The article below was featured as part of the News-Gazette's: Sunday Special | Coronavirus and the community, Part V (April 19, 2020)
The Children’s Home
‘They’re actually getting a lot of work done’
At Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana, the fallout from the statewide school shutdown was especially unpredictable. The residents at the home suffer from a wide range of issues, including emotional and behavioral difficulties along with autism spectrum disorders. How they would react to their day-to-day lives being completely upended was nerve-wracking for the staff.
“Typically with kids with behavior disorders, we want to keep a lot of routine and a lot of structure,” teacher Kat Brown said, “because the downtime is the time when we see a lot more behaviors, so we want to make sure that the day is packed and they have enough structure and activities so that they don’t have a lot of downtime. “And the issue with not having school is, that’s eight full hours that you have to fill.”
The difficult situation, though, opened up the staff to new ideas about how to engage their students, who all live in one of Cunningham’s three residential units or two houses.
Instead of sitting in a classroom all day, the students are free to complete their assignments in a variety of locations in their living space. The extra freedom and flexibility produced unexpected results.
“A lot of our kids struggle in academics anyway, so it’s hard for them to complete work,” Brown said. “But I have seen students complete work that they don’t even complete at school because they’ve had residential staff that’s there with them that’s a little more flexible.
“They can pick the day that they can do it. They don’t have to do it right in the morning or during reading class, because there is no reading class. They can choose their time of day, they can choose where they’re sitting, what kind of staff they want to work with, and they’re actually getting a lot of work done, which has been really surprising.”
When their school work is done, the staff at Cunningham put together themed days, like wacky-hair day, pajama day, Disney day and safari day. They have Musical Mondays, when they’re all invited to perform a song, and they have a theme day where they experience food and culture from around the world.
“It’s been really cool,” said Amy Skillings, the home’s Night Milieu Coordinator, “because we’re a treatment facility, and the pandemic has really given us time to experience them more in just the kid aspect.”
Instead of simply caring for their residents’ direct needs, the fallout from the pandemic has forced the staff to look even more into how to keep the kids engaged.
And it may have lasting effects.
“I think it’s important that we look at our kids holistically and recognize that they have deficits and challenges, but at the end of the day, they’re still kids,” Skillings said, “and the most important component to reaching our kids and impacting them is the relationship that you have with them, and that’s something that our staff truly excel at.”
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