It takes work for any parent to successfully prep their kids for heading back to school and starting a new year. But for parents who have children with special needs, the process of transitioning from summer to school can be a little more complex.
Whether your child is attending a classroom setting for the first time or is a seasoned pro, try these 11 helpful tips to help ensure a smoother segue into the school year.
Most schools have a back-to-school night where parents can meet the teacher and check out the classroom, says Laura Gass, a special education specialist in Reston, Virginia. But this is often held after school starts.
“If your child needs a more sensory-friendly environment or more time than back-to-school night affords, ask the school if they’d allow just your family to come in and find the new classroom, or if the new teacher will be there, meet them ahead of [it],” she says.
This helps give them a sense of the space they’ll be in every day before school even starts, Gass says.
If the child can’t physically visit the classroom before school starts, Gass recommends asking the administration if the teacher can send you some photos of the classroom once it’s set up. Ask to see spaces the child will need to be familiar with, such as a cubby that already has their name on it, a photo of a desk that has their name on it or a picture of the entire classroom setup, Gass suggests.
For kids who will have a locker, try to request it early, says Meghan Howeth, a special education teacher in Houston, and find time for you and your child to visit the locker when there are no other students present. This way, your child can try out their locker and take comfort knowing they have a spot to put their belongings.
“If your child is going to have a new teacher this school year, go beyond just meeting them on back-to-school night,” says Marilyn Lawrence, a parent of a son with cerebral palsy and epilepsy in Castro Valley, California. “Start talking with them as soon as possible to start a relationship.”
Have your goals and concerns ready to talk about, she says.
“If the teacher understands that the parent is involved, then the student feels secure,” Lawrence says.
All children benefit from getting into a set routine as the school year approaches, says Dr. Patricia DeForest, pediatric palliative physician and assistant professor for the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
But for a child with special needs, she says, you probably need to start a little earlier.
“At least two or three weeks before school starts, start that routine to get them comfortable with it before the big change is going to come,” DeForest says.
Another option is to keep them on their school-time routine as much as possible during the summer, but if it’s not possible, just start walking through the school-time routine a few weeks in advance.
Gass says it might help to do a practice run before the big day, where your child actually gets ready, eats breakfast and leaves the house as though it’s a school day. She says this might not be necessary with every kid with special needs, but it can especially be helpful for a child with autism or any child who has some anxiety or nervous anticipation about going to school.
Once you determine how your child will get to and from school, go over the plan with them beforehand to get them comfortable with it, Howeth says.
“If they’ll have a bus routine, go over where they will be picked up from home, dropped at school, picked up from school and dropped back at home,” she says. “For car riders, make sure they know where to find their ride home and routine for parent pickup.”
She adds that you should also go over what they can do if they get to school early and where they can go before the bell rings.
Additionally, if your child doesn’t have a designated place to eat lunch, Howeth recommends you come up with a plan in advance.
“Locate areas where the student feels safe or comfortable where they can eat and participate with their peer group,” she says.
If you’re worried about your child navigating school, Howeth also says to consider reaching out to other families you know with students at the school — either those with special needs or without — to see if they would be willing to help integrate your student at the school and assist when needed. You can also check to see if there’s a buddy program at your school that can help further integrate your student with kids not in the special education program, Howeth says.
Elsa Morales, a special education teacher of 20 years in San Antonio, Texas, and mom to an adult daughter who had special needs as a child, says she and her child made goodie bags for the class prior to the first day of school.
This little kindness gave Morales “the opportunity to explain my child’s disability, and it gave the students time to ask questions,” she says. “It removes some of the fear for the child and their peers, and it reduces some of the stress on the child, and they don’t have to explain why they’re ‘special.’”
Morales says an early classroom conversation like this can also help quickly establish a social support system when the child is in an open area, such as the cafeteria or playground.
Because a child with special needs may come to school without basic skills to help them succeed, Morales says, you can give them a leg-up by working on structure, discipline and routines before the school year begins.
In addition to waking up and going to bed at a set time, she recommends having them practice sitting down to work on an activity for a set period of time, say 15 minutes, and then slowly increasing the amount of time. Morales also suggests (depending on the child) working on skills such as asking for permission to get up or go to the bathroom, washing hands after the bathroom or sticking with an adult in public places.
If possible, take your kid school supply shopping with you, Gass suggests, so they can pick out the tools that are exciting to them. This could mean buying something with colors or designs they’re drawn to or getting a notebook that they decorate at home.
That’s not special needs-specific, she says, but it can add a little extra comfort to “have things at school they feel connected to.”
“Parents need to talk to their children about their feelings,” Morales says. “This is a transition period when the child will not see their parent or guardian all day. The child needs to be reassured that a specific adult will be there to pick them up on time.”
If you think the transition to school will be especially difficult on your child, consider trying to gradually get them used to being away. To prepare her own daughter for school, Morales began taking her to day care a few days a week for several hours at a time. Eventually, she extended it to a whole day, and then they moved to a whole week to help her prepare for being at school all day.
Morales says going to school and making choices like bus vs. parent pickup or school lunch vs. lunchbox can be overwhelming for both the parent and child. Involve your child in the decision-making and talk with them about their feelings to the extent they’re able to help ease both your worries.
As you discuss back-to-school time, aim to stay positive, even if you’re talking to another adult within earshot of your child.
If a friend or neighbor asks about your child going back to school, Gass says, use it as an opportunity to further acclimate your child. Keep the conversation on your child’s level if they’re able to hear you.
Pull out those pictures of their classroom and say things like, “We’re going to this classroom, so Billy already has everything set up for him. This is the cubby where he puts his things, and this is his desk that’s ready for him.”
If you have fears or nerves about your child going to school, Gass recommends not discussing it when your child is around.
“Keep all language around school very positive and comforting in front of the kid so they don’t get conflicting messages,” she says.
Families need to provide a positive and strong support system for their children with special needs, Morales says, and teach them how to speak up for themselves, if possible.
“From a very young age, I taught my daughter strong social skills and self-advocacy skills, which have guided her into becoming a strong, beautiful, educated woman,” she says.
While parents assume the teacher will always be watching out for their children, she says, the reality is that the special education teacher might be in charge of 20 or more children with varying ability levels. This means parents need to remind their children to ask for help if they need it, she says.
Morales urges parents to keep the line of communication open with everyone involved in the education of your child throughout the school year. If possible, she says, volunteer, join the PTA or just show up at special events and extracurricular activities.
While entering a new school season with a child with special needs can be nerve-wracking for both the student and the parents, especially if the child hasn’t attended school previously, using these tactics before school begins and throughout the school year can help everyone feel prepared, comfortable and ready for success in the classroom.