Children in metro Atlanta are coming up on summer time quickly, with their thoughts turned from writing and math to spending lazy days at the pool. Instead of early alarms to catch a bus, mornings are usually more leisurely and bedtimes can be long forgotten during nights spent using up every spare moment of sunlight.

For some families, summer vacation leads to anxiety and meltdowns for their children with learning disabilities and other special needs, especially those children who thrive on structure and routine from the academic school year. For these parents, the weeks without the extra routine can be a challenge, and sometimes, completely overwhelming.

The Effect of Routines on Special Needs Children

Routines can have a positive impact on the lives of special needs children. In terms of behavior, they help improve efficiency and daily functioning. Plus, your entire family will benefit psychologically from a structured format. In fact, both parents and children experience decreased levels of stress when there’s less miscommunication about what’s being served for dinner and at what time, or where the designated homework space is.

When the concerns about the loss of academic skills that children have worked hard to remember throughout the school year combine with the need for structure and routine, summer can quickly lose some of the appeal. Here are some ways families can make summer more enjoyable and manageable for children with special needs.

Create a Daily Schedule: Avoid hours of unstructured time by creating a daily schedule. Providing children with a daily schedule and encouraging them to engage with the elements of planning will help them move through their days with confidence and a sense of purpose.  

To do this, block off time in one or two-hour chunks, similar to the time slots during the school year. For example:

  • 8:00am: Breakfast
  • 8:30am: Chores
  • 10:30am: Creative writing (a story or blog post)
  • 12:00pm: Lunch
  • 12:30pm: Pool, sports, a trip to the park, or other outdoor activity
  • 3:00pm: Hobby or craft time
  • 4:30pm: Free time (screen time, etc.)
  • 6:00pm: Dinner
  • 7:00pm: Family game night or movie night
  • 8:00pm Bedtime

When creating the daily schedule, consistency is key. While each day’s schedule may vary slightly, try to keep the basic structure the same so children will know what to expect. Post the schedule in the kitchen or another main area of the home so that it’s readily available to everyone. Also, reviewing the schedule for the next day at bedtime can help assist with transitions.

Prevent summer slide in special needs children

Create a Summer Calendar: In addition to the daily calendar, a summer calendar can offer a visual representation of activities such as vacations, day trips, summer camps, play dates, and more. Seeing the weeks and months laid out may help children see the flexibility of summer without getting overwhelmed.

Schedule Reading Time: In your daily calendar, set a specific time each day for family reading. Everyone can read from her own copy of a book silently, take turns reading out loud, or even listen to a recording of the book together. Also, the library is still one of the best places to spend your time during the summer. Most offer a variety of programs for all ages, and if your school doesn’t offer a summer reading incentive program, your local library most likely does. Offer an added bonus for finishing larger chapter books such as baking themed treats or decorating the house.

Encourage a New Hobby: Summer is an excellent time to encourage your child to take up a new interest or hobby. Whether it’s learning to play a new instrument, taking up a new sport, or fulfilling an interest in an activity like examining nature in the backyard, exploring a new activity can strengthen the neurons in the brain and helps the brain grow larger in certain areas of our neural networks depending on the skill or ability being developed.

Make Time for Exercise: While it might seem like a no-brainer, for families that are able, getting outside and being active helps children learn. And there are plenty of opportunities for being active during the summer. Scheduling specific time for exercise also discourages time spent in front of a screen.

With all of these tips in mind, it’s still important to remember to adapt to your child’s preferences and moods from time to time. Even children that need routine and structure to flourish during the summer need to have enough flexibility to allow them to experience the joy of lazy summer days. Hopefully though, these suggestions will help parents and other caregivers make summers more manageable and enjoyable while also taking some of the stress out of significant “summer slide.”

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