How to keep students with Tourette syndrome connected during COVID

Conditions exacerbated by COVID—such as social isolation, anxiety and depression—can increase the frequency of tics.
By: | February 17, 2021

Students with tic disorders are increasingly susceptible to suffer learning loss and other ill effects of the COVID-19 pandemic response, according to Wendy Wegman, education specialist with Tourette Association of America.

Most students with Tourette syndrome have a Section 504 plan or an IEP under the IDEA during their school-age years, said the former classroom teacher.

Wegman said tic disorders like Tourette syndrome are almost always co-occurring disorders. She said conditions exacerbated by the pandemic—such as social isolation, anxiety, and depression—can increase the frequency of tics.

“I have found that what has been working for students is keeping their services and appointments,” said Wegman. She suggested that districts keep in place existing services, accommodations, and scheduled IEP and 504 meetings, adding to them, as necessary.

“Also, I have noticed the most success with schools that are keeping ongoing and open communication with families of students with Tourette syndrome during this time, working closely with them and the students on any problem areas,” said Wegman.

Following are strategies to address pandemic-related challenges facing students with Tourette syndrome:

Specific accommodations

Wegman said districts should be sensitive to camera use during virtual classes and calls; many students with Tourette syndrome may prefer to have their cameras off due to tics or anxiety.

“Teachers are allowing this accommodation and asking the students to let them know they are still on in the chat and to answer questions and comment in the chat,” she said.

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Wegman said students with Tourette syndrome often need breaks during their learning. She said having sensory tools help keep them active in their space if they need breaks, especially if they are sitting a lot throughout the day.

“Work with the family to make sure that they have some tools to use at home and ideas for breaks,” said Wegman. “This can be getting up to attend to a pet, doing jumping jacks, stretching, or a mindfulness break. Kids can do in class or in between classes.”

“Work with students to learn mindfulness techniques and incorporate them into their day,” she continued. “Mindfulness, breathing [techniques], and meditation has been proven to help with anxiety [and] can reduce tics.”

Wegman said other tools to help students relax and refocus may include giving students baskets to put under their desk with squeeze balls, cubes, drawing paper and pencils, or any other helpful tactile item.

She said schools should also be creative with opportunities for social connections such as using breakout rooms and clubs.

Social engagement

Social isolation can take a toll on students with Tourette syndrome.

Wegman said educators should be creative to ensure students can maintain social connections during remote learning as they would have in person.

Districts can offer opportunities for the student to work in groups during the school day, she said.

Teachers can make sure they have breakout rooms that give them opportunities to talk.

Executive functioning

Deficits in executive functioning are common among students with Tourette syndrome, according to Wegman. These students often have difficulty with organization and planning skills.

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“Students with Tourette syndrome are finding most success with schools that keep consistent weekly schedules, color code schedules and folders, and provide clear schedules with Zoom links,” said Wegman.

Teachers can help remind younger students with executive functioning deficits to use color-coded schedules to get ready for their virtual classes, she said. For older students, having color-coded folders at their workspace can help.

Wegman said families should know and be able to access their school’s online platform to help their children navigate virtual learning.

Districts can also keep families abreast of common services offered to students with Tourette syndrome, such as individual and group counseling, a resource room or teacher to help with executive functioning, and occupational therapy that helps with sensory deficits and handwriting.

“IEP and 504 services and accommodations should remain in place,” reiterated Wegman. “Students having the most success during this time are receiving their accommodations and services and the schools are working closely with families.”

Johnny Jackson covers special education issues for LRP Publications.