am hoping to use my tried and true tools to help us get through the days relatively happily and try to keep stress and behavior difficulties to a minimum, when possible. * Set realistic, or even low, expectations
All in all, I am setting the bar low for myself right now. We have all been thrust into a stressful time, our children included. I encourage you to keep the bizarre nature of our current situation in mind while adjusting your expectations for yourself and your children. Set one goal at a time, ask for and accept help, and rely on your tried and true tools to manage behavior throughout the day.