As the summer winds down, returning to school brings mixed emotions for many children. There is sadness because the summer fun has concluded, but a newfound excitement as a new school year begins. However, for students with special needs, a new school year can also bring a fear of change. Transitioning from one grade to the next may cause anxiety, panic, and meltdowns, especially for students who have difficulty expressing their feelings and emotions. Parents can help prepare their children with these few simple steps to help ease some stress and ensure a positive experience for their child. Remember: each child is an individual and special in their own way. What works for one child may not work for another. These tips might inspire other ways to help your child transition into the new academic year smoothly.
Contact The Teacher Before School Starts
Email your concerns and questions to the teacher. Keep in mind that the teacher may not return your email right away since it is still summer vacation for them. You can also send a child interest survey. By knowing information about your child before school starts, the teacher will have an easier time getting him or her acclimated to school.
Review Your Child’s Individualized Education Plan
Your child’s Individual Education Plan, or IEP, is a legal document that maps out an educational plan for the year. Parents should always keep the document handy and highlight important information to refer to through the year. If you do not have a copy of the IEP, contact the Special Services Department in your school district and request one.
The important information on an IEP is:
- Date of annual review
- Contact person
- Time and setting of related services such as speech, occupational or physical therapy, and guidance
- Goals and objectives
- Accommodations and modifications, including those for state testing
- Statement of transition for older students
This may not make things perfect, but it will help your child get used to a new routine. New classes and surroundings can be especially stressful for children, so it’s important to practice the routine a few days or weeks before school starts, and take things slowly so your child does not get overwhelmed.
Here’s a few ways you can help ease the transition:
- Visit the school and make a map of the school and classroom.
- Take pictures of the familiar faces and places in the school and make a book to review with your child every day.
- If possible, arrange a visit to the transportation department and practice getting your child on and off the school bus.
- Practice the morning transportation routine. Whether your child takes the bus, carpools, or walks, review how they are getting to and from school. If your child goes to an after school care program or babysitter, remember to include this in your route.
- Rehearse nighttime and morning routines at home, including bedtime and when it is time to get up. Age appropriate checklists can help children stay on task.
Create A School Station In Your Home
Mornings can be crazy! Picking out clothes, finding shoes, and retrieving lost backpacks at the last minute can lead to frustration and stress that can cause a child with special needs to melt down. This negative feeling can easily set the tone for the rest of the school day. Organization reduces stress and helps your child start the day happy. Of course, planning the night before is always helpful. In addition, create an area in your home for school supplies. This area can be for hooks or shelves for backpacks, lunchboxes, important papers and other items your child needs. This space is also great for a family calendar or a “To Do” list to keep track of everyone’s activities. You can even create a makeshift message center for you and your kids to communicate by writing on the glass of a picture frame using some dry erase markers!
Do Not Panic!
Children sense anxiety, fears, and worry in others. They will mimic your words and actions. Stay calm, positive, and refrain from negativity. One thing every parent can do for their child, whether they have a disability or not, is to make school special. Celebrate this new milestone with them and embrace every moment together. Commend success and support failure. School will certainly bring highs and lows, but if your child knows you are a team, success is inevitable!
This piece is part of a broader series examining how parents can help children through school transitions. Check out some of the other posts about starting elementary school, transitioning to middle school, beginning high school, and sending kids off to college.
Danielle Kovach is the 2014 Council for Exceptional Children Teacher of the Year and the 2011 NJ State Teacher of the Year. As a special education teacher for over 15 years, she does not expect perfection from her students but promotes growth and success. Kovach and her husband live in New Jersey with their three boys, two of which have special needs.