Back-to-school time is synonymous with shopping for supplies and finding that perfect first-day outfit. But for kids with disabilities and their families, there are educational documents and plans to juggle, accommodations to be made, and in many cases, some extra jitters to settle.
As a parent, you are your child’s unwavering advocate for their success in school, which means not only getting them ready for any obstacles ahead, but also working with teachers and administrators to find the best ways to overcome them together.
Easing your child’s worry and boosting their excitement
When a child is deep in summer fun, the last thing they want to think about is the school year ahead. However, preparing them well in advance can help make those final summer days a little less stressful.
- Set the stage for empowerment. A new situation can leave a child feeling like they’ve lost all sense of control. Help give it back by having them pick out their school supplies and allowing them to choose their outfits for the first week. In terms of their confidence and self-esteem, praise their strengths and teach them that what makes them unique should be celebrated, even if it makes them different from everyone else.
- Make the shift in schedules less painful. Many children with disabilities struggle with changes in their schedule. Share how their before- and after-school routines will change, such as when they have to get up and what time the bus will bring them back home. Try to get them on a school sleep schedule a week before their first day. And if possible, get a daily agenda from their teacher and therapy team, so they know exactly what will happen when they’re away from you. In some instances, a visual step-by-step schedule can help.
- Get a sneak peek. Take advantage of any open houses and “meet the teacher” nights to help your child adjust to their new environment and enjoy the social aspect of school. But just as important, see if you can schedule a one-on-one tour with your child’s principal to help address any concerns you both have, such as elevator access, navigating crowded hallways or finding a safe space when your child feels overstimulated.
Building relationships with your child’s teachers and therapy team
If your child has an individualized education plan, it’s supposed to follow them from grade to grade and school to school, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road. It’s best to get ahead of them now instead of waiting until problems pop up later in the year.
- Review their plan. As children change and grow, their educational plan may need to as well. Note any progress your child has made or any regressions they’ve faced over the summer. Add any new updates from their doctor or therapist. If any recent laws impact the care your child will receive, you may be able to use them to your child’s advantage. Organize all of this information in a binder or other system so it’s at hand whenever you need it.
- Share your concerns. While meeting with your child’s teacher or therapy team in person is best, even writing down your concerns in an email can give your child a head start this school year. Remind them about the accommodations set in your child’s plan, share any new developments, and find out how best to communicate with them moving forward. If possible, see if the teacher will provide a syllabus, reading list or general teaching plan so you can understand the class objectives for the year.
- Ask for the school’s advice. Your child’s special education and therapy team can often offer tips you can put into action at home to make this shift to school seamless. For instance, one parent of a child with severe anxiety and ADD created a “transition book” with their child’s school social worker that reminded them of everything they would see on their first day of school, including their classroom, the cafeteria and the playground. They can also suggest library books that will help calm your child’s nerves.
The truth is, a new school year can be anxiety-inducing for everyone—you, your child and their teacher. If you model positive behavior in the weeks leading up to school and address concerns calmly, your child will mimic your confidence. And by planning for any problems in advance, you help ease the panic, so many kids with special needs feel that first day.