Maintaining children’s applied behavior analysis (ABA) services year-round is paramount to their behavioral goals and success. One of the most critical autism spectrum disorder interventions is having these services-in the home, at school (if allowed), and in the community. Often, parents continue applied behavior analysis services through Extended School Year (ESY) programming, but don’t schedule sessions in July and August, when the child(ren) are out of school. Studies have shown when there is a lack of programming, it can delay the progress of behavior goals. Read on to learn more about why ABA year-round is so imperative, some information about ESY, and how important it is to maintain your child’s schedule and routine.
Implementing Applied Behavior Analysis Year-Round
Sometimes the acronyms can be a bit overwhelming-ABA, ESY, IEP, etc. You’re likely already familiar with ABA and how it’s implemented, and sticking with a routine is important. Think of all the areas ABA helps with-these needs don’t “take a break” in summer:
- Improved hygiene
- Domestic chores and capabilities
- Punctuality and time management
- Job competence as the young adult enters the workforce
According to the CDC, taking a behavioral approach has been most efficacious when it comes to managing autism symptoms. Continuing therapy can also improve social skills. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is undoubtedly a spectrum, and every child’s needs differ regarding social skills and communication. Some children may not communicate using verbal communication, while others communicate verbally but cannot create and maintain friendships-therapy can help foster social skills that will help them later in life.
You can also integrate summertime therapy by having your registered behavior technician (RBT) work side-by-side with your occupational therapist (OT), physical therapist (PT), or speech therapist, where children may reinforce their fine and gross motor skills over the break.
Your BCBA will map out a treatment plan for your child specifically designed for their specific needs. A break in therapy for several weeks can often set a child back, and you may see a return to previous unwanted behaviors. This is why it’s essential to have a routine that includes therapy and a continuation of life and behavior goals, especially in summer.
What Is ESY?
Extended School Year (ESY) may be new to you if your child is recently diagnosed and is in the public (or private) school system. ESY provides special education and related services during the summer months. Typically, ESY lasts about five weeks (from July through the first week of August). During ESY, teachers provide a combination of review interspersed with fun and engaging activities. Days are often Monday through Thursday and are half-days. The implementation of ESY is important as it keeps your child familiar with the routine of going to school, and it keeps them in touch with their classmates, teachers, and often, their RBTs and BCBAs. ESY is optional; however, just like having year-round services, it’s important to sign your child up for ESY not only to foster a routine but also so they do not lose academics or behavior modifications over the summer.
No Access to Services Leaves a Negative Impact
As previously mentioned, applied behavior analysis provides many services under its umbrella, which can help the child with autism or other developmental disabilities flourish. Positive reinforcement is one of the hallmarks of therapy. This is based on the conclusion that if a child engages in a behavior and reinforcement is provided for the behavior immediately following the behavior, then in a future situation, the child will more likely engage in that behavior again.
Your treatment plan should include year-round programming. If your child has the support of both behavior therapy and ESY over the summer, and a structured autism routine at home, there is a better chance they’ll return to full-day school in the fall with fewer bumps in the road.
The National Autism Center also recommends coordination among providers as this is important in the summer also. Make sure you sign releases for all of your child’s providers so that they can talk to one another. This provides comprehensive care and ensures everyone is on the same page. This can include but is not limited to: your child’s primary care physician and any other medical specialists (like a psychiatrist), your BCBA and the ABA team, occupational therapist, speech therapist, physical therapist, and educators. Coordination can help draw up more concise treatment goals.
It is easy to see the negative outcomes when services were dropped for children with ASD during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. A case study was performed on a 6-year-old boy with ASD and global development delay. Initially, when schools closed, the boy’s self-injurious and elopement behaviors decreased because there were no daily demands put upon him, but shortly thereafter, all of the unwanted behaviors returned and were more serious than before as he had no access to services, even school.
Another study was performed in Saudi Arabia during the pandemic to evaluate the overall stress put upon families when there was no access to services. The study concluded that there was a negative impact on the whole family when there was no access to services, focusing on the parents’ emotional wellbeing. Parenting a child with ASD has its difficult moments, and with no access to services, parents can also struggle in the summer when services are dropped.
Other studies have looked at the effectiveness of longer-duration ABA services and how many hours children had per week. One study showed that staying with behavior therapy for the long term (including year-round) had more positive outcomes. It is also noted that children with 36 hours or more per week of services (including at school and in the community, when clinically necessary) have more positive behavioral outcomes.
The Importance of Continuing Routines and Year-Round ABA
One of the important reasons for keeping year-round therapy is that children with autism often have more trouble retaining skills than neurotypical children. Because behavior therapy teaches critical life and behavior goals and skills, service interruptions can lead to loss of skills and even regression. Also, learning skills before a situation happens is paramount. If a child with ASD is unprepared for an abrupt change, there can be meltdowns and anxiety.
As a whole, applied behavior analysis promotes learning and self-improvement. Keeping consistent with therapy for an extended period can help prepare your child for transitioning into adulthood. As an aside, behavior therapy can be helpful for those of any age and can continue into adulthood.
Keeping therapy sessions year-round also strengthens your child’s generalization. For example, they will be able to apply multiple skill sets in different settings, whether in-clinic, at home, at school, or out in the community. This promotes long-term retention when it comes to a specific skill.
Overall, consistent therapy promotes long-term retention and helps ensure skills do not get lost. This can be true for anyone, but it’s particularly important for children in the autism community to ensure basic skills don’t get lost. Basic skills can get lost with a drop in the regular routine and loss of therapy; consistency is again important here.
Year-round therapy also paves the way for changes in expectations. As your child ages, their skill sets will need to be modified to match their age. Consistent therapy allows this to happen slowly over time without an abrupt change, making the transition easier for the child.
Regular therapy also helps introduce new skills, which can help augment older ones. Summer, of course, is different, and with it comes new needed skill sets and programming. This helps your child adapt to new situations, whereas a break in therapy can cause a loss of learned skills, so a new skill set introduced over time becomes much more difficult.
As you collaborate with your care team, you can help your child maintain learned skills as well when they are not in therapy. If you’re reinforcing skill sets practiced during therapy, make it part of a daily routine (for instance, 10 to 11 a.m. on a non-ESY day could be practicing skills). Make index cards to help remind you and your child. This helps keep learned skills organized so you can continue to review them throughout the summer months.
It’s also wise not to take shortcuts through learned skills. Summer can be tiring for everyone in an autism household, and it’s easy to become quickly frustrated. Perhaps you’re letting your child perform a skill halfway or giving in to avoid a meltdown because of stress, but that only aids your child in reverting to the unwanted behavior. Also, give your little one plenty of time to practice these skills. If you’re rushing off to work or rushing them off to ESY and they don’t have enough time to properly brush their teeth (for example), this can cause a regression back to unwanted behaviors as well.
Preparing for the Summer Change in Routine
Two words you may hear repeatedly include routine and consistency, both of which are imperative to help your child flourish. Research has shown having predictable routines helps the child with ASD learn and challenging behaviors decrease. A person with ASD may resist change or chaos. Keeping a routine with no unexpected events lessens anxiety, helps your child stay on task, and can help decrease unwanted behaviors over time.
In the summer, the routine will look different, so it’s a good idea to sit down with your child and explain that the regular school year is over, there will be some time without school, and then there will be ESY (followed by some more weeks without school). Also, explain that your child will still be seeing their RBTs, BCBAs, and other support staff during this time. This can help them with the change in routine that is coming.
Some parents may have to utilize daycare services during the summer because of work schedules. Opt for a daycare that can attend to your child’s needs and will let their supports (RBT, BCBA) be in the building to assist. You also want to schedule therapy hours outside of daycare.
Other parents can stay home, but this also means your child is home. Consistency with therapy schedules and daily routines are essential for maintaining skills and keeping challenging behaviors from occurring. Too much unstructured free time may increase inappropriate behaviors when a schedule is reintroduced. Some parents may want to schedule their family vacations during this time, but it’s important to stick to your normal summer schedule as closely as possible to help make the vacation go more smoothly and to ensure your child receives that consistency. Some things you can do at home (or while traveling) during the summer to help maintain order and routine include:
- Maintain the same bedtime as the one during the regular school year.
- Try to keep meal and snack times the same.
- Take time for academics during the summer and have worksheets and other materials.
- Take your child to the grocery store and run other errands for learning experiences out in the community.
- Consistently reinforce positive behaviors.
- Decrease screen time.
- Encourage outdoor play and arrange playdates with friends and classmates.
- Give enough downtime so your child doesn’t feel overwhelmed, particularly when they’ve earned something via positive reinforcement.
Strong parent involvement and engagement during the summer also helps when it comes to your child not losing their skills. Having a picture or written schedule that you show your child every day is also a good idea so they know the exact layout of the day.
Before the school year closes, review your child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to ensure it’s prepared for summer. Keep in mind that, in addition to applied behavior analysis, the National Research Council (NRC) in Educating Children with Autism recommends early intervention services that have a minimum of 25 hours per week for 12 months a year. Make sure your IEP is set up for ESY and that your child qualifies, as it’s not always automatic. Also, ensure all documentation is in place so that your outside therapists still have access to provide services in the school. This is another example of the consistency your child needs.
How to Create a Successful Summer Routine
Research shows that children have a 47% increase in mental and emotional health when they have structure, consistency, and routines. Having a daily routine set can improve cooperation, reduce aggressions, meltdowns, and outbursts, and can improve the connection between parent and child.
It’s a good idea to explain breaks or changes in routine to your child as soon as you can before they happen. In addition to preparing your child for the summer break or holiday breaks at school, you should let your child know if you are:
- Canceling a planned activity
- Going somewhere with your child (grocery store, etc.)
- Having visitors
- Visiting a new place or going to an undesired destination (e.g., the dentist)
- Transitioning between different tasks or activities
- Offering new foods
- Performing the schedule out of order (perhaps due to appointments, etc.)
Meltdowns and opposition have a much higher chance of occurring when there are surprises or sudden changes in the schedule. Of course, you can’t plan for every surprise that comes your way, but explaining things to your child before they happen is the best choice if you’re able to. When your child knows what to expect at any given moment, it helps decrease unwanted behaviors and anxiety over what’s coming up next.
If you’ve never created a routine, you may not know where to start. There are a few ways you can draft a daily schedule to keep things consistent. Your routine and schedule during the regular school year may be a little more stringent and your summer schedule may be less structured. Create a schedule that includes wake-up time, meal time, activities, grooming and self-care, behavior therapy, ESY if it’s in session, and other events.
However, life gets hectic, especially when parenting a child with autism, and routines easily get broken. Try to stick to your daily routines as best as possible, even if things are busy or you’re traveling. Even if you are staying at a hotel or other lodging, bring the schedule with you, and try to keep consistency as best you can.
However, schedules are easily broken, even at home. Some tips to help keep things on track include:
- Set phone timers or other timers (such as on the Amazon Echo or Google Home)
- Put all therapy sessions and other appointments in your calendar, set with reminders
- Use parental controls to help limit screen time or what your child is watching when you may be out of the room
- Use small timers in rooms such as the bathroom (to wash hands or brush teeth, etc.)
Keeping a solid routine in the summer structured around your child’s ESY and therapy schedule can significantly benefit. During the summer months, be consistent with your child’s daily structure. Following a consistent schedule can be beneficial for lowering challenging behaviors and reducing your child’s anxiety. Things work best when parents, schools, and therapists work together toward the same common goal.
The bottom line is-summer can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be. Keeping your child in regular, consistent ABA therapy year-round will help promote fewer unwanted behaviors and will help your child learn new skills, which will prepare them for the upcoming school year.