Make back-to-school a success for your special needs child

As kids head back to school, special needs parents have more to worry about than buying the right backpack and getting their children on the school bus. Here are some tips to make that first week go a little easier.

SILVER SPRING, Md., August 30, 2011 — All three of my kids went back to school this week, which is both wonderful (I am alone! Alone! Finally alone!) and uncertain (How are my guys going to do in their new classes?) and terrifying (Will my special needs kids be successful this year—or will they crash and burn?).

All parents experience trepidation when they send their children off to school, but parents of special needs children face extra worries. We worry about the class work and if our children will be able to keep up. We worry about the start of homework and the battle of wills that comes with it. We worry that our children will be bullied, and if not bullied, that they won’t be able to interact successfully with their peers. We are concerned about the transition back to school and wonder if halls full of students will be too much for our children. We also worry that our kids won’t be able to connect with their teachers, and hope that those teachers will understand and welcome them.

I have spent a lot of time and written a lot of words spelling out what worries me about school, back to school in particular. Yet it’s not just a matter of crossing our fingers, packing their lunches and shoving kids on the school bus. There are things you can do to prepare your children—and their teachers—to help them have the best year possible.

• Prepare your child for the routine of school. A week or two before school begins, get your child used to her school schedule. Whether that means getting back in the habit of waking up at 7 and leaving the house at 8:15, or maybe practicing an evening homework-dinner-bedtime routine, working out the kinks before school starts can prevent first week emergencies. Once school starts, don’t forget to keep to the routine!

• Do a trial run. If your child is new at a school this year, maybe you can do some trial runs in advance of the first day. If you will be dropping your child off by car, drive the route the week before, but park and walk him to his line-up spot, so he has muscle memory of the route. Obviously you can’t put your child on a bus early, but walk her to the bus stop, then drive to the school and walk her from the bus drop-off to her classroom.

If your child is starting middle or high school, have him walk to his locker and then to his first class, back to the locker, then to his second class, and so on. Make sure he knows his locker combination and the lunch routine. Be sure to check in with the school first to let them know you’ll be doing this.

• Consider skipping open house. Not every school has these one- or two-hour meet and greet times for students and their families to meet their teachers and see their classrooms, but every school my kids have ever attended does, and they are always a sensory overloading nightmare. If your child doesn’t do well with a school stuffed full of kids and their parents, see if you can make an appointment to meet the teacher at an alternate time. Chances are that the teachers are spending that whole pre-first day week at the school anyway, so why not ask if you can go in when you can actually spend a few minutes talking to the teacher instead of struggling to manage your child’s behavior?

Prepare a short document to tell the teacher about your child.

Prepare a short document to tell the teacher about your child.

• Tell your child’s teacher about your child. Yes, teachers are supposed to read your child’s IEP and FBA (functional behavior plan) and have meetings to learn how to best teach your child, but I have my doubts that all teachers wade through those entire documents. Create a one-page document about your child, laying out the most important bullet points and give it to the teacher before school starts.

I created a document for my autistic son’s teachers that included ideas for rewards for good behavior, a reminder that all behavior is communication, and a tip that he needs extra time to process his thoughts after being asked a question. The document also offers simple, but specific, tactics to get him to do his work as well as possible problems that may occur and why—for example, it is easier for him to just get up and go to the bathroom than to form the words to ask to go, so it might be a good idea to create a nonverbal system that he can use. Also, don’t forget to tell the teacher some of the wonderful things about your child.

Make sure to include a photo of your child as well as your contact information. Pass out copies to the teacher, paraeducators and any administrators who will come into contact with your child during the school day.

• Make sure that your child knows where his support will come from. My son has a home room teacher, a math teacher, a case manager and two paraeducators that work with him throughout the day. That is a lot of people for him to keep track of. This being his fourth year at the school, he is familiar with most of them, but  I take the time to ensure that he knows who his helpers are. This year, that meant that I showed him photos of the paras and reminded him of their names and what they do. I will do so again several times over the course of the next few days. This is especially important if your child has a hard time identifying people by their faces.

• Make sure your child’s IEP is being followed. I know I wrote above that I don’t believe all teachers read IEPs, but they are still responsible for knowing what is in it and making sure that it is followed. Your child’s IEP is a legal document and his school has to follow it. At your first meeting with your child’s teacher, tell her that you will stop by or email at the end of the week to see if she has any questions specific to the IEP after she has read it. Being clear about your expectations from the beginning makes any relationship easier.

• Know that you can call an IEP meeting at any time. If things aren’t working out for your child, call a meeting so you can discuss changes. Your child’s IEP is a fluid document and you are part of the team.

• Let the school know you want to be involved. One of the most important bullet points on the document I hand the teacher before school starts says this: “I will do whatever I can to back you up and to help Jack be successful this year. Please let me know how I can help.” Then be accessible. I have never heard a teacher, staffer or administrator say that they wish parents were less involved.

• Be friendly and open with your child’s teacher. I want my son’s teachers to know that I value their ideas and what they do, I want them to know that I will not undermine them, and I want them to know that I am an involved and committed parent. Over the past several years, I have been able to suggest ideas to teachers that they have agreed to, and also they have offered advice that I never would have thought of, but turned out to be fantastic. Keep an open mind.

• Remain vigilant. That said, your child comes first. Demonstrating that you are an involved and committed parent not only shows that you are willing to work with the school, but it also lets them know that you are ready to take action if they are noncompliant or are not meeting expectations.

• Try to relax on the first day of school. I know. This is maybe the hardest advice to take. I have a tough time with it myself. Try to recognize that the start of school is a transition, and transitions are hard for special needs children. Everything may not go smoothly on the first day, or even for the first couple of weeks, but that doesn’t mean that your child won’t have a successful year.

Good luck to all you special needs parents (and kids!) starting school this fall. I hope it goes well for all of you. If any parents or individuals with special needs have additional tips to make this time of year easier, please let us know in the comments!

Thank you to the Stimeyland Facebook community for offering tips to share in this column!

Jean writes a personal blog at Stimeyland and an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey. Read more of Jean’s work at Autism Unexpected in the Communities at the Washington Times.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Jean Winegardner

When Jean had her first child in 2001, "autism" was about the scariest word she could think of. Six years later when her second child was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of autism, she was just happy to have a word to help him get the services he needed. Her autism journey has been full of tears, laughter, love and at least one attorney.

Jean blogs about her life with her autistic son, Jack, on her blog, Stimeyland. Her two neurotypical children, Sam and Quinn (one older, one younger than Jack), make frequent appearances there as well. Also at Stimeyland? Jean's quirky sense of humor.

She also runs AutMont, an events calendar listing autism-related events in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Raising a child with special needs is hard for so many reasons, but after living with Jack, Jean wouldn't trade him for anything in the world. Come along with Jean as she experiences the joys that come with parenting a special kid.

You can email Jean anytime at stimeyland at gmail dot com or follow her on Twitter, where, as "Stimey," she offers her world view in snippets of 140 characters or less.

Contact Jean Winegardner


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