How to Speak with Children about COVID-19

By Anna Lupinacci, MS, OTR/L

Although children generally are adapting to coronavirus-related changes in their day-to-day lives, this new way of living continues to be a challenge for many youngsters with special needs – and for their caregivers. Changes in routine can generate anxiety, especially when fear of illness is added to the equation.

To help children and their families cope, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a helpful web page at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/talking-with-children.html with guidance for speaking with children. CDC recommends that parents and caregivers:

Remain calm and reassuring, both in what you say and how you say it.

Make yourself available to listen and to talk. Make time to talk and be clear that they can come to you with questions any time.

Avoid blaming language. Viruses can come from anywhere and can make anyone sick.

Pay attention to what children see or hear about COVID-19 on TV, radio, or online. Too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety.

Provide information that is honest and accurate. Be truthful. Give children age-appropriate information.

Teach children everyday actions to reduce the spread of germs. Wash hands often, for 20 seconds, with warm water and soap. Sneeze into a tissue or their elbow; throw the tissue in the trash. Avoid people who are coughing or sneezing. Use hand sanitizer (supervised).

To the CDC recommendations, I would add that we should:

  • Limit the number of conversations we have with our children to what’s developmentally appropriate for them.
  • Keep your messages positive, e.g., we’re wearing the mask to keep ourselves healthy. We’re washing our hands to make sure they stay clean to be healthy. Make the message positive and light.

From an occupational therapy perspective, now is a good time to go back to our meditation, breathing and sensory exercises to calm down and de-stress. Rather than trying to acquire new therapy skills, like handwriting or arithmetic, pause and work on stress management with mindfulness, yoga, aerobic exercises and other techniques outlined in my recent blog on anxiety.

Attached are some useful tools. One is a social story that explains to children in picture form the importance of washing their hands and wearing a mask out in the community, and perhaps when they go back to school; this might be particularly useful with children with autism.

Also attached are two occupational therapy schedules for children. Developed by Christina Fischer, OTR, these are examples of the activity schedules our therapists follow when we go into schools virtually. One is for pre-K and the other for elementary school-age youngsters.

Finally, I’ve attached a flyer of occupational therapy ideas by Lindy Litos, COTA.

As always, please note that ideas in the OT flyer are just a sample of one creative and functional treatment plan we have devised for our students during home instruction or remote learning. This is to be used in addition to live virtual sessions; it is not a replacement for medical or therapeutic advice. Parents should always consult with their doctor and therapist regarding their child’s care.

Attachments:
WearingAMaskStoryforChildren.pdf
Occupational Therapy by Lindy Litos.pdf
PreK OT Suggestions
Bee Well OT Suggestions

Occupational Therapy Helps Children Cope With Holiday Stress

 

The holiday season is supposed to be one of joy, yet the holidays also produce tremendous stress and anxiety in many adults. In children, that stress is heightened because of their particular sensibilities – and it can be an even more difficult time for children with autism or sensory processing disorders.

Parents often don’t realize what is actually happening with their children during the holidays when the children resort to negative behaviors. They might try to avoid social situations, appear irritable, withdraw, and even have meltdowns and tantrums.

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Using Mindfulness Tools to Cope with Sensory Overload

When children who have autism or sensory processing disorder come into my office for therapy, I frequently use meditation and breathing techniques to help them calm and regulate themselves. I’ve found these self-calming techniques to be very effective in easing their stress – and research is starting to show that these techniques also are an effective modality for treatment.

Mindfulness is generally defined as maintaining a state of nonjudgmental focus on, and awareness of, the present moment. Increasingly, professional journal articles are pointing to successes in teaching such mindfulness techniques as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing to ease anxiety and stress – both in school settings and at home.

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Collaborating with School Districts for the Best Outcomes

A collaborative approach is key to helping children with disabilities overcome barriers to accessing education and perform to the best of their abilities.
In our work with school districts throughout northern New Jersey, we’ve found consistently that the best results are achieved when our professionals (e.g., speech therapists, physical therapists, board-certified behavioral analysts, etc.) work as integral parts of a trans-disciplinary team of teachers and paraprofessionals, all focused on each child’s unique developmental needs.

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Apps with a Purpose for Children

Like most parents, I struggle with “device time.” Is an hour on the IPAD too much? Will the prolonged time spent staring at a lit screen cause eye strain, interrupt sleep patterns, reduce social skills, take away from real family time, etc.

As with anything in life, balance and moderation are key. Since the kids are on a device, maybe we can steer them toward an educational app. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) complied a list of some favorite Apps used by School Based OT Practitioners (link to full article cited here provided below).

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Sensory Diets

Several blogs ago we discussed sensory processing disorder.  We described our various senses, particularly the lesser known vestibular, tactile, and proprioceptive senses.  We also discussed common symptoms that may be present in children with sensory processing disorder.  Now, lets take a look at some common treatment options for children.

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Parental Involvement

When school is back in session and students transition to a new classroom, with unfamiliar faces and routines we see an uptick in the number of occupational therapy referrals. This is true in both school referrals and clinic referrals. Family schedules quickly get jammed with after school activities. Often time one parent shuttles one child and the other parent shuttles a sibling somewhere else. As a parent and therapist, I understand very well that our lives are very full. So, how do I manage to get parents involved in their child’s therapy sessions? And, why do I want parents involved in treatment sessions?

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Handwriting

One of the most common referrals for occupational therapy is “messy handwriting.” Teachers will often report this concern to parents and child study teams. Teachers and parents alike will have children complete handwriting books, worksheets, redo messy assignments, give constant reminders to write neatly, type assignments, etc. etc.

So is poor handwriting something a parent needs to be worried about? Should it be addressed with an evaluation and intervention? Let’s discuss.

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