11 Back-to-School Tips for Parents of Children With Special Needs

It takes a lot of preparation to create a seamless transition

Teacher working with young students
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Back-to-school time is always a project, and that goes double when you have a child (or children) with special needs. Like every other parent, you have new clothes to buy and new backpacks and lunchboxes to choose (from the thousands of options available). But because your child has special needs, you'll need to think about many more issues. For example:

  • Chances are, you've received some information about your child's schedule and realized that at least some of the preferences and needs you mentioned at your child's last IEP or 504 meeting have not been addressed.
  • There's a good chance that your child is unusually anxious about returning to school, especially if he is returning to a different school, classroom, or teacher.
  • Your child's needs or challenges may have changed over the summer, and you may need to communicate with staff before the school year starts.
  • You've never met your child's new teacher, and know he or she is going to need information about your child that will make life much easier for both the teacher and your child.

If this sounds like your situation (or you're thinking "it's MUCH worse than that!"), some of these back-to-school tips may be helpful.

1. Be Sure Agreed-Upon Accommodations Are in Place

You sat down with your child's guidance counselor, case manager, teacher, and therapists in May. You went through your child's entire IEP. You discussed options and possibilities, and came to an agreement, You reviewed and signed the IEP (or 504).

Now, you might assume, everything described in the IEP will be put in place and will be set up for your child when she arrives for her first day of school.

But of course, assumptions can be wrong. School administrators have hundreds of children to think about, and teachers have many kids to plan for.

Only you have your child's best interests at the top of your list.

Before heading back to school, check in with your child's team, case manager, or guidance counselor. Double check on critical accommodations, and be sure that any agreed-upon supports are ready to go. If there are issues, it's better to know about them in advance, and there's a good chance that small problems can be addressed before your child steps foot in school.

2. Connect Personally With Your Child's Teacher and Therapists

You are your child's best advocate and support, but if your child's teachers and therapists don't know you, they're less likely to reach out for ideas and help:

  • If you can, set up a time to come to school before the doors open to meet and communicate with your child's staff.
  • Provide them with a little information about your child's particular strengths and challenges, but be careful not to overload school staff just as they're getting ready for the start of the year.
  • Most importantly, let everyone know that you are available to talk, willing to consider options, and eager to be included in your child's educational experience. Hand out your email address or phone number so you can be easily reached, and ask about the best way to connect with them.

    3. Establish an Easy, Reliable Communication Checklist

    Even after you've given everyone a warm assurance that you're available and easy to work with, there is a good chance you won't hear a peep from anyone at your child's school until report card time (unless there's a serious problem to address). But of course, you want to know how things are going, both so you can talk with your child about the day and also so you can address issues before they become a real problem. The easiest way to do this is to provide 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:

    • Johnny ate his lunch
    • Janey earned stickers for good behavior in _________
    • Billy had trouble with _____________

    4. Provide Tools to Help Teachers and Staff to Help Your Child

    No one knows better than you do how best to help your child stay calm and focused, manage difficult transitions, or interact with peers. If you've already developed great ways to do this, by all means, share them with your child's new teacher and/or staff. For example:

    • You may have created a terrific social story that helps your child remember to count to ten before exploding.
    • Last year's teacher may have designed a great visual schedule to help your child prepare for transitions.
    • Your child's occupational therapist may have found the perfect sensory toy to help your child stay focused in class.
    • Last year's aide may have come up with some phrases or ideas that helped your child say "yes" to social interactions.

    Don't assume that anyone from last year has shared anything with this year's group. Instead, be proactive and do it yourself!

    5. Get and Preview Transportation Information Ahead of Time

    How will your child get to school? When and how will she catch the van or bus? Who is driving? What's the route? How long does the trip take? Where does she catch transportation home? When does the bus or van arrive, and where will you pick your child up? All of these questions should be answered before the first day of school. It's often helpful to connect with the person or people who will be driving your child, so you can provide them with any important information they need about your child's needs or challenges. Before school starts, drive the bus route with your child and talk through the process she'll go through to get on and off the bus, to class, and home again.

    6. Collect Information About Extracurricular Options and Special Events

    If your child has special needs, chances are she has trouble remembering announcements or sharing information about extracurricular activities or special school events. But often these non-academic programs are the best place for your child to explore strengths, meet friends, and start to enjoy the school experience. It may be up to you to get on the right lists, pick up fliers and brochures, check bulletin boards, and make connections on your child's behalf.

    If you have concerns about whether or how your child can be included in a particular program, email or call the contact person and ask. There's a good chance that they can accommodate your child's needs. You may even be able to enroll your child in an appropriate after-school activity before the school year begins.

    7. Prep Your Child's New Clothes, Shoes, and Other Items

    Many children with special needs have a tough time saying goodbye to old items and an equally hard time getting used to new things. Clothes and shoes can create sensory issues, and emotional attachments can be hard to break. As early as possible (at least a few weeks before school starts), begin the process of sorting through old items and buying new clothes and backpacks for the upcoming school year. If possible, ask your child's help in deciding when something is too small or "babyish," and get them involved with the buying process. Remove too-small clothes from your child's drawers so he won't be tempted to wear them. Help your child to break in new clothes well before the start of school.

    8. Create a "New School Year" Calendar and Schedule for Your Child

    Most people are less anxious when they know what to expect; children with special needs are no exception. In fact, many children with special needs really need schedules to lower anxiety and prepare for transitions. While some schools do provide such schedules to kids, many don't (or do so verbally, which is little help!). Depending on your child's age and ability, you'll need to create daily schedules and calendars to help your child acclimate to the new year and look ahead to events, vacations, etc.

    9. Help Your Child Preview the New Year

    The more your child knows about what's coming next, the better she'll be able to handle her anxiety. If you possibly can, ask your child's teacher for a few minutes before school starts when she can meet with your child, show him where he'll be sitting, explain where he'll put his coat and lunch, and so forth. If possible, walk through your child's day with him, so he has an idea of where he'll be going, what he'll be doing, when he'll be eating lunch, and so forth.

    Help your child to articulate any questions he may have (Will school be hard for me? Will I get to go to recess?). Your child's teacher should have a class list; you may want to preview it with your child and point out the names of friends. If you see children on the list who have caused issues for your child in the past, you may want to talk with the teacher about this (outside of your child's hearing).

    10. Preview Your Child's Academic Program

    What will your child be learning this year? Take a look at your school's curriculum (it should be online) or ask school officials to share the syllabus. Be sure you're informed, so that you can support your child as needed. If you're concerned that certain aspects of the curriculum seem challenging, check in with your team to find out how they intend to accommodate your child's needs. Now is the right time to touch base on these issues, as you may be able to fix problems even before they arise!

    11. Address Potential Challenges Ahead of Time

    If your child is moving from school to school, or from elementary to middle school, he may have a number of new challenges to handle. The more you know about these challenges, the better able you'll be to help him before a problem arises. Here are just a few of the challenges you might want to tackle in summer rather than waiting for the school year to start:

    • Locks and lockers: Most kids with special needs have a tough time with typical padlocks. Instead of using the school's typical "turn to the right and left" looks, consider purchasing a lock that uses rolling numbers or buttons. These are usually easier to manipulate. Alternatively, ask the school if your child can use an unlocked cubby rather than a locker (for non-valuable items).
    • Gym clothes and lockers: Some schools require kids to keep special gym clothes in lockers at school. If this is the case, be sure your child can manage the locks, tie the sneakers, and otherwise manage her gym things. If necessary, consider providing your child with her own lock, velcroed sneakers, and pull on gym shorts.
    • Computer-based assignments: These days, teachers tend to provide homework assignments, texts, and even grades via computer. They may use school-oriented software or something like Google Docs to communicate with students. Special needs students may have a hard time knowing exactly how to access a password, get online, and save their work. If your child is old enough for this type of challenge, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the system in order to help him.

    A Word From Verywell

    For kids with special needs, school can be both a wonderful and difficult experience. Sometimes parents can turn potential problems around just by anticipating them before they can occur. Yes, it should be the school's job to make sure your child has what he needs to succeed. But the bottom line is: no one cares about, understands, or advocates for your child as well as you do!

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