For Kids With Special Needs Who Crave Structure, Tips For Some Summer Fun
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For Kids With Special Needs Who Crave Structure, Tips For Some Summer Fun

Lisa Friedman is a widely recognized expert in Jewish disability inclusion. She is an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey, where she has developed and oversees an inclusive synagogue school. She is also the Project Manager of UJA-Federation of New York’s Synagogue Inclusion Project. Lisa consults with congregations, schools, camps and other organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy and families through dialogue, interactive workshops, and awareness training. Lisa is a sought after speaker on a wide variety of topics and blogs about disabilities and inclusion at "Removing the Stumbling Block."

Summer is upon us. Thoughts have turned from desks to lounge chairs, from carpools to lazy afternoons by the pool and from early morning alarms to long evenings spent making s’mores and catching fireflies. It’s typical to believe that all families look forward to things like summer vacation, but assumptions like these can be a challenge. Children with a variety of learning and other disabilities thrive on the structure and routine of the academic year, making summer vacation, with its large stretches of unscheduled time, overwhelming for both children and their parents. Add to this concern about the loss of academic skills acquired throughout the year (commonly referred to as “summer slide”) and these few months might seem daunting.

Here are some engaging and positive ways to make summer both manageable and enjoyable for children who benefit from structure and routine:

1. Create a summer calendar

Develop a calendar of your whole summer to plan out “big” activities such as vacations, day trips, camp, playdates and other activities that require advance planning and preparation. Seeing the whole picture of the flow of summer helps children to appreciate the freedom of summer without becoming overwhelmed by it. In addition, add in opportunities to focus on summer assignments, if this applies, so children can understand the value of working on projects a little at a time.

2. Create daily schedules

Hours of unstructured time can be anxiety-provoking for children with a variety of disabilities. Left on their own, many children will spend hours watching YouTube, playing video games or worse, complaining about how bored they are. Providing children with a daily schedule, and engaging them in some elements of planning, will help children to move through their day smoothly and confidently.

Example 1:

9:00am: breakfast

9:30am: chores

10:30am: blog writing (see #4 below)

12:00pm: lunch

12:30pm: pool, outdoor play, water play

3:00pm: hobbies or craft time

4:30pm: free time

6:00pm: dinner

7:00pm: family reading time

Example 2:

9:00am: breakfast

9:30am: chores

10:30am: exercise

12:00pm: lunch

12:30pm: trip to the park

3:00pm: errands with a family member

4:30pm: free time

6:00pm: dinner

7:00pm: family reading time

8:30pm: movie night

Some important things to keep in mind:

  • Consistency is key; so even though each day’s schedule may vary, maintaining the basic structure including meal times and other set features will help children know what to expect.
  • Review the schedule for the next day each night at bedtime. This will help children who struggle with transitions feel prepared.
  • Post the schedule and/or let family members carry it with them. Being able to refer to the schedule throughout the day is both reassuring and empowering.
  • Allow for choice both daily and weekly. Even when children need structure and routine to be successful, summer can be a time for getting to do more of those things that you most want to do.

3. Read together

Set a specific time each day for family reading. Everyone can read from an individual copy of the book silently, all can take turns reading out loud or you could even listen to a recording of the book together. As an added bonus, plan a party to celebrate finishing each book. Make your celebration special by baking themed treats or decorating the house to build excitement.

4. Start a blog

Many children view using the computer as a reward and writing online may be perceived as “more fun” than writing in a traditional journal. This is significant for those children who struggle to express their ideas in writing. Once you have determined a topic to help focus writing to a specific theme, encourage your child to write once or twice a week about his ideas or experiences on the chosen theme. Establish a publishing schedule and create a blog calendar to help keep track of posts. As an added bonus, children may enjoy watching the stats of page views, creating an opportunity to practice math skills.

5. Take up a new hobby

Not everything in summer needs to be strictly regimented. On the contrary, summer is an excellent time to help your child take up a new sport, develop an interest in photography, begin playing an instrument or try a new activity she's shown some interest in exploring. Acquiring a new skill uses a different type of brain power than simply practicing something already known. Time for lessons and practice can be added into the daily schedule and as this new skill may also rely on the use of previously acquired skills, it's a double bonus.

6. Run a lemonade stand

An absolute summer staple, running a lemonade stand offers children excellent practice in organizational planning. A successful stand requires children to purchase supplies, choose a location and engage with customers. Children will practice money management, communication skills, marketing and so much more. Finally, allowing children to spend their own profit can help them to more truly appreciate the value of money.

A final note for those who need to keep up their Hebrew skills: incorporate Hebrew practice into the schedule in #2, alternate Hebrew reading in with family reading time and find other ways to incorporate Hebrew and other Jewish-themed activities throughout your summer plans.

Helping children to enjoy the summer in ways that are intentionally planned with structure will enable your child to experience the joy of long, lazy summer days while avoiding significant academic regression. Don’t forget to schedule in time to relax and recharge. And remember, any time spent together as a family is irreplaceable.

Lisa Friedman is widely recognized in the field of Jewish Special Education. She is currently an Education Director at Temple Beth-El in Central New Jersey, where she has developed and oversees an inclusive synagogue school. She is also the Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks for Matan. Lisa consults with Jewish organizations to guide them in the development of inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training. Lisa is a sought after speaker on a wide variety of topics for professionals, lay leaders, teachers, parents and teens and blogs about disabilities and inclusion at Removing the Stumbling Block. You can follow Lisa on Twitter @JewishSpecialEd.

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