The use of social stories, visuals and new routines can help our children cope with disruptions caused by the Covid-19 virus.
As many of us adults know, change is always welcome when "we" are the ones initiating it. Especially if we are adjusting to an unexpected visit from a loved one, job promotion, or even a grand prize win. But how about the changes we didn’t see coming or choose for ourselves? Suddenly, we can go from a happy recipient to a grief-stricken victim. Now while all adults have own strategies or coping mechanisms, children are completely dependent on the adults around them to set the “tone.”
Today thousands of people are experiencing unease at the very least. Nearly every individual has experienced some manner of unexpected change (e.g. a lack of employment and social interactions) with the introduction of the COVID-19 virus. Now that many schools are confirming closure, until summer break, many children have been thrusted into a world of change in their daily routines and learning environments. So, what can we do?
While there is no one correct answer, one suggestion is to acknowledge the changes for ourselves and then do the same in a tangible way for our children. As adults vary in their understanding and learning styles, so do children. Many children can benefit from photos or a story construct to organize and narrate the concepts. The idea of “social stories” was devised by Carol Gray in 1990 to improve the social skills of people with autism (ASD). The idea was to express information through a description of the events occurring to them or in their environment, along with an explanation of “why.” While social stories were originally used with clients with ASD, the concept can be applied to just about anyone. The idea of a virus/illness can be very abstract to children with typical or special needs; however, constructing a visual narrative can help. The narrative can simply consist of words or include age appropriate visuals. Constructing a narrative in the form of a story (one or several pages) can help organize abstract concepts and give children a tangible reference during this highly unpredictable time. It is so important to keep in mind each child’s level of understanding when constructing the narrative/story to his level. The story can have a single phrase (e.g. detailing the event and/or photo) or many sentences as an explanation. The goal is to explain the “change” your child is experiencing, and include coping strategies, as well as pointing out some positives. I have created a template as an example; however, there are several basic templates on the web for you to use and modify for your own personal needs such as at www.theautismeducator.ie
After explaining the changes in a simple narrative or story, recreate a new routine that takes into consideration your present circumstances. Just because our present circumstances have changed our daily routines, it does not mean we cannot exert some sense of control and establish new ones. Dr. Indumathi Bendi, a primary care physician at Piedmont, noted on her company’s website, “Carrying out routine activities reduces stress by making the situation appear more controllable and predictable.” Rather than become reactive to our circumstances (e.g. changes in our routine), we can become “proactive” and allow our children to become co-creators of their day. It begins with listing your objectives for your children and, in between those objectives, giving your children as many choices as possible (e.g. school work broken up into several tasks, increments of time or parts of the day; planning when and what activities their breaks and free time will entail). Again, setting up a new routine can be maintained by memory for most adults; however, children often benefit from a visual. The new routine can be listed on a piece of paper, dry-erase board, or Velcro board with icons. One key benefit to using dry-erase or Velcro boards is the ease with which etchings or icons can be removed once a specific activity has been completed and is no longer part of the day. Again, in the same way a new routine is established to adjust to the present-day changes, a new one can be created for the return of your child’s original routine (e.g. going back to school).
Lastly, the key to implementing a new routine is repetition and generous explanation. The more we repeat the activities in the new routine, the more your child will become familiar with it. And as we know familiarity often leads to a sense of comfort and predictability, something we all could use a little more of these days.
Maritza (Mitzy) Pardo is a board-certified behavior analyst based in Los Angeles who helps children and parents create individualized behavior-boosting plans. For more information or social story templates email her at email@example.com