Back to School for Your Child with a Developmental Disability

August 20, 2018

Tips for helping a child with special needs transition to a new school year

It’s August and a new school year is mere weeks away.  Are you looking forward to it or dreading it?  What about your child?  Both of your answers probably depend on how your child with a developmental disability will react to returning to school and a regular routine after their summer vacation.  Here are a few tips about how you can prepare for this important transition.

Check in Early

Ask to visit the school and meet with your child’s teacher before the first day of school.  This is especially important if your child will have a different teacher than last year or will attend a different school this year.  Visit their classroom(s), the lunchroom, and playground. Show them where the nurse’s office is.  If they’ll be changing classes, give them a chance to understand where they have to go before the halls are crowded with other students. If they’ll be using a locker, help them understand using a lock or combination.  Make sure that accessibility isn’t an issue and that there are no barriers to their participating in the day to day activities of the school.  Double check that any transportation arrangements necessary have been made by the school.

IEP Cheat Sheet

Your child’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan) will have been revised last spring.  They’ll be starting a new school year with new (hopefully) goals and objectives.  Don’t assume that everyone who will be working with your child has read that new IEP.  Prepare a one page summary of everything the staff should know about your child.  List the key points from the goals and objective noted in their new IEP.  Also include important facts – i.e. they’re left handed, they’re allergic to eggs, they wear orthotics, etc.  Provide a little family history – i.e. two sisters named Ashley and Jennifer, border collie named Oliver.  List likes and dislikes – i.e. they’re favorite color is purple, they love music, they don’t like loud noises.

In the rush to begin a new school year, having a one page document that can be quickly shared with teachers, aides, therapists, etc. can be very helpful in getting the year off to a good start.  Especially if your child has communication issues, a primer on who your child is and what their needs are can help the staff make them feel that they are in a safe and friendly environment.

Create Familiarity

Consider taking pictures of your child’s teacher, aide, or therapists if you get to meet them before school starts, or check out the school website which often includes pictures of the staff.  Create a poster or booklet of pictures which will help your child get used to the new faces they’ll be seeing.  Include pictures of the school and maybe specific areas of the school if you think that will be helpful.

Request info about the daily routine your child will be following.  Discuss what their days will be like, and the activities and classes they’ll be taking part in with them frequently before school starts.

Get Organized

Create a space for school things in your home.  Having one place to put bags, books, and papers related to school can help your child keep their things organized and avoid the early morning rush to find things.  It will also help you to remember to send them off with care journals, medications, and trays or equipment they may need.

Practice the morning routine for a few days before school starts.  Work out any issues with getting to the bus on time and acclimate your child to getting up early and out the door by getting them used to the new schedule.

Ensuring a calm and organized send off to their day will help your child begin in each day ready to learn.

Plan for Success

If you don’t know about problems, care issues, or just the ups and downs of your child’s day, you can’t intervene where needed or talk with them about their hours in school.  Send a communication notebook to school with any child who can’t communicate these issues with you themselves.  Ask your child’s teacher to jot down a short note or question as needed each day.

If your child with a developmental disability is going to be spending time in a classroom with typical children, consider going in to talk to the students about your child’s disability.  Explaining a physical issue, behavior, or processing issue may help them interact with your child.  Their own parents, or even the teacher, may not be equipped to explain as well as you can.

Stay Informed

Regardless of the time of year, if you have a child receiving special education services, you need to be informed about any changes or issues that affect your child.  The NJ Office of Special Education’s website provides information on the responsibility of the school and the legal protections afforded your child.  It also has a list of resources and a “News” section that lists articles on education subjects.

The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) is also a great resource for information on education and health issues for children with special needs.  Check out their videos, webinars, workshops and events that might be helpful for your family.

With some advance planning and preparation, this new school year will hopefully start smoothly and with a minimum of stress.  And, then you only have nine more months to go!