It's about that time of year again. The time to head back to school is among us. It can be bittersweet and full of anxiety and excitement. Gone are the days of slow mornings in our pajamas and staying up past our bedtimes to catch lightning bugs. We are heading back to the days of early mornings, schedules and routines, and a new school year full of possibility. For our family, that also means a few weeks full of anxiety-for my son AND his mama. It doesn't take long to settle into the routine and after we do, we both totally thrive with the structure and routine of the school year-but getting there, can be rough for us! We both flounder a bit in the uncertainty of the new year. Will his teacher be the right for him? Are the children in his class going to be kind and loving to one another? Will his needs be met and the agreed upon accommodations be given?
All parents experience these worries and fears. There is just something more that tugs at the hearts of those of us with a kid with special needs. We have lived with this little bit of anxiety for most of our children's lives, and I honestly don't know that it will ever leave us. It is part of our existence now. I have come to that realization, so I have also tried to learn ways to help quell the anxiety for both of us during times of transition.
Here you will find my top suggestions to ease the transition back to school for your loved one AND for yourself. I hope some of them will be helpful to you!
Make a Communication Plan
One of the hardest parts of back to school for me is the little amount of communication and feedback I get about each day. I go from spending every waking hour with my little guy during the summer to not knowing if he ate his lunch or if he played with anyone at recess. As a former teacher, I know how overwhelmed and busy teachers are every second of the school day. It is nearly impossible to send communication daily to parents; however, for some of us with kiddos who do not relay information on their own, it is absolutely necessary to get this communication. I have found it helpful to set a plan with the teacher before the school year starts. During this planning time, I make the teacher aware that I want to know as much as they are able to communicate daily and that I will not be offended or dismayed by constructive feedback. I want him/her to be honest and transparent and let me be a team member in facing issues head on when they happen and in celebrating triumphs when they are achieved. Some teachers have their own method that works just fine for me, but some are open to suggestions and ideas. Below are some ideas resources I have used in the past to communicate daily with teachers.
1.Request a face to face meeting before the start of the school year. This does not need to be formal IEP meeting. This can be only you and the teacher. This is a time to tell him/her a little about your child and answer any questions they may have. I always start with explaining my desire for open communication throughout the year and that I am ready and willing to work together to find success. I let her know what my son is currently struggling with and areas he excels in. I offer calming strategies and warn of things that sometimes send him over the edge. It is a casual, information conversation, but one that has served his teachers and me well in the past.
2.. Use a quick checklist in a binder that goes back and forth every day. Ask quick yes/no or short-answer questions that the teacher or aide can answer while your child gets ready to go home. For example:
Sarah ate her lunch: Yes/No
Aaron showed good behavior in the area of _________
Anton had trouble with _____________
3. Create a communication log for myself that documents all of your contacts with the school. Your log should include telephone calls, emails, meetings, conversations, and correspondence between you and the school. Keep copies of all letters, reports, and consent forms.
Here is a great example of this:
Help Your Child Preview the New Year
Starting the new school year can be very overwhelming and anxiety inducing for many. For my son, his anxiety grows from the fear of the unknown. What will his classroom look like? Who will his teacher be? What will his schedule be like throughout the day? I do my very best to help him try to answer these lingering questions before the school year starts. I also find that many back to school events can be really overwhelming and crowded so we try to plan a few extra "get to know you" opportunities that are a bit more sensory friendly.
1. One on One Meet and Greet- Every year I ask for the opportunity for my son to come in and view the classroom, his seat, his cubby, etc. at a separate time than the rest of the class. Back to School nights are pretty loud and chaotic and don't always offer the chance for his questions to be answered and his attention to be focused on getting comfortable with the environment. We also attend the back to school events but value the opportunity for him to take his time and get to know this new environment.
2. Social Stories are really helpful tools for us in introducing new experiences. We use them for trips, going to the doctor, and for a new school year. They are a great way to introduce the new aspects of a school year and make the story individualized to your child. Linked here is a social story example we have used in the past (names and photos have been removed to protect the staff's privacy). I find it helpful to use real life pictures to really resonate the connection to the new place and experience.
There are also great resources online to help you make your own.
3. My son is very reliant on schedules and routine. He likes to know what is coming next. I always ask for a copy of the class schedule prior to school so he and I can review it and talk through his upcoming school days. I also make a smaller schedule and laminate it for his desk. He finds it helpful some days to check off the schedule with a dry erase marker as the day goes. We also discuss schedule changes and how things may not always be exactly the same to prepare for unexpected differences in the schedule.
Start Preparation EARLY!
ROUTINE! PREPARE! PLAN!
We try to make our school routine the norm for at least a week before starting school(even earlier if possible). We make sure not to plan any trips too close to the start of school so that we are able to be home and establish a daily routine.
1. New clothes and new shoes are such a fun part of the back to school season. For some kiddos, these can also be challenging due to differing sensory preferences. We start early breaking in these new items so that the first week of school is not the first time he is wearing them. We also give him input and choice in what outfits he likes most. Lastly, we spend time, periodically throughout the weekend, trying on and laying out our outfits for all five school days. This prevents any morning of tantrums over a scratchy tag he didn't know was in his shirt or socks he feels are too tight.
2. We also find it helpful to practice school routines at home. These can be as simple as practicing sitting in a chair for a few minutes working on a given task. It can be learning how to open certain food wrappers, unbutton certain pants, or how to take the initiative to ask for help when needed. You could even practice skills like walking in a line or raising your hand to ask a question.
3. Starting to practice our morning routine earlier than needed is a game changer. Getting up and getting going after a summer of slow starts is hard on all of us. We spend that week prior keeping a consistent morning routine that mirrors that of a school day. This helps us to identify parts of our morning that may be more difficult to accomplish or may cause stress. It helps when it is actually "GO TIME" for things to run smoothly from the first day onward.
I wish each and every one of you and your loved ones a wonderful and productive school year. I pray that it will be full of happiness, learning, and new experiences.
All my love and support, Anna