It feels like I have just recovered from the anxiety, shock and stress that non-traditional instruction (NTI) caused for me in the spring.

This working mom was struggling to keep it all together as my role switched from mother to a teacher overnight. And although our local public school districts are doing some in-person teaching for the 2020-21 academic year, they are also looking at mixing in virtual learning from home.

Recently, Puzzle Pieces reopened its campus after being closed since March. The preparation and decisions made in order to even get us to the point of reopening were mind-blowing.

As a nonprofit director, I can’t say that I was prepared for this hurdle, but it was something I just learned through. Weeks leading up to the doors opening, we navigated fear of the unknown. Fear of the masks causing issues, fear of the rigid cleaning practices, fear of not being able to execute 6 feet from each other, and the biggest fear — risk of exposure and spreading COVID-19.

As we journey into the unknown with our children’s education, it’s time to get our game face on — of course, that game face will be under a mask, but you get the point.

As schools roll out their guidelines, alternate schedules, requirements of masks and virtual learning platforms, it seems we are all swimming in a puddle of emotions. Fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, and uncertainty — all the emotions except excitement! But this time, we have some time to prepare for it.

Here are some tips that I learned through leading my team Puzzle Pieces and also leading my team at home — my husband and two elementary-aged sons, Landon and Layne.

Limit power struggles. You know the old saying “pick your battles?” Well, this is the time to really put this practice to work. Focus on what’s important and don’t worry about the rest. Allow your kids to have control over some things, especially since so much is out of their control right now. What does this mean for you? Don’t always feel you have to have the last word. Give as much power away as you can over things that don’t matter, so they can make choices and feel in control.

Positive reinforcement. Don’t wait until your son or daughter fails or shows bad behavior before you begin to implement incentives. Set them up for success and shape their behavior with motivators that will encourage and incentivize them to achieve the desired behavior. Positive reinforcement is not bribery. Every individual shapes their behavior based on what motivates them. For example, would you show up to work if you didn’t get paid?

One of my favorite positive reinforcement motivators for kids and those with disabilities is using a token system in order to buy “coupons.” These coupons can vary based on what they like and what you, as a parent, are willing to do. (It doesn’t always mean you have to buy them something.) A hidden teaching component is that they learn to save for larger coupons. Coupons can range from game night, an extra 15 minutes of screen time, later bedtime, lunch date and more. The price of the coupon would vary based on the extent of the reward. Earning the tokens can be a reinforcement within itself, and can be for all positive behaviors that you’re shaping.

Protect your words. I never believe in hiding your real emotions from children. It’s important you’re not fake in order for them to understand how to be mature and feel, as well as process every emotion. They learn from us. However, in this case, when anxiety and stress are within all of us and uncertainty is in the air, we need to remain positive, no matter how difficult that may be. Our children do not need to hear us say we hate NTI, or wearing a mask is a violation of rights, or their school or teacher isn’t doing their job. These comments only lead to a toxic environment at home and will in the end be a detriment to your child’s growth and education.

Social stories. Author Carol Gray has extensive experience in working with children with autistic spectrum disorders. She began writing stories for her students to share information with them that they seemed to be missing, information that so many of us take for granted. Many of the stories resulted in immediate and marked improvements in her students’ responses to daily events and interactions. In her story, she places the child to be first-person and pairs them with visuals that can offer reassurance to the child while teaching them what to expect, how to react, introducing something new, and offering positive praise if executed. The great thing is that this strategy can work for all children and doesn’t cost any money because you are the creator.

Routine and visuals. It’s important to be consistent with a routine and create visuals such as calendars, reminders, positive examples and checklists to enhance processing and execution. Yes, it might take some preparation, but this is another way to set the tone for success while reducing anxiety-driven behaviors.

I am going to be cliche for a minute and say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. As events unfold in times I never could have dreamed of happening, I am reminded that the only thing I have control over is my mindset paired with my next move.

Our children need to see more role models showing them how to be resilient during times of struggle and how to be prepared for a new normal instead of bickering about things that they cannot change.

They need their education and they need us to make that happen.

So, let’s take a deep breath and prepare for our next move!

Amanda Owen is the founder and executive director of Puzzle Pieces. Follow Amanda’s Blog: Pieces of Me: Perspectives on Inclusion and Acceptance,

Amanda Owen is the founder and executive director of Puzzle Pieces. Follow Amanda’s Blog: Pieces of Me: Perspectives on Inclusion and Acceptance,

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