by Brian M. Yankouski, M.A., BCBA, (BEST NJ, LLC).

With August winding down, many families are gearing up for their last family vacations of the summer.  Taking a vacation during the summer months is one of the highlights of the summer for most families.  However, planning for a vacation can often be stressful.  This can be even more of a daunting task for families of children with special needs.  In fact, many families that we have worked with over the years have even avoided taking a family vacation for fear of behavior problems while on vacation.  But that should not have to be the case!  A little preparation can go a long way to make a vacation successful with a child with special needs.  Here are some useful tips for families of children with special needs to help you and your family prepare for a successful family vacation.

Before the Vacation:

  1. Prepare Your Child

    Talk about the trip often with your child with special needs.  You may want to even consider looking up video clips of the place in which you will be going on vacation or pictures online of the hotel where you will be staying.  You can then show your child these videos and photos and begin a dialogue about your trip.

  2. Write a Social Story

    Construct a social story about the trip, which details where you will be going, what you will be doing, what behaviors are expected of your child, and how proud you as parents/caregivers will be of them for having good behavior on the vacation.  You can even create the story together with your child by allowing them to cut pictures out of magazines or from the Internet that match with the words of the story.  This can then be a visual storybook that you should read to your child every day before the trip.  Begin reading the story to your child at least two weeks prior to the trip.

  3. Develop a Visual Schedule

    Create an itinerary with potential time intervals and either picture symbols of the activities or words (depending upon the level of your child).  You can create this schedule with your child by allowing them to choose some activities that they would like to do on the vacation as well and build that into the schedule.  You can laminate and Velcro these schedules and put them into a small binder to take with you.  Or if you have access to an iPad or Tablet you can download apps that allow you to build visual schedules.  Many children with special needs crave structure and predictability.  By having this schedule handy during your trip it will provide some structure for your child in a situation that is usually less structured and may assist in reducing the likelihood of problem behavior.

  4. Create a Checklist

    Develop a checklist of what to pack with your child.  Allow your child to select items or small activities to bring with them that they might find rewarding and even comforting.  You can use these as potential reinforcers for your child for displaying appropriate behavior or can use some of them as fun activities to use during any downtime with your child.  Also, remember to develop a checklist of all the essential items for a vacation including communication boards or devices, medications (if any), emergency contact information, identification cards and/or medical alert bracelets, etc.

During the Vacation:

  1. Use the Reinforcers

    Be sure to give your child rewards throughout the trip for engaging in appropriate behavior.  The more that your child is rewarded for appropriate behavior the less likely they will be to engage in a problem behavior.  These rewards can be anything from activities, such as playing with a handheld videogame to a special snack or drink.  

  2. Take Breaks

    Make sure to have downtime built into your schedule to allow your child to rest.  This is especially important if you are doing a long day at an amusement park or other activities that might require a lot of physical activity.  Your child may need the downtime to decompress and recharge so they can move forward with the remainder of the activities.  Also, try not to overload your child with activities throughout the day.  Instead, try to do multiple brief fun activities instead of a long excursion or activity.  Shorter activities with multiple breaks are better initially to set your child up for success.  You can gradually increase the length of the activities as your child becomes accustom to the trip and does not display problem behavior.

  3. Have a Backup Plan

    It is important to have a backup plan in place in the event your child has problem behavior and you may need to leave the place or activity that you are doing.  Problem behavior can occur for a variety of reasons so try to understand what is causing the behavior to occur in order to remedy it.  However, sometimes it may be best to leave the situation or activity initially and try again at another time.  It is okay if this happens because you are trying something new and giving your child exposure to new activities and places.  Remove yourselves from the situation and plan on doing a different activity that day.  You can always go back and try again tomorrow!

After the Vacation:

  1. Reward your Child for a Job Well Done

    When you get back from the vacation, give your child a special treat or privilege for doing a good job on the vacation.  If your child did have a difficult time, do not punish them for the behavior.  Instead, provide them with feedback and let them know that they can try again next time. 

  2. Have your Child Reflect on the Trip

    If you can, have your child write, type, or draw a picture about their trip.  They can then share with you what they thought about the trip.  This can be a nice closure activity for them so they know the vacation is over and can return back to their typical routine or schedule.

  3.  Create a Photo Album

    You and your child can do another closure activity of creating a photo album together.  This can be a fun activity for the whole family and can be something that you all can have for years to come to remember your time together as a family. 

Again, these are just some general tips to help ease the stress of preparing for a family vacation.  Please keep in mind that every child and family situation is unique so these strategies may need to be adapted to address the needs of your child.  We hope that these tips and strategies are useful for your family in enjoying the final days of summer.

If you want the support of trained behavioral staff, check out our Family Vacation Program that is offered by our company, Behavioral and Educational Solutions and Training of NJ, LLC (BEST NJ, LLC) where we provide an all-inclusive family vacation experience for families of children with special needs.