Top Tips for Starting the School Year With a Student Who Learns Differently

It's a crazy year for everyone and kids who learn differently may need extra care to start the school year right. Pete Pullen from Eton Academy in Birmingham offers tips that work for the whole family.

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Beginning a new school year can be challenging for even the most proficient student. It can be especially fraught for those who learn differently — particularly in these days of uncertainty due to COVID-19.

Birmingham’s Eton Academy, which is devoted to teaching kids who learn differently, is offering both in-person and online learning ­­­— and a mixture of both — this school year, which began on September 1. At Eton Academy, small class sizes will mean no more than 10 students and one teacher per classroom, and to uphold COVID-19 safety protocol, each division will maintain small groups to ensure a safe, small and flexible environment for Eton’s learning community. Strict cleaning schedules with top-quality sanitation equipment will keep students and faculty safe, too.

Head of School Pete Pullen offers these tips to help your child get the most from their education, whether in the classroom or via home computer.

Create routines

“Students who learn differently typically struggle with transitions, and this could not be a more unpredictable year,” says Pullen. “So, build as much predictability and routine into your life as possible.” Routines for morning and after-school that kids can count on, no matter what other changes swirl around them, give structure and stability.

Embrace rituals students can predict. Wake up at the same time every day, and always take lunch or meal breaks at the same time. Establish dedicated places to stow textbooks and supplies. This all gives a feeling of stability and routine.

Communicate

Create a one-page profile to remind the teacher, virtual or not, of your child’s special requirements. Include a photo, a brief summary and your contact information.

Strategize to reduce anxiety

Work with your child to create a toolbox of strategies to combat anxiety. This can include taking two minutes to simply breathe, a quick run around the yard, or a 10-minute break to play a video game — no matter how odd that seems in the middle of the school day.

“That’s no different from what we adults do when we take a quick break by playing a game on our phone,” Pullen points out. “Develop what works and then talk about it so you can make suggestions when you see an uptick in stress.”

Try the “Four S” approach for remote learning

  • Safety: Make sure your student’s computer has the appropriate filtering apps and that they understand how to use video conferencing.
  • Space: Create a dedicated virtual learning space (or two) in your house, separate from where your child plays video games or watches TV. This helps keep the focus on the task at hand.
  • Structure: Remote learning at Eton will be synchronized with the real-time classroom, but this is not necessarily the case for all schools. “Build a time schedule for learning and a time for when you take a break or eat,” Pullen says. “That structure should be no different from if you were actually at school.”
  • Surrender: This is new for all of us, and no one has all the answers. “We have to partner and work in collaboration with our children, and really listen to them to see what works best for online learning,” Pullen says. Don’t just presume that an open Snapchat window means your child is goofing off — they may be talking about the lesson at hand. “Don’t just assume — ask,” Pullen advises.

Watch for behavior changes

Be on the lookout for signs of distress. These include a normally talkative child becoming very quiet and withdrawn or a big uptick in social media engagement.

Everyone unplug

Be sure children use their computers and cell phones in the open — never behind a closed door. And don’t forget to take the time to unplug each day. “I encourage families to do that together,” Pullen says. “When children see you are following the rules, they buy in.”

Get support

Don’t be shy about reaching out for help from experts. That includes Eton Academy. “We are a resource for any family that learns differently, not just our students,” Pullen says.

Finally, Pullen’s most important tip is for parents and caregivers to take care of yourselves. “When you are stressed or anxious, your children have an uncanny ability to internalize that,” he says. “You cannot pour from an empty cup — and plenty of pouring needs to be done this year.”

Eton Academy in Birmingham has offered education in grades one through 12 for children who learn differently since 1986. Visit etonacademy.org or call 248-642-1150.

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