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New Challenges and New Routines

New procedures and routines are often difficult for students with disabilities even at the best of times, but the constant changes of the past year present even more challenges for many of these students.If there is one thing we can say about the last year, it is that it was full of disruptions and changing routines. Back in the spring, everyone was optimistic that schools could reopen safely in the fall as they typically do, but we then quickly realized this would not be the case. Across the country, some schools and states reopened in person, some fully virtual, and some with a hybrid approach. We take comfort in knowing that God is in control, as He reminds us in Isaiah 55:8–9 (ESV), “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” However, these disruptions and changes still affect our students and us. New procedures and routines are often difficult for students with disabilities even at the best of times, but the constant changes of the past year present even more challenges for many of these students. It is important to keep some tips in mind for how to help students with disabilities adapt to these ongoing changes in routines.

disorganized studentMany students with disabilities, including learning disabilities and ADHD, experience difficulties with executive functioning skills. These skills include organization, planning, staying on task, and following multi-step directions. All of these skills are also important to learning and following routines. Therefore, students with disabilities and executive functioning difficulties will very likely have more challenges with constantly changing routines, unless a teacher helps them with appropriate strategies. It is also common for students and families to have anxiety over so many changes. Stress may afflict educators as they face new and then modified procedures. Students with anxiety and a history of trauma may become irritable, withdrawn, and hypervigiliant as they react to the many changes of the school year. All of this makes it even more critical that we incorporate some steps to help students with new routines.

First, inform parents of the new procedures and the reasons for them before you put them into effect in your classroom. Students who are more sensitive to these changes will benefit from knowing ahead of time what the new routines are, along with understanding the reasons for them. Visual examples also help many students, so consider including video clips and actual pictures from the classroom, or virtual classroom, of what the routine will look like in that setting. It is not a given that students who struggle with these executive functioning skills will make the connection between written and spoken words and what the changes will look like in practice. Likewise, when families and students understand the reason for the new routine, it will help them feel like they have some control over the situation. They need to understand how following the new routine will help them and their classmates.

distrcted studentThe next point may seem obvious, especially to early childhood teachers, but it is critical for students of all ages who have difficulty with changes in routine. Make sure to model the routine step-by-step for students. While the routine might seem straightforward to you, students with executive functioning difficulties or who are experiencing anxiety may not know how to get started or what to do in the middle of a task if they become distracted or anxious. Dividing the routine into small steps, and then modeling and practicing each step, helps with these challenges. When needed, each step can serve as an appropriate reminder for what the student should do when they forget what to do. Use the same language and cues when modeling, and provide these prompts while implementing the new routine in the classroom. After modeling and practicing the routine multiple times, consider making visual reminders that are available to all students. If classes are virtual, post videos of these new routines in an easily accessible place for the students to view when needed, or make visuals to hang in the classroom that show each step of the routine. Make sure students know where to find these visual reminders when needed for reference.

While these changes challenge everyone in different ways, find ways for students to use their strengths during these times and focus on positive things happening at home and school.This next suggestion might seem silly at first, but it is important to help students (and yourself) find the joy in new routines. It is easy to put a negative spin on these changes in your own mind, and students often pick up on this. As you outline and practice new procedures, have students suggest ways to make them fun. That could be allowing students to help create a rhyme or song about staying six feet apart in line or decorating their desk divider with stickers, as long as it does not obstruct the view of the teacher. While these changes challenge everyone in different ways, find ways for students to use their strengths during these times and focus on positive things happening at home and school.

Finally, we need to remember that everyone is in the same boat with new routines and new experiences. There will be a learning curve for students and for us every time things change. Students will make mistakes as things change, but remaining calm, modeling what should happen instead, and extending grace to them, as well as to ourselves, is critical. Students and families look to us as educators and leaders during these times not only to provide academic instruction but also to react to changes in ways that demonstrate God’s love and His grace.

In times of stress and constant changes, it is natural to react emotionally, and many students—even some families— may do this during your interactions with them. Acknowledge and validate how they might be feeling about current changes and new routines, and do not dismiss their feelings as insignificant. Respond to their feelings with empathy, but also take the opportunity to bring this back to God’s Word. Remind students of God’s promises, such as Joshua 1:9, “‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’”

God gives us many assurances that He is in control, and students need reminders of this as much as we do during the many changes that the past year has brought both at home and school. Please also remember that Lutheran Special Education Ministries is here to help! Reach us at https://luthsped.org or email lsem@luthsped.org, and let us know how we can support your ministry to students.

Kara Bratton is special education director at Lutheran Special Education Ministries.

Photos © iStock/Zoranm, Katarzyna Bialasiewicz.