During this period of at-home isolation due to the COVID19 pandemic, parents need so many things. Even parents of “typically developing” children need a lot of support and understanding right now, as everyone tries to fill their children’s days with constructive activities. Parents of children with special needs experience high levels of stress, uncertainty, and worry for their children’s well-being, learning, and ability to cope in the world – and that’s on a good day! Add to that the new stresses and challenges that a world-wide pandemic presents to us all, and you have a parent that very well may be struggling to function at all. The everyday emotional and behavioral challenges of managing (let alone educating) a child with autism, severe ADHD, or other developmental disabilties can overtake everything and overwhelm even the most equipped parents. 

One parent I spoke with works as an administrator for a social services organization providing preschool and family support services for many different sites. While continuing to work at home during this time and juggle as many balls in the air as she is used to juggling, she now also has to be the primary special education teacher for her own 3 yr. old son who is on the autism spectrum, a 6 yr. old first-grader and a 13 year old middle school student. Even though “Ashley” knows a lot about early childhood development, she is not used to being her son’s OT, Speech, and Applied Behavior therapist, let alone his pre-k teacher. She shared with me just how hard it has been trying to get her own work done, let alone meet her children’s needs. Any three-year-old can be a handful to keep entertained all day. But children with significant language, social, cognitive, and/or behavioral challenges could wear out an Olympic athlete.

Here are some things you can offer, if you are a teacher, therapist, or the close, caring friend of a parent with a special needs child right now.

  • The Right Perspective – Focusing MOST on Social/Emotional learning: Here is a very nice video link you can view, as a teacher or therapist. It establishes the framework or “lens” from which you should be communicating with parents. Although the video was created for parents, it may be too lengthy and/or too academic for many parents – but most certainly contains all of the most important messages you should be communicating, addressing the most basic needs parents should recognize in their children. Video: Tips for Parents
  • Patience and Understanding. Parents need to not feel judged. Let them know they ARE doing a good job – and that they WILL get through this, you care, and you are there for them to provide support. Simple messages of support sent from a place of caring and commitment – can go a long way! Here are some suggestions, some ways you can show that support:
    • If the parent’s primary language is something other than English, use Google Translate to send messages the parent will understand, in addition to the English versions.
    • Give the parent permission to HAVE FUN and PLAY with their child – the pressure on parents to be their child’s educators can be overwhelming. Parents are dealing with fears, uncertainties, worry, and guilt – over not being “enough” or not doing enough for their child. Give parents a clear message that what is MOST important is everyone’s mental health during this time. Being quarantined for this length of time is stressful for everyone.  Financial worries, isolation, and the challenge of dealing with their children’s behaviors and needs 24/7 is just too much – children and parents alike MUST have a release valve. PLAY, laughter, and silliness have got to be not only allowed but encouraged! Remind parents that rotating and organizing/limiting amounts of toys can actually increase children’s engagement levels and time spent in meaningful play.
  • Connection – especially now, special needs parents need connections with people who care and understand. Even MORE so. The challenges you experienced in working with the child with autism or another developmental disorder or delay are 100-fold for the parent who has that child at home 24/7. To a great degree, these parents need you now, more than ever (and I would venture go guess, many of your previously less-connected parents are more open and willing to respond to your outreach efforts at this time). But it also behooves us all to be a little more persistent and a little more innovative with the ways in which we connect with parents. Find out what works – some parents won’t answer the phone but will respond to a text message. Some are on Facebook and would welcome a connection with you there. Anything that works and is in keeping with your school’s rules. At this time, we all need to be a little more creative to stay connected. 
  • Options and Flexibility. Schools and therapists are really good at coming up with plans, such as scheduling teleconferences with parents in lieu of the child’s regular therapy sessions. However, this may not at all be the best plan for the parent. The time you have selected may or may work for that parent on a particular day. As handy as it may be for you, and as much as we might like to keep things in a set routine for the child, we cannot predict just whether or not the child and parent will be in the right state of mind and body to actually participate at that set time. For most parents, a far more realistic plan would entail accessing a recorded YouTube video at a time chosen by the parent, which could certainly change depending on the day.
  • Don’t judge! Instead, understand, and put your recommendations down on paper or in an email. Remember that parents are juggling the demands of trying to work at home in their daytime jobs, with supervising the learning and activities of other children, all while trying to be available to follow your instructions for parent-directed “learning activities” for their child. If you are a teacher who is conducting Zoom lessons or sending out lessons via email, be sure you find a way to individualize for your special education student, making the session available by video, and checking in with parents /children who did not participate. The time it would take to send an email or make a phone call to a parent whose child was not in the right frame of mind to participate will be no more than the time it took to individualize a lesson for that child at school.
  • Social-Emotional / Behavioral tools: Because everyone’s stress is so high and children’s behaviors can be out of control when their routines are all messed up (and this is certainly one of those times!) think about what resources you can provide to parents for helping them work with their child’s social, emotional, and behavioral needs. Many of the tools that teachers have can be adapted for at-home use. For example, giving parents the visual of a Piggy Bank and explaining the concept of “putting money in the bank each and every day” (positives) to fill up their child’s emotional piggy bank is one simple conceptual tool. The Pyramid Model resources, found at NCPMI Website are plentiful! Part of your teacher or therapist planning time should be committed to mining this website for resources you can share with parents. Here’s one great example: A social Story for kids called “Why Can’t I Go To School?” Print and put it together for families, or if that’s not possible, send a link to Video Version.
    • Also see for some great resources, particularly on helping kids with emotional regulation / calming techniques.
    • Print out and provide to parents (if at all possible) the written resources found in the “Family Behavior Support App” provided by the Barton Lab at Vanderbilt University.  Here is an example: FBSApp_Stay Calm
    • The Zero to Three website also has some great written resources, FAQ’s and Videos you can look through and share.  Helping Parents Cope
    • Find Printables, interactive activities, videos, and tips: Sesame Street’s COVID19 Resources Here
    • The Council for Exceptional Children has provided this fantastic resource that covers literally all ages and contains every bit of information you could possibly want to share with parents. Parents need this information in small bytes. I recommend creating short YouTube or Google Classroom videos each week to share this pertinent information with parents in video form so that they can take it in when they are able to. CEC Info for Parents
  • Tangible Help with Routines and Structure: One of the most important components of your students’ learning and progress is the level of structure you provide during the school days. Your rules are firm, and your routines are consistent. We know how critical these are for all children, most especially children with ASD or ADHD, and your ability to create and maintain the needed structure is one of the keys to your success. So now that parents must take on the role of educator, they will need a crash course in not only why these structures are necessary, but how to create them and how to maintain them. They will need all the help you can give them! I recommend providing clear, written guidance that can be printed out for parents about how to create clear family rules, how to state clear expectations before each activity, and how to plan for the inevitable push-back they will get. Remember that it is far easier to hold a limit on a student than it is for one’s own child. Give parents as much support as you can, emphasizing the value of limits and consistency. Here is one example of a written resource that could be provided to parents in a “sent-home” pack: Help Us Have a Good Day, provided by NCPMI.
  • Visual Supports: Helping parents understand the importance of creating predictable routines for their special needs child is a task most SPED teachers and therapists are very good at. Parents need not only the verbal instructions and supports to do that, but they also would benefit immensely from having some actual visual materials provided, in the form of visual schedules, ‘First, Then” cards, and choices. Whether your program has a drop-box for parents to pick up materials, or offers delivery services, parents must have a way to access these crucial supports. Don’t assume all parents will be able to print things out at home – the more you can provide for them, the more likely they are to follow your instructions, and the more their kids can stay on track with routines and learning!
  • Care Packages: One thing’s for sure: busy, overstressed parents will not have the time or energy to browse Pinterest or Facebook for ideas for engaging educational activities for their kids, let alone to make a bunch of things. Even highly responsive parents very likely don’t have time to make playdough and games if they also must work at home during this time. So, if you are a teacher or therapist, keep in mind that “pre-made” or very simple activities using common materials that parents can quickly grab will be the most helpful. And if you’re a friend or relative who has more time and you want to help, consider making a care package for that friend or relative parent who is struggling to keep it altogether, at home with a high-needs child. Here are some suggestions, for children who are on the autism spectrum, have ADHD, significant speech delays or cognitive impairments:
    • Sensory materials: Anything tactile, visual, auditory, or gives movement.
      •  Rubbermaid container of sand, or a tub of homemade playdough or goop (parents may see all kinds of things to make on Pinterest or Facebook but lack the time to make them) with a few tools, scoopers and cups.
      • A weighted cuddle toy (small, lap-sized animal that weighs between 1 and 3 lbs.) The same concept as a weighted blanket, the proprioceptive input that this provides (pressure on the joints) can have a very calming effect.
      • Oil/water Sensory Bottle Viewer: there are instructions online for making these, or they can be purchased at Lakeshore Learning
    • Reusable Paint with Water books: these simple books come with a small water brush, and can keep a child occupied, giving the parent a moment to breathe or work with a sibling. Find the kind that have the water brush you fill and refill, as these can’t spill and can be used over and over. Find some Here.
    • Pre-Printed Scavenger Hunt – find one online, or write one up with clues to certain items in the house like “Find something that bounces,” “Find an animal that starts with the letter ‘B’,” or “Build something that’s taller than the dog.” This can be a fun activity for older siblings to do with younger ones, or two school-agers to do in competition. The idea is to keep them busy, make them do a little thinking and reading whenever possible, and break up the monotony of the day a little, while giving mom or dad a chance to be on a work call or get something else done.
    • Fun Snacks – fruit snacks, raisins, Paw Patrol graham crackers, etc. Little snacks that mom can pull out as a special reward for extra good behavior or just to break up a long afternoon.

All in all, your role as an educator has really made a huge shift, from focusing completely on instructing your students, to a much broader focus on supporting and educating the parents on how to make at-home learning actually happen. A huge part of this is supporting parents emotionally and letting them know that they’re not alone. As we all ride these uncertain times apart, yet together, let me remind you that you, too, need support. Many of the resources I’ve provided in this article also include supports and recommendations for teachers and other education professionals as well – and of course, many of you are parents yourselves. The most important message to take in, and to communicate during these scary and stressful times, is “You are ENOUGH.” You, your children, the parents, and your students will get through this, together. Take care of yourself, give yourself permission to just do the best you can, and let that be enough, because it IS. 


Sara Beach, M. ED is a ECE Trainer, Consultant, Coach, Writer and Podcaster who specializes in creating systems for quality, social-emotional learning, mental health supports and trauma-responsive practices within early childhood programs. As President and Lead Consultant of  Synapse Early Learning Systems, Ms. Beach is currently a Pyramid Model Master Cadre Trainer for Illinois, and provides Process Coaching on the Pyramid Model to programs and school districts. Certified as an Infant, Toddler, and Pre-K CLASS Trainer and coder, as well as NHSA “Mind in the Making” trainer, and Lakeshore contract trainer, Sara does grant writing and consulting, and trains administrators, teachers, and coaches whenever and wherever there is need. 

Contact Sara Beach at Synapse Early Learning Systems.

Leave a Reply