Educating for Special-Needs Children During COVID-19



Inspiration Lab member and speech-language pathologist Courtney Gibbs founded Pender Pediatric Therapy, located in Burgaw, North Carolina, in 2016. A married mom of two daughters, Courtney’s practice aids children with speech, language, and feeding therapy needs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Courtney will continue to serve patients and families virtually.


Of course, not all therapeutic businesses are able to transition to digital operations and not all families have teleconferencing tools. Consequently, countless special-needs patients across the country are facing an interruption in their care. Below, Courtney details how caregivers and affected children can maintain progress during an extended break from therapy services.




As a result of COVID-19, household dynamics have drastically changed. Caregivers are juggling how to balance their lives with reduced income or may be attempting to work remotely with little ones at home. Our children are also facing uncertain times. They’re no longer going through their morning routines, seeing their teachers and peers, or participating in sports. This is likely an adjustment period for most children, but for some, it’s also a loss of fundamental resources.


Children with special needs who thrive on routine no longer have typical expectations to guide them through their days. When school stopped, so did IEP (Individualized Education Plan) services. IEPs provide children with many support tools, including special education and therapies. Private therapy clinics have also been faced with balancing their social responsibility to #flattenthecurve with still providing services to their patients.



Caregivers have always played a vital role in the success of their child’s therapy program. With this period of social distancing and extended time away from school, parents and caregivers will have to lean in on what they’ve already learned from their child’s therapy team. This may be a barrier if the child has only received services at school where parents are not present. Here are my recommendations for adapting to the current situation.

  • If possible, communicate with your child’s therapist. Ask for a copy of the care plan so you know what goals your child was addressing in therapy and request a home program so your child may continue therapy.

  • Your therapy work at home doesn’t have to be precise, skilled, or perfect. Don’t focus on recreating a therapy room. Instead, think about incorporating your child’s goals into daily routines. Generalizing skills across environments is the best way to elicit carryover!

  • Social media is a great way for caregivers to see examples of ways to implement techniques. There are regular and special education teachers as well as therapists from all disciplines who use Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook videos to model therapeutic activities, demonstrate feedback, and review useful products.

  • There are several apps on the market that target various aspects of learning. Choose apps that are interactive and use them with your child. Passive use of screens, like watching videos, are not engaging and don’t promote the use of skills.

  • Be cautious when considering expensive online programs that promise specific outcomes, like teaching a child to read or talk. Not all programs work for all children, and therapies should be individualized.

  • Schools and private clinics alike are working rapidly to provide educational services online. This model can be intimidating, and seem impossible for some, but teletherapy is a successful practice with more and more research coming out to back it up! Reach out to your school or private therapy team to see if teletherapy is being used. While not every child will be a candidate for teletherapy, allow several sessions before making that determination with your team.

  • When tasks are difficult, non-preferred behaviors will increase. Take breaks and allow movement! Even when our kids are at school, they are not engaged in pencil and paper tasks all day.

  • Be clear and concise with your expectations. Visual schedules are great to help the day flow and let everyone know what is coming next.

  • Avoid using language that presents required tasks as an option, like “Do you want to practice your exercises now?” or “Are you ready to clean up?”. The best way to elicit positive interactions is to focus on what you want more of.

  • Of course, we can’t ignore every negative behavior, especially unsafe ones, but you can redirect the frustrations into something more positive. It helps to tell children what you want them to do, instead of repetitively telling them what not to do.

Even if you cannot provide direct therapy or don’t feel comfortable implementing these techniques, it is important to remember children learn best through experience. Any time you can engage with them, have fun with them, and share with them, you are providing a learning experience… and creating memories.


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