How to Structure Productive After School Time for your Child

Exceptional Parent, March 1999

Like many parents of a special needs child, I used to worry constantly that my child was very far behind his peers in so many ways, and yet he already had an academic program that was a full day and full year. My child does not need much down time; in fact, in my view, the less down time, the better. I devised a way to help him work on goals that are important to our family, as well as some in his IEP. I have been using tutors in our home for the last three years with remarkable results. Our home tutoring sessions mirror some of the goals from his school day and other things he needs to work on, things like turn-taking, age-appropriate games, computer skills, drawing, and communication. My son’s tutors have practical objectives to cover with him, and they have been trained to work with him effectively. It is not difficult and it need not be expensive to structure a child’s down time in this fashion. It merely takes some planning beforehand and following these basic steps.

1. Advertise.

I start by advertising for the tutor at the local universities. If you don’t live near any colleges, then put an ad in your paper or even at the high school. My ads usually read like this: “Tutor/playmate needed for 8 year old charming, verbal boy with autism. Duties include some academic instruction, play and social skills. Special education background preferred, but patience, creativity and enthusiasm are more important. Two-three afternoons a week. Pay negotiable.” You don’t necessarily need a lot of money for wages. Keep in mind that many students getting medical, education, psychology, or social work degrees are looking for ways to get experience in their field and may be willing to work for low pay or a course credit, provided they can work out the terms with a professor. There are also agencies that may have respite funding for just such a reason. For example, in Massachusetts, the Department of Mental Retardation has money set aside for families in need of respite.

2. The Phone Interview.

As soon as a prospective tutor calls, be prepared to do a quick interview. You quickly learn to screen out the MBA looking for a fast buck. This job requires a person with a lot of compassion and endurance. During the phone interview, be sure to ask questions that get to the heart of things: What previous experience have you had with children with special needs? What attracted you to this job? What type of career will you be pursuing? Do you have references? Let the candidate know right up front if she can expect aggression, resistance, and other negative behavior from your child and how it is to be handled. Lastly, give him or her an idea of the pay range and the hours.

3. The Initial Visit.

After the phone interview, have the candidate come to your house so you may observe her with your child and so that she may get a real feel for what he’s like, and how you handle him. You will also show her the materials she will be using (his toys and books) and the space in which she’ll be working (his room). All of these things are important to a potential employee. After you show her how you interact with your child, let her try a brief session with him in your presence or with you listening from a different room — whatever works best for you and your child — so that you may get an idea of how quickly she catches on and what her teaching style is like.

Ask for references and be sure to call them. The more you can learn about this person, the better for you and your child. If there is anything that feels off in some way, trust your gut and find someone else. I can’t say enough about how important your instinct and experience are when it comes to your child. People who sound weird over the phone are generally weird in person, too. A strange voice may put off your child. You have to consider these things.

4. A Visit to School.

After you have settled on a prospective tutor, make an appointment to observe your child during his school time. Most special ed teachers need an appointment so that they may prepare the children for a stranger being in class. If possible, bring your new tutor with you so that she may see him in this environment and get an idea of how he learns, and the methods that are necessary. Speak to his teachers about what, specifically your child is working on moment-to-moment and how that subject is taught, and what materials are being used. Try to observe him for at least an hour so that you can see several different subjects and the teaching techniques that work best. If permitted, walk around the classroom and handle the games and puzzles so that you are familiar with what they are trying to accomplish. You are looking to duplicate the school environment as much as possible, so be observant. Take notes.

5. A List of Goals.

After you have visited the classroom you should have a good idea of what your child is up to during the school day, and what he is capable of. Get a 5-subject notebook. Come up with five basic goals that you feel your child needs to work on. They can be general goals, like reading, writing, math, play, and sports. Or they can be more specific goals taken from his school IEP. They can be family specific, like learning to play with siblings, or learning how to behave in a store. They should be things that really matter to you, issues you’d really like to see progress in. Write up each goal in each section of the notebook, clearly explaining the aspects that need work. You must also come up with ideas as to how to accomplish the goals, what materials or techniques to use. An excellent source for this is Behavioral Intervention for Young Children with Autism, edited by Catherine Maurice, Gina Green, and Stephen C. Luce. 1996, Pro-ed Publishers.

6. Materials Inventory.

Look around your house for games and toys that can be used for your purposes. You may see some of the old toys and other items in a new light. For example, when one of our goals was to teach my son letters, I covered the bottom of a wide Tupperware casserole container with coffee grounds. The tutor had my son trace foam letters with his fingertips, and then repeat the shape in the coffee grounds. This was an exercise similar to one he did in school, with sand. It was tremendously successful, and smelled good too.

Feel free to alter rules of board games so that they achieve your specific objectives. Keep in mind that because what you are about to start with your child is new to him, you ought to structure it for the highest rate of success at the beginning. Don’t let him get discouraged by your new demands. Keep your goals in mind and progress with small steps.

7. Train the Tutor.

For the first few sessions, stay in the room or close by to help the tutor or your child. Demonstrate for the tutor how to begin something new with your child. Explain the reward system, if you use one. You may want to make a list of things that are a treat for your child, such as blowing bubbles, jumping on the trampoline, edibles, songs. Using the notebook of goals, the tutor can decide where she will start, and what toys and games can be used for that particular goal.

Be prepared for some rough spots, as your teaching style is bound to differ from your tutor’s. This is okay; trust the instinct that led you to hire her in the first place. As much as we want a break from our children, it is difficult to give over the control to a stranger. Be patient on all sides. It takes a few weeks before it feels natural for the tutor to come in and work with your child while you are somewhere else. Don’t be afraid to run in and give instructions if things are going badly. You are the boss.

8. Monitor Progress.

Have your tutor keep weekly or daily notes in each section of the notebook. It does not have to be formal data-taking. She can let you know what was worked on and for how long, what succeeded and what did not. Over time you will have quite a good idea of how your child is progressing, even if it is not always readily apparent.

The success you and your child will feel from having productive free time is undeniable. I have found that having the tutor also allows me to do a better job parenting my child because I am forced to think about his goals and plan, and to be consistent. I have more energy left over simply to love and mother my child, while the tutor has to struggle with some of the rough, new tasks and goals. And because she is an idealistic, young, eager college student, she does not mind the challenges — and she gets to leave after two hours with a little money in her pocket and valuable experience. It’s a perfect arrangement all around, and the biggest beneficiary is my son, who thrives on the structure and loves his tutor, whom he thinks of as a friend.