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Vacation routines help special needs kids ease back to school anxiety

Children with special needs can suffer horribly when the time comes to return to school. That needn't be the case

  • Many children with special needs thrive on routine and may not react well if patterns change in the summerImage Credit: Alamy
  • Rudolf Stockling is Clinical Director and Head of the Assessment Unit at Lexicon Reading CenterImage Credit: Supplied
GN Focus

A long summer break takes its toll on students, with studies showing a learning loss after six weeks’ break or more. With the vacation this year having extended over two and a half months, parents and teachers will have to work harder than normal to get children back into the groove.

“Recent research does suggest that the long summer break can be detrimental to children’s health and that they tend to spend lengthy time watching TV and playing with devices,” says Kephren Sherry, Deputy Principal at The Arcadia Preparatory School. 

The situation is particularly acute for children with special needs. Lucy Mathews’ eight-year-old son has dyslexia and dysgraphia. She says children with special needs require a little extra attention over the holidays and at the start of the term.

“As a parent, I feel all children do have some amount of catching up to do after the school break. It becomes lot more tedious for parents with children with dyslexia and dysgraphia because our children need a little extra push because of their subtle concerns. So, to make it easier some routine needs to be put in to place for the break and this needs to be discussed well in advance of the break so the child is ready for it and not forced in to it,” the Indian national says. 

Children with learning difficulties have a harder time adjusting as they are forced to compensate for their weaknesses by following their peers, verbally processing information, relying on rote memorisation, and using hands-on/experiential learning contexts. Whereas their peers tend to require less effort to get back on track with in a few weeks of review, Mathews says.

Routines for everybody

Her views are echoed by PR consultant Rania El Kebbe, who looked after her 10-year-old nephew, who has ADHD, over the summer break. “All children find it difficult to catch up and revive discipline at school after a 3 months breaks, so an educational routine should be in place all year round,” the 25-year-old Lebanese national says. “I truly believe that with time, humans are uncontrollably developing short attention spans and impatience, which eventually leads to the loss of consistency and focus.”

Both guardians asked that their wards because of concerns about bullying.

Rudolf Stockling is Clinical Director and Head of the Assessment Unit at Lexicon Reading Center, which provides learning help for differently abled children.  “One concern is that children learn best when instruction is continuous. The long summer correct holidays break the rhythm of instruction, lead to forgetting, and require a significant amount of review of material when students return to school in autumn,” he says.

“The long summer break most affects children with special educational needs. For example, children with dyslexia (reading disability) need continuous practice of their phonological skills and often regress significantly if this practice is interrupted for an extended time.  Similarly, children with dysgraphia (writing disability) or dyscalculia (maths disability) tend to lose their skills quickly when they don’t use these skills frequently. Kids who have communication disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder may regress socially if they are not in regular contact with peers over the summer.”

Many children with special needs thrive on routine and may not react well behaviourally if sleep or travel patterns are changed in the summertime, he says, adding that each child’s needs vary significantly as they may have academic difficulties, behavioural issues and social deficits, or a combination of the three.

Lexicon runs programmes over the summer to help those with learning challenges. One example is an ongoing summer school on Written Expression Skills by Ms Terrill Jennings from the Boston-based Landmark School for Children with Reading and Writing Difficulties, and co-author of an evidence-based writing programme for students who find writing challenging.

Alternatively, parents can look at summer school programmes being offered by UAE schools, as these are inclusive and the activities offered throughout the locality offer terrific opportunities for all children, Sherry says.

Family time

How then can parents mitigate the impact of the summer break?

Mathews, an ex-teacher, says following a routine over the holidays benefits children with and without disabilities. While she and her family may relax their regular routines for a bit, she recommences these as the start of school draws near. “For example, there is a specific time during the day both morning and evening where there is some reading activity. We also ensure some family time with spelling games or phonemic awareness games,” she says.

"If there is a routine that was followed during the break, then coping with re-integration in to school routines is a less strenuous task.” At the very least, she advises other parents to get back onto term-time schedules a few weeks’ before school begins. “This has its challenges in its own ways for any parent, because a child is a child first, before he is labelled anything else," she adds.

Tips for special needs kids

Children who thrive most when kept on a routine during the summer can enrol in several types of programs designed for those with special needs. Rudolf Stockling, Clinical Director and Head of the Assessment Unit at Lexicon Reading Center, outlines some options:

Internet-Based Learning Programmes: There are a several evidence-based programmes available that allow students to practice skills daily for short periods in a fun way. Examples such as Lexia and RazKids help keep skills levels up.

Extended School Year Services: Some students in the special education programme our offered extended services throughout the summer. These services are typically organised as half-day programs and can be school-based or conducted by private organisations.

Summer School: Children also can attend summer school courses that may be remedial or subject based. This option can be beneficial for students diagnosed with Learning Disabilities who primarily struggle with academics. 

Day Camps: Some organisations offer day camps that are specifically geared toward individuals with special needs. Options include science camps, computer camps, swimming camps, or horseback riding camps. These camps offer wonderful opportunities to work on social skills as well as the specific topic that the camp addresses.

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