14 ways to help your child with special needs adjust to school

A new school year can be exciting, yet overwhelming, especially for families with special needs. How can you set your kids up for a successful start?

Local experts provide tips on how to help:

Get to know the teacher and his rules

Meet your child’s teacher ahead of time to develop a rapport and get familiar with his teaching style. “Give kids a leg up by going over classroom rules, expectations, routines and curriculum in advance,” says Nancy Christian, coach and founder of Strategies to Excel.

Give the teacher insider info

Clue her into challenges and potential solutions that have and can work for your child. “Review IEPs and discuss what accommodations or goals were set, met or not met,” says Dr. Tiffany Sanders, licensed psychologist and owner of Sanders and Associates. “Articulate things that helped, like sitting in the front of the classroom.”

Partner with the teacher to help the year go smoothly for your child. “Be proactive, so they’re not spending the first month trying to figure your kid out,” says Maggi Steib, Children& Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder coordinator.

Ease back into the school routine

Return to earlier bed and wake times, start back on medications, and re-establish rewards systems, all about two weeks before the school year starts. “Slowly re-establish structure so that everything is not dumped onto the kids at once,” says Steib.

Involve your child in the preparation

Foster independence with self-help skills, like opening lunch containers. “Allow your child to focus her energies on the social aspects of eating with peers,” says Rhonda Cohen, child development and inclusion director at Cherry Preschool in Evanston.

Let her select school supplies that she really likes. “Even picking out a new notebook or crayons can stir excitement,” says Rita McGovern, occupational therapist at Solomon School in Chicago.

Initiate academic work

Review work from the end of the previous year with your child. Introduce small assignments that align with the grade they are starting. Re-establish structured reading time. “Kids have a lot of demands on them at the beginning of the school year,” Sanders says. “Help avoid a major shock to their system by getting them back in the mode for academics.”

Take active tours of the school

Visit the classroom, library, gym, lunch room, nurse’s area, social worker’s room and all places your child will go, as much as needed to breed familiarity. “Anticipating the unknown is very stressful for both parents and children alike,” says Cohen. “The more familiar the school and school day is to your child, the better.”

Make a social story

Take plenty of pictures on your school visit. Snap shots of the school entrance, lockers, librarian, etc. Create a book or video your child can review to prepare himself. Tamara Kaldor, developmental therapist and director of Play is Work, recommends Book Creator for tablets or Android and Keynote for Macs. Visual schedules are helpful.

Be proactive about sensory needs

Collaborate with the teacher regarding tools to regulate and feed your child’s senses. “Some students might need a quiet, secluded corner to wind down,” says Ellen Sternweiler, owner of The Sensory Kids Store. “Others, with anxiety attention challenges, might need tools to increase focus.” Plan ahead for a sensory diet. “Wake earlier for play on the playground if your child benefits from movement,” says Lorell Marin, director at LEEP Forward. “Pack snacks that are calming, like a smoothie with a straw.”

Practice playground games

Learn the games kids play and practice at the school playground. “Feeling like a mini expert will help your child be more confident in unstructured times,” says Angie Escher, owner and occupational therapist at Evola Pediatric Therapy.

Facilitate social interactions

Find out which students will be in your child’s class. Meet at the park or arrange playdates before school starts. “Having a friend in class can help your child feel more comfortable,” says Kandor.

“Request lunch bunches or social support groups,” Escher says.

Get excited about extracurricular activities

Read about clubs. View pictures of sports. “Help kids realize the potential of what the school can offer,” says Sanders. Building excitement can increase participation for kids with social or emotional challenges.

Free mornings from decisions

Develop a staging area in your home, where the child’s backpack, shoes, coat and everything she needs are placed the night before. “Make the morning as simple as possible,” recommends Christian. “Kids make decisions all day long at school. Have clothes picked out, lunch and breakfast already decided.”

Discuss the family calendar

Once a week, review weekly activities with the whole brood. Point out which days Dad will be working late or when the child has a baseball game. “Knowing what to expect will help the week go smoother,” says Christian. “You will also model good organization skills.”

Be your child’s advocate, but try not to be adversarial

Have regular, open and honest conversations with school staff. Don’t forget to express appreciation for their efforts on your child’s behalf.

“I’ve been amazed about how flexible and open to parent suggestions staff can be if they’ve already established a positive relationship with a parent,” says Cohen. “When the parent assumes the worst and begins the relationship from an adversarial standpoint, school personnel often feel threatened, instinctively defensive and less cooperative. Make your child’s teacher and case manager your friend. You’ll be thrilled to see how much you can achieve together on your child’s behalf.”

Remember, it never hurts to bring cookies to a meeting.

Cortney Fries
Cortney Fries
An award-winning travel journalist, Cortney Fries (pronounced "freeze") has been writing about family travel for over a decade. She knows that parents planning trips are looking for all members to have fun and make lasting memories. Cortney believes that you should definitely try anything that makes you slightly nervous.
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