An Educational Advocate’s Tips for Surviving Distance Learning

Mariah* spent 2 of her last 3 years in foster care bouncing in and out of residential facilities.  When she transitioned to the residential facility, she had an IEP in place.  The residential facility refused to hold the annual IEP meeting when the case manager requested it, so her IEP was over a year old and therefore, out-of-date when she transitioned to a foster home.  When Mariah moved into her new foster home, she had an expired IEP and hadn’t been in a traditional school setting in years. But, as we see too often with kids in foster care, Mariah was immediately enrolled in general education classes with limited special education support. Not only did she have to adjust to this completely new setting, she had to do it during virtual learning in the middle of a pandemic. She has very little experience using a computer, and no experience with the learning platforms her new school requires.  Her foster parents say Mariah feels completely defeated.  Mariah says that she feels totally lost and most of the time has no idea what the teachers are asking her to do.

 Jason* started 9th grade at a new school.  He, like many kids who have experienced trauma, needs relationships to feel safe.  Zoom classrooms with adults and children he doesn’t know make him anxious.  He is now refusing to participate, becoming verbally and physically aggressive when his foster mom tries to encourage him. Recently, he cussed out the school counselor when she called the house to see why he hadn’t logged on for Math.

Like Mariah, many kids in foster care have had very little experience with technology. Maybe they could never afford a home device, or maybe they had to share with several siblings. Like Jason, many kids in foster care need to build trust to learn effectively, as their trauma gets in the way of their learning. The new reality of our community’s schools hurts all children to some extent, but these changes hurt much worse for kids struggling with traumatic histories and a chronic lack of stability.

Parents and primary caregivers: if you feel like supporting your kids through distance learning is impossible, you are not alone! These struggles are far from rare and caregivers at home are feeling the burnout. All parents with school-age children doing distance learning can relate to the struggles at some level. Sadly, for kids in foster care, many of whom also face disabilities, this burden can often feel unbearable.

Our Educational Advocates receive daily calls from caregivers who need help navigating technology, special education evaluations, accessing supports, and countless other educational challenges brought by distance learning. Schools and community organizations have created resources to help families navigate new technologies, special education plans, schedules, and other challenges. However, consistently, our Educational Advocacy calls deal with how to help parents survive emotionally through supporting their kids through at-home education.

Mariah’s caregiver has a full-time job and is working from home. Jason’s foster parent has other children in the home who all need help with school work. In both cases, supporting their kid’s educational needs is an overwhelming and seemingly impossible task. Districts have established ways to keep up with special education plans and IEPs, yet, inevitably, services and supports are far from what children received in person. And even if your child doesn’t have an IEP, being fully available to support your kid’s school day is tough. This pressure is really stressful, and it might have you feeling like you are failing your kids. We are here to reassure you that you are not!

While we can’t provide you with a magical formula, one of our amazing Educational Advocates, Trish Taddeucci, is here to share some practical advice to help you survive the distance learning storm. Trish has more than 15 years of diverse teaching experience, and her work with youth in foster care won her the Missouri Child Advocate Award in 2014. Here we’re sharing with you some of the highlights of our conversation:

 What is the most important piece of advice you give to caregivers?

Ramp up the advocacy! Talk to your teachers, don’t let frustration build up!

The official process for this school year is “figuring it out as you go” therefore communication is key. Some parents might find it easier to brush frustrations under the rug or just deal with it, but you don’t have to do this alone.  Establish consistent communication with teachers, let them know how distance learning is going for you and your children. Be open and honest about the frustrations your family are experiencing, while being as specific as possible about the issues that need to be addressed.  Many educators are assuming things are fine unless they know otherwise.  Let them know and ask for help.  We are constantly surprised with the creative solutions and supports that schools are developing on an ongoing basis.  Many schools are now offering tutoring, testing centers, and break-out rooms for additional support.

When his foster parent told Jason’s teacher about his history and anxiety struggles, they worked together to figure out ways to help Jason cope with the challenges of virtual learning.  Jason expressed that taking breaks when feeling overwhelmed would help him calm down. Among other things, the teacher allowed Jason to ask for a video-off break by letting her know in the Zoom chat that he needed a break. She also did a break-out room during student work time, where the two of them could touch base privately.  It took one conversation to find a meaningful solution and made Jason feel cared for and supported.

Parents are kid’s best advocates, but you are also the best person to teach your kids how to advocate for themselves. Encourage your children to communicate with their teachers about their challenges and frustrations. Sometimes, a simple email can be all it takes to change the outlook for this virtual semester!

Mariah’s foster parent helped her to write an email to her teacher to share some of the technology challenges she was experiencing. The teacher showed incredible empathy and willingness to help improve Mariah’s situation. One of the little but powerful changes was that the teacher began to email the links to lessons before the class, that way Mariah would be able to access the material without being confused by the platform.  Mariah was also having difficulty with all of the reading that virtual learning entailed, while struggling with typing her answers in a timely manner. Her special education teacher was able to utilize CoWriter Universal and Snap & Read Universal for Mariah to use voice to text for writing, and now she can just click a button to have the text read to her.  These tools are available in many districts, you just need to ask.

Right now teachers don’t have the proximity necessary to read cues, warning signs, and learn other information to help enhance the educational experience/learning for the kids in their class. “I learned the most valuable information about my students after the bell rang,” Trish said. “I learned about their struggles, needs, and what really was going on with them.” It is essential, now more than ever, to keep open communication with teachers during this time. One parent scheduled a 15 minute Zoom meeting with her son and the teacher.  That short meeting changed everything by allowing the child to open up and show his emotion about how hard all of this was for him.  That one meeting really changed everything, and the teacher realized the importance of this private face-to-face time with this particular student.  They check in by zoom on a weekly basis one-to-one, which has helped the child feel cared for heard.

 A practical tip that has been successful for some of the families you support

Help kids figure out how to be more independent. Of course that’s going to vary according to their age and ability. It is easy to feel like the only way to help your kids get through the school day is to stay by their side. This expectation creates more stress for you, and honestly is not realistic.  olutely need your assistance, While there are times your kids might need your assistance, it is vital that you find ways to help them be as independent as possible.

A simple example that Trish has used with a few of her cases is helping parents create a checklist and visual schedule that kids can follow throughout the day. For example, you might have a checklist with steps to get started on the morning, a checklist for transitioning between classes, and a checklist for logging off for the day. Utilizing a timer on the computer can help as well. This might sound basic, but even this little bit of extra structure has really helped some families.

Working full-time from home, Mariah’s caregiver was really struggling to help her not feel defeated and follow along with the class. Besides talking with the teacher, checklists were extremely helpful to give Mariah a feeling of control and autonomy. Her foster mom now worries less worries about Mariah feeling lost; she is able to be in her home-office at work with less interruptions.

One of Trish’s favorite, quick-read articles she recommends to parents is 7 Ways To Get Kids To Actually Pay Attention During Remote Learning. These tips are very helpful and easy to implement.

 The most meaningful tip: Know that it is going to be ok!

You may feel that supporting your kid’s at-home education is impossible. That is because what you are doing is HARD WORK. And no matter how you feel, you are doing your best! Keep in mind that this arrangement is temporary. Nobody knows when, but it will come to an end. If you haven’t already, it is important to reset your expectations of having a perfect at-home education experience. You probably have figured out by now that some days are easier than others. But whatever you do, let go of guilt, and never ever feel bad about asking for help.

Check out our Back-to-School page for more resource.

*Names and pictures have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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