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How can I home-school my child with a neurodevelopmental disorder?

Samantha Astié, Léa Etchebarren and Emmanuelle Maes - Neuropsychologists

David Germanaud and Domitille Gras - Neuropediatricians

InovAND, Robert-Debré Hospital (AP-HP), MISP Innov-RDB, Neurocognition Team


This tip sheet is intended for parents of a school child with a neurodevelopmental disorder leading to learning difficulties (learning disorders, attention and executive function deficit, autism spectrum disorder, under average intellectual functioning or intellectual disability, etc.).

« Homeschooling" until schools reopen is a challenge for every parent, even more so for you as a parent of a child with learning disabilities. This document aims to guide you, rather than to give you working methods: you can pick up ideas, no need to apply everything !

First of all, we remind you that you can :

- contact your child's school in order to adjust the amount of work required given his specific learning difficulties; the teacher knows your child and will be able to help you prioritize the areas to work on;

- contact the school psychologist at your child's school: she can help you and answer your questions;

- contact the professionals who work with your child (occupational therapist, speech therapist, psychologist, psychomotor therapist, etc.) for advice on how to set up achievable teaching plans ;

- contact your child's school aid , if he or she has one, in order to discuss the accomodations provided in class and beneficial to your child;

- Don’t worry : there is no "one" way of doing things or "right" way, but only ways more or less adapted to your child;

- remember: it is often better to focus on quality rather than quantity! 😉

Explain homeschooling to your child

It is essential to explain the situation to your child. To explain the reason for the lockdown, and therefore for homeschooling, you can rely on existing materials for children, depending on your child's age, either by searching for suitable visuals on the internet, using key words such as "child" and "coronavirus".

A Guide to homeschooling

- Structuring time and space will give a framework to the day

The establishment of a schedule is a key element in the smooth running of a working session. The child must have clear guidelines to indicate whether "it's time to work" and be able to distinguish work periods from other times of the day. The child will be all the more motivated to work, and reassured, if he knows that the time to start work is coming, and what will follow school time (play, meals ...).

This involves giving the child reference points in time and space.

Organisation of working time :

- Set up a schedule fixing the time and length of learning sessions each day. It is best to draw a schedule on paper, easily understandable for the child, which can be hung on the wall for example so that he can refer to it at any time of the day (see example below). For younger children and children unable to read, you can also create a visual schedule, using pictures or pictograms.

- The amount of time dedicated to homeschooling each day should not be excessive. The important thing is to spread it out over the day : for example, in elementary school, plan 3 or 4 30 minutes sessions during the day, 4 hours per day being a maximum for this age group. Make sure that the child does not write for too long, organize learning sessions by alternating written and oral activities. The time spent doing homework must be adapted to the child's age and fatigability. Do not hesitate to spread school assignments over the week.

Don't forget that, for your child, homeschooling is different from working in a class with 2 or 3 dozens classmates. Therefore, it is normal that your child does not as long as in school because it is not the same rhythm.

Finally, school holidays are coming, which will lead to less homework, and make it possible to work on assignments at a slower pace.

- Set up an alarm system that reminds the child when to start to study, use a visual timer or Time Timer (see image below) to schedule work periods or any other tool that allows the child to find his way around.

- Create a « To do list » (lessons to read ; exercises to do ...) everyday while making sure that the amount of work is not excessive. Here again, give priority to quality over quantity and target basic skills (e.g. for First grade : reading and arithmetic). It is possible to involve the child in this daily schedule, so as to involve and motivate him/her as much as possible. Consider switching subjects to avoid boredom.

Organizing workspace and supplies :

- You want to build for your child a good working environment: he should be seated at the correct height at his desk.

- Create a quiet space: avoid distracting elements (quiet room if possible isolated from the rest of the house; switch off screens except for educational purposes; no available games; clear/straighten desk with only necessary supplies).

- Use tools suited to your child's difficulties : if possible, those used at school or, failing that, as close as possible (cf. teaching arrangements - pen sleeve; reading guide; non-slip ruler; computer...).

- Try to create a well-organized storage space for the child's school supplies/work (a drawer, shelf or box where notebooks and books are arranged by subject and easily accessible).

- Accomodations according to your child's difficulties

Preferably follow accomodations available in class. They are often mentioned in reports that you can ask for again if necessary (cf. neuropsychological, speech therapy or occupational therapy assessment, Geva-Sco, PAP...). However we can recommend the following :

§ Your child has attention or planning difficulties :

If your child takes a medication such as Methylphenidate (Quasym®, Concerta®, Médikinet®, Ritalin® or a generic): it is necessary to continue the treatment during lockdown, in order to maintain an attention level compatible with homework and also to promote a good quality of life. Lockdown may result in less regular rhythms than usual: remember not to give the medication too late during the day (give it early in the morning). If you have any questions regarding medication during the lockdown period, do not hesitate to contact the doctor who follows your child and prescribed his medication for Attention Deficit Disorder.

- State the learning session goal and summarize it at the end.

- Give your child one instruction at a time, breaking down long tasks into several small tasks.

- Check understanding when giving instructions by detailing them step by step and highlighting important information.

- Check regularly that he stays focused. If necessary, ask him to go back to work.

- Propose a colourful visual schedule (on (e.g. table, slate or sheet) of the tasks to be performed

- Depending on his age, offer him to do assignments in a given time and then review them with him to encourage his autonomy.

- Advise him to use a visual support while listening to improve his learning process. Take the opportunity to discover mind mapping with him (https://fantadys.com).

- Provide him with memory cards (multiplication tables, conjugation...) to limit double-tasking situations.

§ Your child has global learning difficulties (limited intellectual functioning or mild intellectual development disorder, whether or not associated with other disorders):

- Building on his strengths, using the child's skills to enable him to progress in his work, varying the supports if necessary: if he likes to express himself, ask him questions about a text read together, if he draws well, ask him to make a drawing to illustrate the text, etc.

- Do not hesitate to start the learning session with an exercise concerning notions that he already knows and/or that he will easily succeed, in order to give him confidence.

- Make sure that he or she has understood the instructions, rephrase them with other words if necessary and possibly other media (drawings, etc.).

- Make abstract concepts more concrete ; for example, in maths, use small objects that the child can count and manipulate when solving a problem.

- When an exercise is too difficult for your child, simplify it (with the help of the teacher and/or your child's school aid, who can tell you what help she usually provide in class), and break it down in several parts to work on at different times of the day.

- If your child uses an augmentative and alternative communication method (AAC): use it during language activities ; do not hesitate to use visuals or videos found on the Internet such as Makaton poems and nursery rhymes (Makomptine on YouTube®).

- Adjust to your child's attitude: if, despite help and encouragement, he or she shows anxiety, opposition or irritability, move on to an easier task to regain confidence, or take a break.

- Take into account your child's fatigability and slowness; shorten the exercise by one or more questions if necessary; when teaching one-to-one, the time devoted to lessons can be shorter than in a regular classroom situation.

- Value your child when he has completed the exercise, even if the result is not optimal and there are mistakes : highlight his/her efforts and the positive points (attention, care, the successful part of the exercise ...).

- Spend time transmitting knowledge about the world and things, orally or with the way that your child knows best ; this is an opportunity for your child to learn through with daily life and everyday tasks he can be involved in.

§ Your child has difficulties with written language (reading, writing):

- In Kindergarten: working on phonological awareness through games

- If your child is in first or second grade, offer him/her to read every day +++: vary the sources of reading (magazines, novels adapted to beginner level readers...), and take advantage of every opportunity during the day, because it is practice and repetition that pay off (reading the label on the milk bottle during breakfast, reading a card during a board game, etc.).

- Alternating reading sessions and audio books for the pleasure of listening to a story, so as to enrich your child's vocabulary and above all give him a taste for books and stories: don't hesitate to read him stories around his favourite themes, to download and listen to stories . Language games such as charades, rhyming games, are excellent to improve oral and written language. Poetry, rhymes and songs are very much appreciated by the children!

- When reading, allow finger tracking or use a cache like a piece of paper and encourage reading aloud.

- Use cardboard or wooden letters. You can make DIY cardboard letters with your child. He will learn grapheme-phoneme correspondence without having to write them down.

- Before reading a text, read the questions that will be asked at the end to make it easier to find the clues- Highlight key words and important spans of text to make reading easier.

- Select and adapt the amount of written material (filling-in exercices, multiple-choice questions, etc.).

- Set up small and realistic goals concerning writing: for instance a shorter writing assignment but fairly legible.

- Limit copying tasks, not worthwhile for the child who struggles to write.

- Regarding written /writing assignments, focus on the quality of the text in terms of clarity and sentence construction; the aim is not a text without spelling mistakes (target the words to be spelled correctly), nor a quality writing (do not correct the child's gesture during this task)

- Encourage learning of words through oral communication (spelling out loud, making gestures)

- Allow speaking instead of writing for lessons and knowledge assessments

Your child is learning to type :

- " Take advantage " of the lockdown and online courses to promote the daily use of the computer! Do not hesitate to ask your child occupational therapist or the referring team for help.

- Schedule several 15 minutes keyboard software sessions during the day (for example, Tap'Touche or Tux Typing, checking with the occupational therapist which one he or she is using).

- Offer a challenge to your child by learning yourself to type at the same time.

- Reward the child if he or she has progressed by allowing screen time.

- Use software that helps your child and that his occupational therapist has taught him/her to use (Matheos or Gdmaths for example for maths, Geogebra for geometry, voice dictation software, word predictor, spell checker, Word ribbon adapted for "dys" children...).

When containment is over, the keyboard may be automated 😉.

This time is also an opportunity to work with your child and to ask him/her which accommodations really help him/her, which will be very useful for the teacher and/or the AVS when he/she goes back to school.

- A "positive attitude":

  • Don't set yourself too ambitious goals, don't put yourself under pressure in this already very stressful situation... If an assignment puts the child off or face him with failure, don't insist, move on to another one. You will work later on this task, only to understand the reason of the difficulty and try to solve it, without insisting on completing the whole assignment. Go straight to the point. Decrease the workload if it's too heavy for the child.

  • Encourage your child at the (sometimes sensitive !) time of starting work: remind him/her of of the task goal, its duration, the fact that it is "school day and time" and playtime will follow.

  • Trust yourself, improvise, teach your child at every appropriate moment of the day, the lockdown makes you spend a long time with your child, it's also an opportunity to share moments together...and to learn differently! A baking workshop allows reading a recipe together, learning to organize and proceed step by step, doing math by measuring quantities and proportions, exercising fine motor skills by breaking eggs!

  • Give your child credit when he succeeds in a task even if it seems easy for his age.

  • Help him to accept that he needs more time to learn various things.

  • Congratulate your child when he or she has managed to be attentive, when he or she has read a text that required effort, when he or she has completed his/herwork. Show him that you are proud of him.

  • Build on his strengths and interests: give your child an easy task for him after a difficult one, vary the subjects.

  • Mention the efforts and progress before discussing the points that still need to be worked on.

  • Pay attention to the quality of the freeplay time, and of course to the quantity! Pretending games, construction games, board games, DIY or craft activities, are just as precious and essential for the child's development as learning at school!

- Resources :

ü For the youngest, keep in touch with your child's teacher, especially if your child has a good relationship with him/her, this will encourage him/her in his/her work and reassure him/her : for example, send to the teacher a photo of a work that required a strong investment from your child, then show your child the teacher's feedback/congratulations.

ü In the same way, check regularly the class blog if there is one, so that your child can see that class life continues despite everything, and will resume as normal after lockdown.

ü Vary learning materials: documents given by the teacher, your child's textbooks, but also educational sites on the internet and on television.

- Rewards :

Motivation is an essential element in the learning process. Interest in the proposed activity is an important motivator, but you can also try to re-engage or maintain your child's engagement with specific strategies. Thus, to encourage your child to continue his efforts, you should pay attention to his positive behaviors and reinforce them through delayed rewards: for example, by using a token economy system for the youngest and screen time (television, computer, tablet, video games...), or what your child/teenager wants to do, for older kids. This token-reward strategy is fairly general and can be adapted to different situations or objectives. In order to use it, you can refer to the tip sheet " How to keep my child motivated during the lockdown: token chart or token economy system".

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©2020 by Dr. Benjamin Landman. Child Psychiatry, Robert Debre Hospital - Paris