4 ways to address student work experiences during pandemic

Students with disabilities often learn job skills through formal work experiences set up by their schools and need extra support in this area as the impacts of COVID continue.
By: | October 9, 2020
Photo by Bernard Hermant on UnsplashPhoto by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

A student with a disability who had been working at a golf facility before the pandemic has experienced both excitement and anxiety about returning from furlough because of all the changes in light of COVID-19.

The student is relearning skills while adhering to new restrictions and coping with new expectations. He is struggling to work the full time he is expected to work because of his anxiety.

Other students with disabilities are also having to navigate the return to work experiences in the new normal—or adjust to learning job skills in different ways than originally planned.

“We already struggled getting students jobs and were finally getting them to a good place,” says Benjamin Tillotson, a teacher for the SCORE program in the Salt Lake City School District. The program—which stands for self-advocacy, community, occupation, recreation, and education—serves students ages 18 to 22 with moderate to severe disabilities. “Now we’re taking a couple of steps back,” he says.

Use these ideas to support students in building employment skills as the pandemic continues:

  1. Encourage patience and resilience. Some students who were furloughed for a time because of the pandemic are now returning to their jobs with restrictions, Tillotson said. Work with students to understand any new rules on their job sites and why they may now have to wear masks, spend more time cleaning, and keep their distance from their coworkers and others. They may have reduced hours, different shifts, or new responsibilities to which they also have to become accustomed. “It’s a huge transition back,” he says.
    Also help students understand that employers’ misconceptions, not just economic concerns, may lead them not to ask students to come back to work right away or at all, Tillotson said. Students should learn with support how to cope with disappointment and setbacks. “Some businesses may not trust that a student can wear a mask and social distance,” he explains. “We have to help students be resilient in that and understand that it’s not anything they did. Some people are just afraid.”
  2. Promote self-advocacy. Whether on the job or at home, students need to continue to work on advocating for themselves, Tillotson says. For example, someone at work may underestimate a student. Or the student’s parents may express concern after this time at home about how far their child can progress. Help students understand everyone has different opinions, but just because someone says something about their potential future doesn’t make it true. Listen to students about their frustrations and encourage them to focus on and promote their strengths, he suggests.
  3. Get creative. If a student can’t work part-time or participate in an internship at a company right now because the business is still operating remotely, or because the student’s parents don’t want her to risk being in a larger facility, try finding opportunities for the student with small, less frequented businesses, Tillotson says. For example, a student can visit neighborhood mom-and-pop shops, such as a boutique or bakery. A student and a job coach can also meet on the family porch to work on skills while socially distanced if no site is appropriate for a while.
  4. Don’t push. Recognize that a student and his parents may not feel comfortable with the student returning to work because they may lack the resources to stay home with the student if the student becomes sick, Tillotson says. For example, parents of a child with autism who struggles to communicate may know one of them would have to quarantine with him at home or in the hospital if he gets sick because he would not be able to communicate with others and take care of himself on his own. “So many parents are stuck [between a rock and] a hard place,” he says.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.