10 ways to help your child with special needs make a positive start to the school year

Back-to-school time is a charged part of the year filled with excitement, busyness and anxiety. Kids pick out first day of school outfits. Parents buy classroom supplies and root around the pantry to see if last year’s lunchbox will work again or can be repurposed for the next child in line. Earlier bedtimes resume, classroom lists are posted, and children fall asleep dreaming of a playground rendezvous with friends.

Most families relish the preparation.

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?

Chicago public schools start Tuesday, Sept. 2. Many suburban schools start in August.

Here are 10 ways to help your child with special needs start the new school year on a positive note:

1 Resume an earlier bedtime routine.

Summertime generally means later nights and sleeping in. Children with special needs may need a little more time to get used to a new routine. Ease your child back into an earlier bedtime at least a week before school starts. 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 Visit beforehand.

Call the school and schedule an opportunity for your child to see his new classroom and meet his teacher. While you are there, make sure you tour the cafeteria, playground and other rooms like music or gym. The more your child sees, the less anxiety he will have on the first day of school.

3 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. Most stories are printed out books with pictures and words. 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.

4  Remind him of what he enjoys about school.

This is something you can do throughout summer, too. Focus on positive things. Talk about school activities he enjoyed, what classes he liked, who he sat with at lunch. Keeping school on his radar will give him a point of reference when you talk about returning.

5 Review expectations of school behavior 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. For example: ‘If I listen well and get my daily sticker, Mom will watch a special show with me Friday night.’

6 Provide 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.

7 Locate your child’s most recent IEP.

Oh, the blessed IEP. Review it and make new copies to hand out to teachers on the first day of school. Chances are they already have 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.

8 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.

9 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.

10 Do whatever you can to set her up for success.

You are your child’s biggest advocate, supporter, and yes, educator. Break down suggested tasks into doable chunks. Take deep breaths. And convey excitement and support to your child as the school year approaches.

Gillian Marchenko is a Chicago mom of four. Her memoir, Sun Shine Down, about her daughter with Down syndrome, published last year.

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