It is important to look at how to create opportunities for summer learning for children with special needs. Let’s face it, the school schedule that the vast majority of schools in the Unites States continue to follow with 8-10 weeks off during the summer was based on an agrarian society and really isn’t in the best interest of children, modern families or learning. This is doubly true for children with special needs, as most special education teachers and parents of children with special needs can attest to. Due to the rigid guidelines set up in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a very small population of children with special needs qualify for Extended School Year (ESY) services when in reality year round schooling would be best for all children.
Many children with special needs are educated during the school year with specialized curriculum designed to enhance learning for exceptional learners. If you are able to get any materials from your child’s school to continue to work on some similar concepts, it will help your child’s transition back to school in the fall. Many parents also choose to enroll their child in summer tutoring to keep working towards academic progression. However, you can create opportunities for summer learning with every day activities. Working on language development, vocabulary development, communication skills, social skills and behavior management skills can be brought into just about any environment you encounter in the summer. If you are good at masking it as a fun activity or a game, your child may not even know they are participating in learning activities. Summer is also a great time to help children expand their reading skills. Trips to the Library or a book store where they can pick books on topics that they are interested in and/or passionate about (and quite frankly aren’t required reading given by the teacher) can keep many kids engaged, whether they are reading themselves or being read to by an adult or older sibling.
Use all of the teachable moments you can to extend your child’s learning. When you go to the pool, the beach, the park, shopping, on a vacation, to a friend’s house or to a family party teach your children new vocabulary and/or expectations for the location. Do not assume your child will just pick up on new words, concepts and expectations. If your child has only swum in grandma’s pool, swimming in a pool at a hotel or a community pool will likely have different rules and this is the perfect opportunity to teach them, model them and work on them. If you generally go to the grocery store, go to the pharmacy, go to home improvement stores and/or go to the mall while the children are at school and now they have to come with you, pick up items to see if they know what they are and what you do with them. Many children with special needs need a lot of repetition to learn new concepts and to learn what function a known item has. Involve them in the process by making your shopping trips into treasure hunts to find certain items. When you teach your child new concepts or vocabulary you can then use down times to “quiz” them while you are riding in the car, walking somewhere, or waiting in lines. You can get into a natural rhythm of communicating through talking, signing, or using assistive technology devices to expand their world.
If your child struggles with social skills and/or inappropriate social behavior, I suggest you make a list of your highest areas of concern and then rank them in order of importance. Start with the skill you most want your child to work on. If you decide you really want your child to learn to share and cooperate with his/her peers better, then set up social situations where this can be reinforced. Share your goals with the other adults who will spend time with your child so everyone can reinforce the appropriate behavior. Positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior is much better than negative reinforcement for inappropriate behavior. This essentially means, when you see your child sharing and cooperating you want to praise him/her and maybe even give them a desired item to reinforce to them that this is the behavior you want to promote.
Many parents also worry about the loss of OT and/or PT over the summer break. Be creative in thinking about activities where you can naturally continue to develop fine and gross motor skills over the break from regular therapy sessions. Arts and crafts projects, dressing and eating are great opportunities to work on fine motor skills. There are also many board games such as Operation, Don’t Break the Ice, Barrel of Monkeys and many more that require fine motor work. Gross motor skills can continue to be developed by activities that require physical exercise such as running, kicking and jumping, activities that require lifting such as moving heavy boxes or rocks and dirt in the yard and activities that require balancing such as walking on railroad track boarders around play areas.
If money is not an object there are specialized summer camps around the country for most disability categories of children with special needs. These camps often incorporate therapeutic components by trained staff into the traditional camp experience. There are some wonderful programs out there, but they are unattainable for the majority of the population due to the cost. If you want your child to have a camp experience check with your child’s school counselor or case manager about resources they are aware of in the community. More and more city and county park and recreation facilities are setting up special camps for children with different disabilities. You can also check with the local YMCA and charitable organizations such as the Lions Club. Organizations such as these often has specialized camps and often offer scholarships based on financial need. If you do an online search for your area, you might be surprised to see the array of opportunities available to you.
I would love to hear about how you plan to extend summer learning for children with special needs in your life. What activities have worked best for you in the past? Please share any advice or resources that other may find helpful.