Back-to-school season is simultaneously rejoiced over and feared by many parents of kids who have special needs. While we’re excited to have them back in a formal routine, learning new things, and exploring social relationships again, the words “change” and “new” are often struggles for kids like ours and can bring about anxiety, stress, and dysregulation. What’s a parent to do?
Practice Makes Perfect!
Getting up early, being self-controlled in a classroom, and meeting new people are all skills that don’t often get practiced during the holidays. So it’s no wonder the transition to school can be hard on kids. If you want to master something you must practice it.
So, go over the back-to-school routine and the behaviours required to be successful in school as much and often as possible before school starts, and during the beginning of the year. This might mean limiting electronic use, sitting at the dinner table for a bit longer each night, or even reading social stories before bed that can prepare your child for the social elements of the school year. Identify those “school muscles” that need strengthening and then work them out.
Paint The Picture
From schedules to goals to expectations, there’s a lot of change coming our kids’ way. Proving visual cues is one way to help ease the stress of change and transition and provides great reminders to your mover and shaker (and you!) of what to expect. Visual cues also help kids to be more comfortable with the newness of the year and to turn new practices into solid habits. About this time each year, the bedroom and kitchen walls in my house become full of lists and reminders including the bedtime routine, morning to-do’s, homeschool day schedule, etc. Knowing what’s coming and what is expected reduces anxiety and leads to a smoother day.
Lists also provide a great opportunity to share power and encourage responsibility, which is key to maturity. Include your student in the list making and be sure to think through ways you can enable your child to take responsibility for their work and daily tasks while keeping them informed about what is expected. Consider empowering them to manage their after-school routine including making breakfast or lunch for the next day, laying out clothing, preparing lessons, etc. But be sure to make visual lists of what is required! Keeping it visual will enable both you and your child to stay on task, lower the risk of forgetting, and accomplish their goals.
Be Sensory Smart
Sensory struggles can ruin even the most well planned and organized day. Perhaps the most important way to prepare for a school year is to assess your child’s sensory needs and make sure they are well equipped with the tools and breaks that they will need to be successful. And being sensory smart goes beyond just your child, encompassing their classroom and their routine as well. If you don’t already have a sensory diet, consider consulting an occupational therapist to find out what activities and tools your child needs to regulate.
Make sure the school space or classroom is sensory smart by providing the sensory input your student needs to regulate. This might include weighted materials, fidgets for their hands, visual charts, or alternative seating such as exercise balls. If you’re not homeschooling, chances are your child’s teacher might need to be schooled in sensory as well! Talk with the teacher about your child’s sensory needs including triggers and signs of dysregulation. But, don’t reveal too much. Let the teacher draw conclusions about what they see and experience, not what you tell them. Remember, kids with special needs often perform better at school because of the structure provided. Revealing too much could bias the teacher unnecessarily.
Make sure to request or provide the fidgets, tools, and breaks necessary for learning. Your child might need headphones during fire drills or heavy work breaks before learning time. Creating a sensory smart schedule and making sure that all of the tools needed are handy are critical and can make or break your child’s year.
Pack in the Protein
What we feed our children has a direct impact on their brain. Too much sugar, dye, and refined carbohydrates will wreak havoc on your child’s blood sugar making them more likely to be dysregulated or struggle to concentrate. The good news is there’s a simple cure: protein. Protein is the fuel that helps the brain function well and is key in regulating blood sugar.
Make sure your child’s breakfast, lunch, and snacks are full of protein sources. Consider quinoa instead of rice, pumpkin seeds in trail mix, avocado as a sandwich spread, and crunchy, roasted chickpeas, all great sources of protein that kids often find yummy! Providing a variety and keeping the textures varied will encourage more adventurous protein consumption.
Communicate Early and Often
Talking with your child about what they can expect from this year and checking in with them regularly is the key to having a great year. I find the best way to do this is to have check-in dates weekly. Spend some quality, alone time with your child and ask about how things are going, what new experiences they are enjoying, and what their struggles are. Don’t ask broad, overwhelming questions like “How was your day?”, or “How do you like math?” Instead, ask specific questions such as “When have you felt loved, afraid, or anxious?,” and “What about math is exciting and what is a struggle?”
Trust me, be more specific in your questioning and you’ll get more specific answers. And then be quiet! Resist the urge to comment instead choosing to listen. If something comes to the surface, say a worry or struggle, ask more questions and listen some more. The most important thing you can give your child during back to school and the many challenges and transitions that this time of year brings is yourself — your time, your energy, your preparation, and your attention.
So be sure to include these tips in your back to school plan and then sit back and watch your child flourish as they approach new challenges and opportunities!