Zooming in on screen time for children with special education needs

Boy watching a screen wearing headphones
Determining screen time limits can be especially stressful for families of children with special education needs. (Image: Adobe Stock)

In 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended no more than two hours of screen time per day for school-aged children. This includes time on television, computers, tablets, and cell phones. However, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, many children are doing some, if not all, of their schooling remotely via a screen. So, how do you know how much screen time is too much?

Determining screen time limits can be especially stressful for families of children with special education needs. This is because children with anxiety, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), learning disabilities, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may already tend to use devices as a coping mechanism. If you’re trying to address screen time limits with your child with special education needs, here are some ideas that may help:

Create a dedicated space for remote learning

Whether it’s a certain corner, table, or other space, dedicating a particular area as “school space” will help foster a learning mindset. During breaks from remote learning, or after the school day, be sure your child goes to another space to use any other media, even if they are using the same device used at school. This will create a clear shift between “school mindset” and “play mindset,” and supports critical executive functioning skills.

Routine, routine, routine!

After creating a designated workspace for your child, the next step is to prioritize and plan your day with your child. Visual schedules are particularly helpful for children who struggle with attention or organization. Be sure to also schedule downtime, play, and chores in addition to learning time.

When thinking about your child’s remote learning time, be mindful that instructional periods should be consistent with attention span. Work with your child’s school to make sure that movement breaks are built into the schedule in between educational periods, and potentially during the instructional period itself (with camera and microphone off so as not to distract from the lesson). You can also advocate for time during class to have “recess” or group chatting.

Image of Dr. Meredith Close
Meredith Close

​One fun idea for downtime is to make a list of all your family’s possible activities — such as video games, board games, arts and crafts, outdoor sports or games, and active chores like raking or folding laundry — and write each down on a small notecard. Put the cards in a pile and let your children take turns randomly choosing a card. This adds a spontaneous element to the day that tends to curb kids’ complaints of being bored. And it’s even better if an adult caregiver is able to join in the fun.

Use media and devices with your child

Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health and Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders at Boston Children’s tells parents: “Pick up that controller and play! Find out why that game is so much fun.” He says that shifting your mindset to seeing media as a tool, rather than a special treat, will help reframe the concept of usage.

By using devices with your child, you can also model appropriate usage and behaviors — for example, when it’s time to put the device away and focus on homework or be fully present to listen to each other at the dinner table.

Use screen time strategically

We often remind caregivers to “turn the obstacle into the carrot.” We know that screens — an absorbing Minecraft building project, a good movie, FaceTime with friends — are an extraordinary go-to for keeping kids occupied. Use that time to your advantage when you need to take a work call or attend to your own self-care, which is more important than ever right now during these unsettled times. Used strategically, in combination with non-screen activities that help kids get their energy out, screen time can become a powerful tool in your parenting toolbox rather than a “Pandora’s Box” that parents regret opening.

The bottom line to screen time use: Keep in mind that screens are now a part of every child’s life and reframe the way to think about their usage: quality over quantity.

See the silver lining

Image of Jason Fogler
Jason Fogler

The silver lining for many families during the pandemic is the increased amount of time they are spending together. Parents now have the unique opportunity to “see” their child at school. For example, parents may see how their child’s ADHD affects their day-to-day learning and be able to give teachers and medical providers more “real time” information on their child’s functioning. This is particularly helpful when adjusting medication. This same idea holds true for children who have other specialized educational needs: More direct observations through remote learning can lead to more informed feedback on medication management.

Dr. Meredith Close is a second-year fellow in developmental-behavioral pediatrics in the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s and a fellow in the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental & Related Disabilities (LEND) Program.

Jason Fogler, PhD, is an assistant professor of pediatrics and psychology at Harvard Medical School, core faculty in the LEND Program, and co-director the ADHD Program in Boston Children’s Division of Developmental Medicine.

Share this: