The beginning of the school year brings newness and anticipation. Most families relish the preparation. Kids pick out first day of school outfits. Parents buy classroom supplies and root around the pantry to see if last year’s lunch box will work again or can be repurposed for the next child in line.
But for families affected by special needs, the new school year has added challenges and concerns. How will my child interact with her new teacher? What can I do to ease him into a new routine? Will she be able to keep up with the curriculum? Is his placement the best? Where did I put her most recent IEP?
Here are seven ways to help your child with special needs start the new school year on a positive note.
1 Resume an earlier bedtime routine a week in advance.
Children with special needs may need a little more time to get used to a new routine. Give their little bodies the opportunity to adjust to a new sleep pattern before adding revved-up nerves for the big day. Try to keep their nightly routine the same.
2 Create a social story about going back to school.
Social stories help children learn social norms and transition into new environments with less trepidation and anxiety. Google ‘social stories for kids with special needs’ to find premade books or look for directions on how to customize your own. Take pictures of the school, the teacher and the classroom and make a story geared specifically to your child. Read it every day leading up to the first day of school.
3 Review expectations of school behavior with her and set up a reward system.
Kids do well with boundaries. Be sure to review expected behavior at school. Talk about things like personal space, following directions, and taking turns with other kids. It might help to set up a reward system at home that can transition to the classroom. ‘If I listen well and get my daily sticker, Mom will watch a special show with me Friday night.’
4 Provide worthwhile information to the teacher.
Give an ‘all about me’ handout not only to your child’s teacher, but also to the principal and any other teachers or therapists who will interact with her. Include likes/dislikes, allergies, favorite subjects and activities, behavior strategies, common challenges, information about your family (siblings, pets), food preferences, fears and anything else you can think of that will help staff know, appreciate and help your child succeed.
5 Locate your child’s most recent IEP, read it and make sure her new teacher has a copy.
Chances are the teacher already has it, but it never hurts to provide another copy with a note requesting frequent review to ensure that goals are being sought after and met throughout the school year.
6 Figure out an appropriate method of communication with the teacher.
Communication is your job. Teachers want to keep up with parents, but the number of kids they need to manage compared to you is exponentially more. Decide a communication method that works best for you. A journal passed back and forth in the backpack? Email? Monthly face-to-face meetings? It is up to you to initiate healthy and reoccurring communication. Have a back-up option in case your preferred method doesn’t pan out once school starts.
7 Do a presentation about your child’s disability in the classroom.
Knowledge is power. Within the first week or two of school, visit your child’s class to talk about special needs. Find a book to read on the topic and prepare a quick object lesson appropriate to the grade. For younger kids, an example is as simple as “Who here has shoes?” (Twenty-nine hands shoot up in the air.) “What color are your shoes?” (Twenty-nine voices sing out red, black, yellow, pink.) “Just like we all wear shoes that are a little different from each other, we all are people who are a little different from each other, too.” Print out a take-home sheet for the kids to talk about with their families around the dinner table at home.
Gillian Marchenko is freelance writer and a Chicago mom of children with special needs and without.