Back-to-School Tips for Kids with Special Needs
A new school year means a new grade, new teachers, new goals, and maybe even a new school! July offers a great opportunity to prepare for the looming start of the school year in August. Parents of special-needs children have more than school shopping on your mind. Kids and teens with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, or anxiety issues are already going to need additional support compared to that of their typically developing peers as they say goodbye to summer and prepare for the return to school. But if your child is transitioning to a less (or more) restrictive setting, that need will be even greater.
In order to help you and your child with special needs be a successful team Reading Rockets (readingrockets.org) put together a list of these helpful back-to-school tips that will hopefully make the transition into a new school year a little easier for you and your child.
1 Organize. In the world of special education, there are lots of meetings, paperwork, and documentation to keep track of. Try to keep a family calendar of school events, special education meetings, conferences, etc. Setting up a binder or folder to keep your child’s special education documentation, meeting notices, and IEPs in sequential order can also help you stay organized.
2 Stay In-the-Know. Keeping track of all phone calls, e-mails, notes home, meetings, and conferences is important. Create a “communication log” for yourself in a notebook that is easily accessible. Be sure to note the dates, times, and nature of the communications you have.
3 Review your child’s current IEP. The IEP is the cornerstone of your child’s educational program, so it’s important that you have a clear understanding of it. Note when the IEP expires and if your child is up for reevaluation this year. Most importantly, be sure that this IEP still “fits” your child’s needs! If you’re unsure, contact the school about holding an IEP review meeting. When you create your child’s annual individualized educational program (IEP) with your team of educators, the goal should always be to provide whatever support she needs to learn and grow in the least-restrictive setting. For instance, you and your team may have determined that she is ready to move from a small, self-contained class of special-needs children with a very low student-to-teacher ratio to a less restrictive setting. This could mean a bigger class where the majority of the students are typically developing, with fewer adults in the room. This new setting will require your child to be more independent, organized, and self-regulating. Conversely, you may have agreed that she would benefit from a smaller, more restrictive setting, possibly with additional therapies.
4 Relieve back-to-school jitters. Just talking about the upcoming year and changes can help reduce some of that back-to-school anxiety! Talk to your child about exciting new classes, activities, and events that they can participate in during the new school year. If attending a new school, try to schedule a visit before the first day. With older students, it is sometimes helpful to explain the services and accommodations in their IEP so that they know what to expect when school begins.
• Communication is key. Let your child know she’s not doing this alone. Reassure her that change makes a lot of people nervous, even you, but a new school or setting can also mean fun and new friends. Get others—family members, friends, therapists, and sitters—to also talk about the excitement and anxiety around trying new things. The more information you can give a child, the more in control he or she will feel of the situation. Letting them get comfortable and helping them to imagine variations, and what to do if something doesn’t go as planned, is important.”
• Accentuate the positive. You’re going to have fun at your new school! (or new grade with new classmates),” can be helpful statements. But don’t forget to acknowledge realistic aspects like “I know you’re going to miss some of your familiar friends, but this can be a chance to have more friends.” If appropriate, assure her that you’ll make play dates with the old friends). Let her know how proud you are of him or her and the ways this new setting is going to help with strengths—and weaknesses. Children with special needs are already at risk for low self-esteem, so frame any move or transition in the best possible light. And keep in mind that a child may transition several times until she’s settled in the most appropriate setting.
• Familiarize your child with her new surroundings. Your child may have already sat in on a class at her new school for one or more days as part of the orientation process. And there are other ways to help your child become comfortable. Ask if you can wander the halls, allowing her to peek in on rooms and possibly meet teachers and other professionals. See if you can take videos or pictures she can look at later. Short of getting inside the building, walk around the grounds, travel the likely bus route, and, if the school has a website, invite him or her to check it out with you.
• Use Social Stories. A story about starting at a new school or class might include things she might be nervous about, the fact that the other kids will also be nervous, the names of her teachers, ways to make a friend, and reminders about things she liked about the school, i.e. the computers, the library books, etc. If you can get those video recordings during a visit, you can incorporate these as well.
• Make schedules. It makes expected tasks concrete and breaks down the days and weeks into manageable chunks. Find out as much as possible about your child’s school day beforehand so those details can be incorporated.
• Grab some get-ready-for-school books. Gray says most of the other things she’s doing to help Little Dude are the same steps parents take for their typically developing kids. Along with having his older sisters tell stories about the fun they had in kindergarten and how many friends they made there, “We’re reading Miss Bindergarten Gets Ready for Kindergarten; it’s upbeat and doesn’t feature kids and parents crying like lots of books about kindergarten.” Other titles include Yoko and My Kindergarten, both by Rosemary Wells (Max & Ruby), and I Am Too Absolutely Small for Kindergarten by Lauren Childs.
Younger middle-grade kids may enjoy Invisible Inkling by Emily Jenkins, about a boy who has to deal with a bully and a best friend moving away. For older middle graders, check out The Detention Club by David Yoo, in which two best friends struggle with the transition from elementary to middle school.
5 Keep everyone informed. It’s important that routine that will happen once school starts. You can even begin practicing your new schedule, focusing on morning and evening routines, and begin implementing them well in advance of the first day of school.
6 Stay up-to-date on special education news. Being knowledgeable about your child’s IEP and their disability can help you become a better advocate for your child. Try to keep up-to-date on new special education legislation, news, and events. The more you know, the more prepared you will be to navigate the world of special education and successfully advocate for your child!
7 Attend school events. Take advantage of Open House, Back-to-School Night, and parent-teacher conferences to help you and your child get a feel for the school and meet the teachers, other staff, students, and families. Share the positives about working with your child, and let the teacher know about changes, events, or IEP concerns that should be considered for children in special education. #
For more information about starting the year off right, please visit Reading Rockets’ back to school section at www.readingrockets.org