Parenting Kids with Special Needs: How Can You Help?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2017–2018, the number of students ages 3–21 who received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was 7.1 million, or 14 percent of all public school students.

With these figures in mind, there’s a good chance that you have some employees in your population who are parents of children receiving special education services. These special needs can range from speech and language, learning disabilities, to physical disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and other developmental disabilities (and many more combinations in between). School closures and the implementation of distance learning efforts across the country have thrown all parents, students, and educators into an uncertain world, but for some parents of children with special needs, these obstacles are daunting. 

For some kids, meeting their needs in a virtual environment is easier than others. For example, children who receive speech therapy through school may be able to continue that speech therapy through audio or video sessions with their therapists. In other cases, parents are supporting children who may be non-verbal, need one-on-one support to complete any schoolwork, have physical disabilities that make it hard to navigate even their own home, and/or may have behaviors that can sometimes be crippling for a family.

As employers continue through the “respond” phase and work through planning for the “return” phase, keep in mind these four challenges for parents (and some ideas for how to help):

  1. I’ve been trying to continue doing my job while teaching a child who needs my full-time attention.
    • It’s important to lead with empathy and understand that employees have unique situations, and they are doing their best given the circumstances. Be understanding and provide them with flexibility to support their child(ren) with adjusted work hours, reduced schedules, etc.

  2. I’m worried my child will regress in their learning without the support of the trained staff (special education teachers, paraprofessionals, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, social workers, etc.).
    • Health plans, EAPs and specialized vendors who support parents of children with developmental disabilities can offer assistance, which could include tips on homeschooling, worksheets, and other instructional materials. In some cases, these vendors provide coaching for the caregiver as well.
    • Remind employees about therapy coverage within the medical plans and note that some therapy groups are providing support virtually. This access may help parents who are struggling to support their kids in some of these areas. 
    • Advocate groups can provide support to parents by navigating the school systems and the multitude of laws to support their kids. These advocates can coach parents on the types of messages to send to school districts about the services and service methods in use during this time and how any gaps in services will be “made up” once schools are back in session. Employers could consider providing a credit/fund that an employee could use for the services of an advocate.

  3. I feel very uncertain about what will happen when schools resume (and when that will happen). Will summer sessions take place in person or virtually? Will in person school resume in the Fall? Will kids be required to wear face masks at school? How will kids mentally handle the return to the school building? 
    • Given the uncertainty in timing and structure for schools reopening, parents will need help navigating distance learning in the meantime, and over time, as kids prepare to return to a school building.
    • Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) or behavior therapists can help parents craft plans and processes to deal with all of these situations. Some school districts provide access to BCBAs for students if required in their programs, but employers can help ensure employees who have children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder have access by offering Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) coverage through the health plans. Consult your health plan or trusted advisor on how best to approach adding these services if not offered today.
    • In home ABA services may also resume prior to schools being back in session, which may provide a few extra hands, and some respite, for parents in the short-term.

  4. When my employer reopens and/or requires me to go back to the worksite, what do I do if schools aren’t back in session?
    • Parents of children with special needs may need to rely on one-on-one caretakers because camp and group care may not be appropriate. 
    • Employers can help by reminding employees of the availability of dependent care accounts that will support tax-favored treatment of some portion of childcare expenses, including care from a family member who is not a tax dependent of the employee (e.g. grandparent, aunt/uncle, cousin of the child). Note that dependent care account funds cannot be used to fund caretaking by an employee’s child under age 19 or the other parent of the child.

The most critical of all of these suggestions is to lead with empathy, understand unique employee needs, and support employees in the best way possible.

Frances Andreasen
by Frances Andreasen

Fran Andreasen is a Partner and leader of solution development and delivery for the Mercer Marketplace 365 solution. She has extensive experience working with large and jumbo employers in the evaluation, design, implementation and management of their healthcare and group benefit programs.

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