Why “snow days” are rough on many kids with disabilities

640px-SnowAngel-5644When my girls were younger, an atmosphere of hopeful anticipation would frequently descend upon our household when severe winter weather was predicted. Our home (and Key Ministry) is located in the snowiest of Ohio’s 88 counties…in our part of the county, we average around 100 inches of snow per year, and despite our remarkably efficient road crews, the local geography and our vulnerability to power outages typically leads to several weather-related school closings each year.

While my girls would wear their pajamas inside out and look forward to a potential snow day, unscheduled days off from school provoke dread among families of kids with conditions we frequently see in our practice…kids with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), kids on the autism spectrum and kids with ADHD. Well-meaning school officials who cancel classes in severe winter weather because of concern for the safe transport of kids and teachers to and from school often cause unintentional hardships for families of kids with disabilities.

The kids most likely to be negatively impacted among those we routinely serve in our practice are kids who don’t do well with down time. Children and teens prone to obsessive thinking use the busyness of their routine to distract themselves from intrusive and bothersome thoughts. When school is closed and extracurricular activities are canceled, it’s not at all uncommon for us to experience more emergency calls from parents of kids with obsessive anxiety with spikes in depressed mood, meltdowns and aggressive behavior. We’ve observed a seasonal pattern in their office visits…Christmas break and the first two weeks after school lets out for summer (before many day camps and overnight camps open for the season) are the worst.

We also see challenges on snow days among kids who do poorly with changes in routine, including many kids we serve with autism spectrum disorders. Working parents often find themselves scrambling for child care on very short notice when school is called off at the last minute…our kids on the spectrum don’t do well in unfamiliar environments with unfamiliar caregivers. One striking example I remember (not weather-related) involved a kid with autism treated by one of our associates who came in crisis on the Fourth of July. He demonstrated a very striking pattern of aggressive behavior requiring police intervention or hospitalization on the days when his day treatment program was closed.

One last group of kids who struggle on weather days are those who don’t do well without physical activity. There’s some interesting research on the benefits of vigorous physical activity in helping to improve self-control and reduce aggressive behavior in kids with ADHD. “Cabin fever” becomes a significant issue for some of our kids when they’re not able to get their time in the gym or on the playground in school.

From the standpoint of the church, I’m not aware of any place that has a formal program or initiative to help families through weather-related school closings. Any help churches might offer in these circumstances would more likely be relationship-based as opposed to programmatic. Here are a few ideas that would be helpful in serving families with the types of issues we see in our practice…

  • “Buddies” familiar to individual children with disabilities from respite events or weekend worship inclusion could offer to make themselves available to families to assist with child care when school closes unexpectedly.
  • Churches with gymnasiums could open those spaces and make them available during the day to families of kids who need the exercise.
  • Families with at least one parent at home during the day who pursue activities on “snow days” can invite other kids who benefit from being busy to join them when they visit museums, indoor play areas or water parks.

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2014Thanks to all of our readers for making this blog such a success in 2013! Our team at Key Ministry very much appreciates your willingness to share our resources with others interested in the things we care about. Here are our ten most popular blog posts in 2013…help us get the word out to churches interested in sharing Christ’s love with families of children with mental illness, trauma or developmental disabilities in 2014!

Photo courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

About Steve Grcevich

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as Chairman of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland, and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health.
This entry was posted in ADHD, Anxiety Disorders, Autism, Key Ministry, Mental Health and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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