Back to school means a lot of change for a typically-developing child but it can be emotionally, physically and mentally overwhelming for a child with special needs. It’s important as parents, educators and therapists to be sensitive to these changes and make sure the child’s need are met. How can we prepare for a new school and therapy year?
1. Know the Schedule. This is SO important for children with special needs. All children benefit from structure and routine but for children with other challenges, it’s a necessity. Make sure there are visual schedules in all relevant settings–at home, at school, on the bus, and at therapy. We have to remember to talk through the day, explain what comes first, what happens next and make the child an interactive part of the process. This could mean pulling velcro pictures off a schedule, crossing off an activity or checking a box. Explain ways to cope when surprises occur. If a child is used to daddy picking him up from therapy but mommy comes that day, talk to the child about how unexpected events occur. We use the phrase “that’s life” a lot in my therapy room. We can’t predict everything that’s going to happen but we can talk through activities of the day to help our children feel comfortable and cope with changes.
2. Prepare the Child. Of course you’re out buying all the necessary school supplies and talking about making new friends and meeting new teachers, but rarely do we really coach children through back to school questions. Without a doubt, your child will be asked about their summer and to tell the class about their favorite memory. This is such a simple activity that we can prep our children for so that they aren’t left quiet in the room with nothing to say. Even if it’s a rote phrase, “I liked going to Grandma’s house to swim” or “I liked camp,” the child is able to share in the experience. If your child often has difficulty recalling this information, talk to his or her teachers or therapists so they know the best way to prompt the answer. Maybe the child writes it down on a piece of paper to remember or the teacher/therapist prompts, “Did you see grandma?” to get the response. If your child is non-verbal, program it into the Dynavox or iPad. Make your child’s summer experiences important and something they can feel proud to report.
3. Write it down. You know your children best. You know their triggers and how to calm them down. Share this information with the teachers and therapists. I’ll never forget pulling out bubbles to play with a new child and seeing his face melt. He was terrified of bubbles! This is information I could have used before meeting the child so that I didn’t traumatize him! Teachers and therapists want this information, you aren’t overwhelming us. We will be a more effective support and learning system for your child if we know their reactions and how they handle difficult situations. In addition to writing about your child’s temperament, feel free to talk about the IEP. Maybe note your own observations of the goals (e.g., Goal 1 has been met, Progress made towards Goal 3, I’m working on Goal 2 at home). An IEP can only say so much so parent’s perception and expectations are key.
4. Tour the School. Hopefully your child’s school has an orientation but most of the time, it’s just with parents and teachers. If so, ask for a separate tour of the school, the playground, therapy rooms and the child’s classroom. Maybe the child will even have the chance to meet therapists and teachers before the first day. Seeing their environment before they’re expected to actually perform in the environment will boost confidence and make them feel comfortable.
5. Set up a Playdate. Does your child have any former classmates that will be joining the new classroom? If so, contact the parent and set up a time to meet. Schedule a playdate at the park so the children have an opportunity to play, share their feelings about the change and talk about their new school. If you don’t know a child entering your child’s class, ask the school for a list of parent contact information and reach out. All parents feel better when they know their child already has a friend.
Please leave comments or email me with specific questions or concerns. Happy New School Year! :)