The back-to-school season is a time when children are surrounded with new classrooms, new people, and new expectations. For students with special needs, immersion in all this change can make this an especially challenging time of adaptation, according to Jamell White, clinical director of special needs and deaf and hard of hearing services at JSSA (Jewish Social Service Agency), a non-sectarian, nonprofit metropolitan Washington area community child and family service provider.
She says special needs children often feel especially uncertain and fearful about returning to the school environment and routine. However, parents can support their children at home and take steps to build good relationships with the adults who work with their children at school. By communicating, being flexible and sharing information, parents and school staff can improve the beginning of the new school year for students, White says. She recommends these approaches:
Help children track new routines.
Special needs children often need more preparation to be ready to take on the school year. Visual ways to keep track of their daily and weekly schedules provide a boost. A wall calendar at home can be marked throughout the year with special events, extracurricular activities, half days of school, vacations, holidays and of course assignment deadlines. Pasting a chart of the child’s daily school schedule inside a notebook or locker door can also be helpful. Colour coding or using decorative stickers may make the process more effective and more fun.
Team up with school staff.
Establish a team relationship early on with your child’s teacher and any other adult who has contact with your child during the school day including the playground supervisor, and bus driver. Encourage each of them to feel invested in your child’s success at school. By the same token, be ready to reinforce at home strategies that have been successful in the classroom.
Brief teachers on your child’s strengths.
With all the attention paid to special needs children’s difficulties, teachers may overlook your child’s strengths and interests. Many children with learning disabilities are skilled in areas such as art, music or acting. Others excel at mastering facts about subjects they like. Brainstorm with the teacher about ways to adapt assignments to include the child’s interests or to let the child’s special strengths shine in class.
Clarify your child’s needs.
Your son or daughter may have an individual education plan (IEP), typically a complex document. The teacher may benefit from having a quick one-page reference sheet from you summarizing your child’s needs and accommodations as identified in the IEP. Background materials explaining your child’s disabilities may be helpful as well. Keep it short, since teachers’ schedules are extremely busy. An article from a credible website or a few photocopied and highlighted pages from a book could add to the teacher’s knowledge.
Set up continuous communication.
Email messages, meetings or phone calls are options. These communications let you inform teachers about what may be happening at home with your child that affects him or her at school, such as changes in sleeping or eating patterns, anticipation of family events, or homework assignments that were problematic. Some schools also send notebooks home each day for parents with comments from teachers. This communication is also a way for the teachers to share with parents how things are going in the classroom.
Seek opportunities for your child to work and play with other kids.
Getting along with other children is an important element of success in school. Regularly discuss with school staff ways to bring your child together with others to help form friendships. These could include finding good partners for your child when the class works in small groups, identifying peer “buddies,” as helpers or suggesting extracurricular activities or clubs with students who share similar interests.