The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives. As parents, we are most concerned about the effect of the virus on the learning and growth of our children. Although virtual learning is seen by many as a safer option from a health perspective, it comes with its own challenges.
Virtual learning tends to highlight students’ weaknesses in the area of executive functioning because they are without the consistency, structure, and tools that in-person learning naturally provides. Therefore, we must provide additional support in this area to make sure that our learners are set up for success in this new environment. Executive functioning skills include, but are not limited to, task initiation, sustained attention, and time management.
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) provides us with countless user-friendly strategies to teach these skills. They involve antecedent modifications, changes we make to our environment, and altering consequences, changes in how we react to behavior.
Below are a few executive functioning skills that children on the autism spectrum tend to have difficulty with, along with ABA strategies that you can implement at home.
It’s natural to have difficulty logging in to class or starting new assignments, especially when you’re suddenly required to “go to school” where you used to play video games. This being said, if your child consistently engages in problem behavior when told to log in for class in the morning or get out materials to start a project, there are ways to support and help him build this skill. Here are some tips:
- Schedule times to begin tasks and times for breaks. A visual schedule, written schedule (e.g. in a planner or on a calendar) or even a schedule on an app can all be helpful tools for students with executive functioning challenges.
- The science of behavior tells us that when we reinforce behavior, we make it more likely to happen again in the future, so boost praise and reinforcement when your child starts assignments right away
- Set up a basic contingency system where your child earns something special for logging in to class on time every day for a week. The more you involve your child in the development of a reward system, and tailor it to their preferences, the more likely it is to be effective.
Prior to COVID-19, school signaled the rules and expectations of an adult-directed, learning environment and home represented a place where you can lay on the couch, watch television, and play with your toys. Remote school blurred those lines, making things especially difficult for students with autism. If this sounds familiar, your child may need help with sustained attention. Here’s what you can do:
- Change the environment to set your child up for success by creating a consistent space where learning will take place, away from toys and TV.
- Come up with “Virtual School Rules” that are clear, concise, and tailored to your child. For example, “Keep screen on. Keep sound on. Answer questions. Write down assignments.” If your child can read, post the rules or make them into a checklist. If not, rehearse the rules in the morning and/or use photos to represent each rule.
- Use the Premack Principle, another great antecedent strategy, which states that we’re more likely to do something we don’t want to do if we follow it with something we want to do. Applications of this principle include a first/then picture or text board (e.g. First I’ll pay attention to my teacher, then I’ll go outside and play).
Virtual learning has placed more responsibility on students (and parents!) to plan, prioritize, and effectively manage time when completing assignments and projects. If your child frequently turns projects in after they’re due or is often late logging in to class, he likely needs to build his time management skills. Here’s how to provide support:
- ABA is all about breaking down big goals into smaller, more manageable steps. This allows us to feel like we’re making progress, build momentum, and, in time, accomplish the original goal. The same goals for time management. When your child is first assigned a project, schedule time to work on it everyday, even if just for a few minutes, and give lots of praise for sticking with it. When she finishes before the due date, provide even more reinforcement!
- Time management issues often stem from the deficits in the ability to estimate how long activities or tasks will take to complete. To teach your child to login for class at the correct time, first, together make a list of every step of the morning routine. Then time each step using a timer. Use that amount of time to work backwards and set an alarm. If needed, set a timer to go off at the end of each step as a prompt for your child to move on to the next step.
Remote life will continue to challenge us, but it’s temporary. Focus on providing consistency, structure, and support as work with your child to build executive functioning skills and make the most of virtual learning.