It’s already August! The stores are brimming with notebooks, backpacks, and everything back-to-school. Our kids are strictly avoiding this area of the store, with the hope that “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” will somehow prevail. But, like it or not, school is coming. Back-to-School is a stressful time of year for all families, but for special needs families this time of year can be filled with panic, anxiety and increased behaviors.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By adding some more items to your back-to-school list, you can easily smooth out the bumps of this transition.
Review Your Child’s IEP/504 Plan
For most of us, school has not been on our radar for the last couple of months, and rightly so. We have devoted most of our energy to keeping our children busy and out of trouble. The therapies that were being taken care of during the school day, now fall squarely on our shoulders. Which means juggling more appointments and more work at home. So if your child’s IEP/ 504 Plan is a distant memory that is collecting dust, do not feel bad. You are definitely in good company here.
Now that August is here, I challenge you to find a little bit of time to break that IEP/ 504 Plan out of storage, and here is why. You might just be surprised by what is in it. If you are like me, you may not fully remember what is being addressed in your child’s plan. Part of making sure that our children are ready for school, is making sure that their plan is serving them well even on that first day.
Even though it seems to fly right by, summer is actually a very long time, and so much can change in the lives of our children. So much so that the IEP/ 504 may not fit them anymore. So as you go through their school clothes to see what needs updating, check out their school plan as well. It just may save some grief in those first days of school.
Get the Summer School/ ESY / Therapy Data
If your child has been working hard to maintain their skills over the summer, don’t forget to let the school know! You may be very surprised to know that the summer data is not always readily available to your child’s teacher in the fall. This can be due to the fact that quite often the staff during ESY and summer school are not the same as during the school year. You have the right to this information for your own use, and you can make sure that your child’s teachers have this information as well.
In our family, therapy and instruction is continued outside of the school. We make sure that the data from the summer programs she attends is sent to the school. When school let out in the spring, our daughter was struggling with her alphabet, and so the plan at that time was to work on this skill. Over the course of the summer, I am happy to report that she has now mastered this. Making sure that the school has this information will save time and boredom when she returns in the fall.
Visit Your Child’s Fall Placement/ Teacher
Even if you were able to visit your child’s classroom last school year, I encourage you to do this again prior to school. Teachers change room arrangements from year to year, and this can be stressful for a child that has difficulty processing changes. Sometimes schools need to change whole room assignments due to changes in the census. It may be that what you thought would be your child’s room has completely changed, and these changes may not be serving your child any longer.
Don’t be afraid to make this request, because you won’t be the only one asking. Schools are often open for various reasons during the summer, and there are school staff present to help with this. If you give enough time for teachers to plan for this, they are usually very happy to accommodate the visits. When you visit, make sure your child is allowed enough time to explore and feel comfortable. For some children, several visits placed over a few weeks may be necessary to alleviate any unnecessary anxiety and stress. For my daughter who has mobility issues, making a visit just prior to school helps catch accessibility barriers.
Talk to Your Child
This one may seem like a no brainer for most of you, but I recently was made aware of a statistic published by A.C. Neilson Co. that says parents spend about 3 1/2 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with their children. This surprised me as I am sure it surprises you too. Then I looked at just how busy the average parent is and then compounded that for special needs families, and I realized that this may not be all that surprising after all.
I have to admit that there are days when I have so little time that there are only about five different phrases that are said to my children on a repeat cycle. By the end of the day, I feel like I have done nothing but talk to my children, but if I really look back with complete honesty, the meaningful content was not there.
Back-to-school is more important than “brush your teeth,” “put on your shoes,” and “hurry up or you will be late for your first day.” It is also “I can’t focus from where I am sitting in class,” “What if nobody likes me,” and “I am afraid my teacher will ask me to read out loud and all the kids will laugh.”
This is something that our family has worked at, because it isn’t easy to slow down and really listen somethings. Even if we have the best of intentions to do just that. To make sure this happens, we set up regular family times. For us, this is around the dinner table, but it can really be done at any time that works. If need be, put it on the calendar.
Right now you are probably thinking something like, “Yeah, that’s fine and good, but my kids aren’t going to talk anyway.” This is true in our house too. If kids get the slightest hint that this might turn into a lecture, they will protest and shut down.
Try talking around a shared activity like building Legos, playing catch, or taking a walk. This eases the pressure and makes the time feel less like a chore. For little ones, Legos or dolls can be used to talk through play. Maybe Spider-man is going to school soon, or Rainbow Dash is nervous about riding the bus.
The important thing to remember is that once your child does start talking, listen. The minute we jump in, the conversation stops. When parents do most of the talking, it feels more like a lecture. This is their opportunity to share with us.
For those that may not know, social stories are very short and to the point narratives with very few pictures. They help individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder process information better. These work really well during times of transition, because they can be read and reread several times before the change. This allows the child time to process anything they may have anxiety over and feel more confident when the transition happens.
If you would like examples or do not feel comfortable writing your own, there are many helpful sites on the internet.
Practice, Practice, Practice
This is probably the most helpful of all the items on this list. It also is probably the least used. By mid summer the school routine is all but forgotten. In many homes, it has been slowly replaced with breakfast at 11am, staying up well past bedtime, and binge watching Netflix. This means that come day one of school, kids are tired, crabby and not ready to listen. That is unless they have had time to practice their new routine and are ready.
When my oldest were still in school, this process took just a few days – usually a weekend. We would practice going to bed and getting up early, and we would make sure their rooms and closets were organized. We made sure they knew what their routine was going to be and had them write it down. The day before school we would reward the kids with a nice breakfast at their favorite restaurant if they were ready to go by school time. It got so that every year they would actually look forward to this tradition, because they knew it made that first week so much easier – well and there was bacon.
Now, with my daughter, it takes a full month, and a picture schedule to be ready. She is an extremely independent girl who also happens to have cerebral palsy. She needs this time to learn what she can do in the morning and what she needs help with. One day last week she had her undershirt on twisted and her shorts and t-shirt on completely backwards. Needless to say that morning was a fail, but they are getting increasingly better. I am confident that when that bus arrives at our house on that first day, she will be ready.
I could simply mandate that I help her with everything before school. Then there would be no need for this whole month, but I have other children that also need me in the morning and my daughter would miss out on a great learning opportunity. Yes, there is learning in failure. In fact, failure is maybe one of the best learning experiences out there. I know that my daughter is going to struggle with things, and if I let her have these failures when they don’t matter so much, she will be more confident performing when they do matter. So if you have a child that struggles with routine changes, use that knowledge to your advantage and help them practice.