6 Summer Tips for Parents of Students with Learning Disabilities and Differences

Summer is in full swing. Our thoughts have turned from desks to lounge chairs, from carpools to lazy afternoons by the pool, and from early-morning alarms to long evenings spent making s’mores and catching fireflies.

We might assume that all families look forward to summer vacation, but sometimes it’s anxiety and not joy that accompanies the dismissal bell on that last day of school. Parents of children with a variety of learning disabilities and differences, for example, often notice that their kids tend to thrive on the structure and routine that the academic year provides; the prospect of long stretches of unscheduled time can be overwhelming.

Peter Jaksa, who serves as president and clinical director of the ADD Centers of America, claims in the magazine ADDitude that consistent routines benefit children with attention deficits and other learning disabilities:

Routines affect life positively on two levels. In terms of behavior, they help improve efficiency and daily functioning. … In addition, your whole family will benefit psychologically from a structured regime. Both parents and children experience decreased stress when there's less drama about what time you'll eat dinner and where you'll settle down to do homework.

When we consider, alongside such anxieties, concerns about the loss of academic skills that children have worked hard to acquire throughout the year — commonly referred to as the summer slide or brain drain — these few months might seem particularly unwelcome.

Here are some fun and engaging ways to make summer both more manageable and more enjoyable for children with a variety of learning disabilities and differences:

1. Create a summer calendar.

Develop a calendar of your whole summer to plan out activities such as vacations, day trips, camp, play dates, and other engagements that require advance preparation. Seeing the weeks and months laid out may help children with attention deficits and visual processing issues to appreciate the freedom of summer without becoming overwhelmed by it. Also schedule opportunities to focus on summer reading assignments (if this applies) so children can understand the value of working on large-scale projects one small piece at a time.

2. Create daily schedules.

Hours of unstructured time may create anxiety in children with disabilities such as autism or mood disorders. Left to their own devices, many children may spend hours watching television, playing video games, or worse: complaining about how bored they are. Providing children with a daily schedule — and engaging them in some elements of planning — will help children move through their days smoothly, confidently, and with a sense of purpose.

Here are some examples of how to schedule a day to keep kids entertained and engaged:

  • 9:00 a.m.: Breakfast
  • 9:30 a.m.: Chores
  • 10:30 a.m.: Creative writing — a blog post or a story
  • 12:00 p.m.: Lunch
  • 12:30 p.m.: Pool, sports, a trip to the park, or other outdoor play
  • 3:00 p.m.: Hobby or craft time
  • 4:30 p.m.: Free time
  • 6:00 p.m.: Dinner
  • 7:00 p.m.: Family reading time, game night, or movie night

Some important things to keep in mind:

  • Consistency is key. Even though each day’s schedule may vary slightly, maintaining the basic structure — including meal times and other set features — will help children know what to expect.
  • Review the schedule for the next day each night at bedtime. This will help children who struggle with transitions, such as those with autism, feel prepared.
  • Post the schedule in the kitchen or some other readily-accessible place, or let family members carry copies with them. Being able to refer to the schedule throughout the day is both reassuring and empowering for kids who learn visually.
  • Adapt to your child’s preferences and moods from time to time. Even when children need routines to flourish, summer is a time for getting to do the things you most want to do.

3. Read together.

Set a specific time each day for family reading. Everyone can read from her own copy of a book silently, take turns reading out loud, or even listen to a recording of the book together. These techniques will benefit children with dyslexia, auditory processing problems, or other reading-related disabilities. Use chapter breaks as an opportunity to talk about characters, settings, or plot points. As an added bonus to get children excited about finishing a book, plan a party to celebrate making it all the way through. Make your celebration special — and build excitement about it — by baking themed treats or decorating the house.

4. Start a blog.

Many children view using the computer as a reward, so writing on one — instead of in a notebook — may encourage kids to spend additional time drafting posts about their days. This may be particularly helpful for children who struggle to express their ideas and feelings in writing — such as those with dysgraphia, fine motor challenges, or visual processing issues.

Once you have determined a set of topics to help focus your child’s composition, encourage her to write about her ideas or experiences a few times each week. Establish a publishing schedule, and create a blog calendar to help keep track of posts. As an added bonus, children may enjoy tracking the blog’s stats. This creates an opportunity to practice math skills, an added benefit for those with dyscalculia, as hit counts increase over the summer.

5. Take up a new hobby.

Not everything in summer needs to be strictly regimented, and summer is an excellent time to help your child take up a new sport, cultivate an interest in photography or painting, begin playing an instrument, or explore some other new activity. Oxford neuroscientist Heidi Johansen-Berg explains in Scientific American that learning new things strengthens connections among neurons in the brain. These junctions between neurons are called synapses, and she describes them as the places within our brains “where information is relayed.” “In addition to making synapses more robust,” she writes, “learning causes the brain to grow larger” in certain spots along our neural networks, depending upon the skill or ability we’re developing.

6. Start a lemonade stand.

A summer staple, the lemonade stand offers children the ability to practice organizational and executive planning, both of which are critical skills for children with attention deficits and other learning disabilities.

A successful stand requires children to purchase supplies, choose a location, and engage with customers. Children with autism, for instance, will benefit from the opportunity to engage with other people in a constructive and task-oriented way. Children with dyscalculia will have the opportunity to practice money management, while children with language processing issues can develop communication skills. Finally, allowing children to spend their own profits can help them to appreciate the value of a dollar more fully.

Allowing children to enjoy the summer in ways that are structured and planned will let them experience the joy of long, lazy summer days while avoiding significant academic regression.

Sources Johansen-Berg, H. (2011, October 20). Are We Biologically Inclined to Couple for Life? Scientific American. Jaksa, P. (n.d.). Reliable Routines for ADHD Children (and Their Parents!). ADDitude.