Back-to-school time is always a project. You may have clothes to buy or various backpacks and lunchboxes to choose (from the thousands of options available), and books, pencils, and colored pencils to round up. There may also be some additional things you’ll need to consider if your child needs accommodations or is in a special education program.
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. Your child’s needs may also have changed over the summer, and you may need to communicate more with staff before the school year starts.
Your child might be unusually anxious about returning to school, especially if they are returning to a different school, classroom, or teacher. You might be as well, especially if you’ve never met your child’s new teacher and know they are going to need information about your child. Communicating that info to them will make life much easier for you, 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.
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 they arrive for their first day of school.
But of course, assumptions can be wrong.
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.
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.
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, 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:
- Malik ate their lunch: Yes/No
- Foluke earned stickers for good behavior in _________
- Se Hui had trouble with _____________
Provide Tools to Help Teachers and Staff to Help Your Child
You are more knowledgeable about how to best to help your child stay calm and focused, manage difficult transitions, or interact with peers.
You may have created a terrific social story that helps your child remember to count to ten before exploding. Or 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. Or 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!
Get and Preview Transportation Information Ahead of Time
How will your child get to school? When and how will they catch the van or bus? Who is driving? What’s the route? How long does the trip take? Where do they catch transportation to get 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 concerning your child’s needs.
Collect Information About Extracurricular Options and Events
Your child may have 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.
You may even be able to enroll your child in an appropriate after-school activity that they are open to participating in before the school year begins.
Prep Your Child’s New Clothes, Shoes, and Other Items
Many neurodivergent children 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 older items and buying any necessary clothes and backpacks for the upcoming school year.
If possible, ask your child’s help in deciding when something is too small, “babyish,” or not “in style,” and get them involved with the sorting and buying processes. Remove too-small clothes from your child’s drawers so they won’t be tempted to wear them. Help your child to break in new clothes well before the start of school.
Create a “New School Year” Calendar and Schedule for Your Child
Most people are less anxious when they know what to expect; disabled children are no exception. In fact, many neurodivergent children 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.
Help Your Child Preview the New Year
The more your child knows about what’s coming next, the better they’ll be able to handle their anxiety. If you possibly can, ask your child’s teacher for a few minutes before school starts when they can meet with your child, show them where they’ll be sitting, explain where they’ll put their coat and lunch, and so forth.
Help your child to articulate any questions they 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/understanding).
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 learning needs. Now is the right time to touch base on these issues.
Address Potential Challenges Ahead of Time
If your child is moving from school to school, or from elementary to middle school, they may have a number of new challenges to handle. The more you know about these challenges, the better able you’ll be to help them 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: Some kids with disabilities have a tough time with typical padlocks. Instead of using the school’s typical “turn to the right and left” locks, 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 their gym things. If necessary, consider providing your child with their own lock, velcro 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 Drive to communicate with students. Your student 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 them.
A Word From Verywell
For disabled students, school can be both a wonderful and difficult experience. Sometimes guardians and 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 they need to succeed. But the bottom line is: no one cares about, understands, or advocates for your child as well as you can!