Planning for Pesach when you have a child with special needs takes preparation.
The feelings leading up to Pesach—or any family and holiday meal—can bring either excitement or trepidation and fear, all depending on the lens you have and your particular cast of characters. Add an individual who has special needs into the mix, and everything is magnified. In these circumstances, the key to a successful holiday is planning. Whether you are hosting the entire family for all eight days of Pesach or spending the holiday away from home, the more you plan and the more you talk it through with your child, the smoother things will run. Many of these suggestions apply to families with small children as well!
The first thing to do is create a plan, much like a schedule, for the trip to visit relatives or to welcome relatives. This plan can include a schedule of when you will leave or when guests arrive, when meals are served, when it is bedtime and when there will be recreation time. Talk it through with your child and review it together as the holiday approaches.
- Try to start your holiday schedule two weeks in advance. Specifically, begin discussing any possible changes to your daily routine that may occur such as meal time changes or bedtime changes due to different time zones or due to holiday start times.
- If possible, plan your travel arrangements to create as little disruption as you can to your already established daily routine and schedule.
- In the schedule, include how long you will be away and who else will be there. Are there pets? Other small children? Noisy streets? Long walks to shul?
If you are travelling, work with your child to pack the suitcases.
- Pack transition objects, items that will give your child comfort while you are away. A favorite stuffed animal or pillow is often a good transition item. Look for familiar and comforting reminders of home.
- Pack favorite books and small toys from home—again, to provide comfort and stave off boredom.
- Shop for new toys to earn during the stay at the holiday home. Rewards work.
- Shop for toys to share with others at the holiday home. Go to the local dollar store to avoid a big investment for these toys. The goal here is to help your child be involved and be a leader rather than spend a lot of money.
- For Pesach in particular, enlist your child’s teacher and ask for a child-friendly version of the Seder handouts and other materials that can be referenced during the Seder, in order for your child to be more involved and look forward to it.
Plan for the meals.
- If you are not hosting, talk to your host in advance and share the challenges you anticipate facing with your child. He or she will appreciate the heads up, and may be able to offer suggestions that never occurred to you.
- Decide what will work better for your child: sitting next to the leader of the Pesach Seder so as to be more closely involved, or further away so as to not distract from the story telling.
- Remember that the seder is long. Don’t wait for your child to have a meltdown before you give him or her a break from the table. If you plan breaks into the night, your child will know what is expected and is less likely to become overwhelmed.
- Create a nonverbal cue that signals time for a break to your children.
- Do not forget to go and get the children when the break is done!
- The Seder is over for the children before it is over for the adults. Try to have a quieter tone at this point and encourage the children to stay in their rooms with an incentive that they earn the next morning.
Debrief the next morning.
The next morning can be like a continuation of the previous night. Over breakfast the next morning take turns to talk about all the favorite foods from the night before and the foods everyone disliked the most the night before. Make a contest over who can try something new the next night.
Finally—keep perspective and remember that nothing ever goes 100 percent as planned.
Pesach will return next year, so if something did not go as smoothly as you hoped for this year, you can always try again next year. Always remember that children take their cue from you, so when you relax and are flexible they will be more likely to also be relaxed and flexible.
By Dr. Karen N. Wasserman
Dr. Karen Wasserman is a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed psychologist, and the school psychologist at SINAI Elementary at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy. SINAI operates several inclusive special education schools throughout northern New Jersey for Jewish children through age 21, and provides services for adults with developmental disabilities. For additional interesting articles on special education, visit the SINAI blog at www.sinaischools.org/blog.