By Dr. Diane Myers, SVP, Special Education—Behavior at SESI

Summer break is a time associated with being carefree, enjoying the sun and some down time, and limited structure. Families of children with behavioral challenges may not experience the same excitement when summer break nears, as removing the structure that comes with a regular school routine can lead to severe disruptions in the home. Here are some tips to help families prepare for and support children during an extended break. 

Utilize schedules and calendars to maintain structure 

Maximizing structure to the greatest extent possible can help with the transition to being at home. Families may want to begin with the following:

      • Create a daily calendar for the break, with any activities (and times, if possible) clearly indicated on the calendar. For example, “Visiting Aunt Rhonda for dinner” or “Haircut, 2pm” can provide time for children to mentally prepare for different social interactions and activities. 
      • Make a consistent daily schedule, especially for weekdays. The schedule should include: 
        • An agreed-upon wakeup time
        • Designated hours for instructional time (e.g., any work sent home)
        • Other responsibilities, chores, naps, screen time, and any “special activities” from the calendar.

If children can help with creating the calendar or daily schedule, they may be more excited about following them and engaging in the activities.

Stay on track by reviewing expectations daily

Once the calendar and schedule are created, families can review them before the day begins (or the night before). Any skills children may need to be successful during specific tasks or activities should be reviewed, too. For example: 

      • Reviewing expectations for a grocery store visit with a child who requires support to communicate needs and gets frustrated easily. 
        • “Jordan, tomorrow, you’ll be going with me to the store. What do you do if there’s something you want?” [Practice asking for or communicating desire for an item; establish which items can be requested ahead of time.] 
        • “I know sometimes you get tired when you go to the store with me. How can you let me know you’re feeling tired, and what can we do when that happens?” [Practice communicating feeling tired; establish some appropriate ways to handle fatigue, e.g., asking for a rest, being picked up, sitting in a cart, etc.] 
        • “When it’s time to leave the store, how will you wait while I check out?” [Practice waiting quietly; establish some ways to cope with feelings of impatience or boredom, e.g., looking at an iPad, counting people in the store, helping with bags.] 
      • Reviewing expectations for quiet (or indoor) activities with a child who requires a lot of physical activity and stimulation. 
        • “Leeza, today we’re all going to watch a movie together. What does it look like to watch a movie together?” [Practice sitting quietly; establish ways to ask for breaks, snacks, or a quick walk.] 
        • “How do we play safely inside when it’s raining outside?” [Establish “safe” areas indoors where physical play is okay; practice some activities appropriate for those spaces, like dancing, doing yoga or stretches, or other movement.] 
        • “If you start to feel upset when you’re inside and being quiet, what can you do?” [Practice coping skills, like squeezing a stress ball, deep breathing, or making a plan for activities to do when going outside is an option again.] 
      • Reviewing expectations for a non-preferred task with a child who gets agitated and may escalate. 
        • “Abdul, tomorrow I’d like you to help me clean up the apartment. What are two things you’d like to help with?” [Help Abdul identify two things, even if small – for example, putting clothes in a pile or sweeping the floor.] 
        • “Great – which do you want to do first?” [Providing choice can help with engagement!] 
        • “Let’s practice how to respond when I remind you tomorrow.” [Practice asking, and praise Abdul for saying ‘Okay’ or otherwise responding positively. Also ask Abdul about responding even if they don’t feel like completing the task.] 

Then, as activities come up on the schedule, families can provide reminders about the expected behaviors. 

  • “Jordan, we’re headed into the store. How will you let me know if you need something?” 
  • “Leeza, the movie is about to start. How can you tell me if you want a snack?” 
  • “Abdul, we’re going to start cleaning in a few minutes. Do you remember what we’re going to do after we finish?” 

Provide praise for positive behaviors and incentives for meeting expectations

When children exhibit prosocial behaviors, let them know! It’s human nature to focus on finding and correcting mistakes, but let’s shift our attention to those behaviors that we want to see happen again in the future by providing specific praise and, if possible, incentives when children meet expectations you’ve established.  

Families can use behavior-specific praise any time prosocial behaviors occur. This means saying exactly what behavior you saw (and you’d like to see again!), rather than just “good job” or a nod: 

      • “I love how you hung up your jacket!” 
      • “Thanks for sitting quietly while I’m on the phone. 
      • “Great job petting the dog gently.” 

In addition, we can follow expected behaviors with an incentive when appropriate. For example: 

      • “Bryce, thanks so much for helping me fold the clothes! Now we have some time to play a game together – which one would you like to play?” 
      • “After you talk quietly and stay next to me in the store, we can walk through the park and look at the ducks on the way home.” 
      • “I love that you shared with your brother at breakfast this morning. You can help me pick what we make for lunch today.” 

Promote active engagement

Another strategy to help maintain structure and prosocial behavior during extended breaks is promoting active engagement. While adding incentives can promote engagement, there are other strategies that may be helpful, too. 

        • For Example: 
        • After a designated period of TV watching, video games, or other screen time, establish a routine where the child answers two questions about what they were watching and playing. These could be really simple (e.g., “What were you watching?” “Why do you like it?”); the goal is to promote conversation, communication, and mindfulness about how we spend our time. 
        • Set up games related to projects around your living space, even if they’re basic: count the number of towels in the closet, reorganize a closet or cabinet, or make a neat pile of mail and magazines. Provide praise and choice of activity when finished. 

Set realistic expectations

        • Knowing your child’s abilities and limitations going into the summer break is important. The absence of structure provided by school can be stressful and confusing for your child. If they seem frustrated or upset, offer breaks from whatever is happening. Sometimes a change of scenery or a quick task that helps the child feel successful (for example, “Can you count how many cans of soda we have in the refrigerator for me?”) can help avoid escalation. 
        • State your expected behaviors in positive terms. Remind children what they should be doing (e.g., “Stay downstairs with me”) rather than what they shouldn’t be doing (e.g., “Don’t bother your brother while he’s sleeping”). 
        • Look for opportunities to remind children about expected behavior while they’re behaving well (e.g., “Hey guys, I like how you’re talking together quietly. Thanks for the appropriate volume”). 
        • Offer choices that are limited and reasonable. For example, choosing the order in which they complete tasks or choosing from three TV shows to watch. 
        • Stay calm. While this can be a challenge, remember that an angry reaction may be what your child wants. If there’s an issue, take a moment and a deep breath before responding. If there’s an incident, wait until everyone is calm before addressing it. No one can learn anything in the middle of a challenging situation. Be sure to debrief, focus on what to do differently next time, and try again. 

While the “freedom” often associated with summer break can be daunting, families may be able to reduce stress and maintain structure by establishing, reviewing, and reinforcing expectations, focusing on what’s going well, and promoting engagement when possible. 

We hope these tips were helpful and wish you and your family a wonderful summer! 

About the author: Diane Myers, Ph.D. is senior vice president, special education – behavior for Specialized Education Services, Inc. Her professional and scholarly expertise focus on positive behavioral interventions and supports, students with emotional and behavioral disorders, and staff implementation of evidence-based practices to support the needs of all students.