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Easing the back-to-school transition for kids with special needs

Abbi Perets
June 28, 2018

As the lazy days of summer draw to a close, mothers everywhere begin preparing themselves and their children to head back to school. For moms of special needs children, the emotions can be more intense and the preparations more involved.

Most parents of kids with special needs start planning for the school year during the spring IEP meetings when goals are set for the upcoming year. With luck, you'll be introduced to your child's new teacher at that meeting, as well as other staff members.  Sometimes circumstances change, however, and the teacher you loved winds up in a different district come September. That's why you shouldn't consider the spring IEP meeting the final word. But that's just the first step.

"I request an informal 'staffing' with the teachers and team before the school year begins to which all are invited," says Gloria Perez-Walker, whose 11-year-old son, Aiden has autism.

She explains that with children who have a hard time with transitions, visiting the school prior to the start of the academic year is critical. Perez-Walker writes up a one-page document with her son's likes and dislikes, an abridged version of their family history, and key points from Aidan's IEP.  "Not all of his new school staff will have read it," she explains.  But this way, "the entire new team of teachers, admins, and even the janitorial staff, know us and our son."

Veteran teacher Nicole Eredics agrees with this approach. Parents should definitely meet the teacher ahead of time and tour the new classroom. "If your child is new to the school, ask if you can see the rest of the building. Don't forget to check out the playground!" says Eredics, who has spent more than 15 years as an elementary school teacher in inclusive classroom settings and also has two children of her own with special needs.

Back-to-school season is a time of transition, but it doesn't have to be a time of tantrums and meltdowns if you plan ahead carefully. Here are 10 things you can to do today to help prepare your special needs child for going back to school:

  1. Make a Transition Book
    Take a camera to these meetings and take pictures of everything you can and use them to create a transition book. "This is a book about your child's new teacher and class. Look at the book regularly to help your child become familiar with the new environment," Eredics says.

  2. Learn the New Routine
    Ask the teacher to go over the daily classroom routine so that you can review it with your child. Create social stories and review them often so that your child knows what to expect when school starts.

  3. Take Charge
    Of course for children with special needs, back to school doesn't necessarily mean heading back to a building. Renee Cole has a 7-year-old son who is a former micro-preemie with multiple medical issues. His needs mean that school - like other needed services - comes to him at home. Even so, she says, it's critical for parents to remember that no one at school knows your child better than you do.  "Be involved!" she advises.   Cole starts each school year by making it clear that she is ultimately in charge of her child's wellbeing, and that she welcomes input and opinions from his teachers and other service providers. (Be an Advocate for your Child's Needs.)

  4. Prep Slowly
    It's also important to remember that kids will pick up on your stress, so make sure you have all your necessary supplies early. "I like to have everything ready a full week before school starts clothes, supplies, meeting the teacher, as well as have the bedtime routine down. It usually makes for smoother adjustment from summer schedule to school schedule again," says Deborah Arrona, a Pasadena, Texas, mother to Aria, who has cerebral palsy, cortical visual impairment, and other special needs.

  5. Keep Your IEP Available
    Because Arrona is moving this year, her daughter will be in a new district and Arrona has taken copies of Aria's IEP to the new school so that it can be distributed to everyone well in advance of the start of the year. "This way they have the whole summer to get to know my daughter on paper and be ready to meet her in person," she says.

  6. Snap Photos for Social Stories
    You can have one for your morning routine at home, one about going to school, and one for situations your child may encounter at school, such as eating lunch in the cafeteria. Take pictures with your digital camera or cell phone, develop them directly into a book at a local drugstore, and then narrate them with your child again and again.

  7. Make Digital Copies of Your IEP and Other Paperwork
    You're going to have to send multiple copies of these documents to various professionals throughout the year, and it's very handy to have them available via email. Stop by an office supply store and have them make you a digital copy as well as an extra hard copy to have on hand.

  8. Schedule Your Well-Child Check up
    Don't wait until the school nurse calls to say she doesn't have your child's updated records. Schedule your child's appointment as early as possible and when you schedule the appointment, let them know you need immunization and other records for school.

  9. Talk to Your Child
    So often, adults know what's going to happen, but they forget to share this critical information with kids. Sit down with your child, and talk about what he can expect. The first 20 (or 200!) times you say, "You're going to a new school!" you may be greeted with a firm "No!" but eventually the message will sink in.

  10. Prepare a One-Page Guide to Your Child
    Write up a brief, one-page document that covers your child at a glance. Note any food allergies or medical needs the school should know about, things that are likely to set your child off, and things that will calm him down, as well as emergency contact information.

Need tips for finding the right caregiver for your child with special needs? Read our Special Needs Child Care Guide.

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