Children with special needs, particularly older children and children whose special need is “invisible” to others, may have more of a struggle with the transition back to school. Children entering intermediate or middle school (grades 4-7) are likely to be moving into a new school building, merging with students from other schools in the district, and dealing with the social and emotional development challenges that come with the pre-teen years. This—in addition to living with attention deficit, Autism spectrum, or other learning disorders that are not visible to others the way physical disabilities are—can create a perfect storm of developmental chaos at the start of a new school year.
Whether you child is transitioning to a new school, a new grade level or both, there are steps you can take to ease the back-to-school burden for your child.
1. Plan Ahead with P.E.P. There are three main areas to address in planning your special child for the transition:
People: Before school starts, make arrangements for your child to meet with the people she or he will spend most of the day with: teachers, guidance staff, administrative staff, principal, school nurse and if applicable, the bus driver. Help your child understand who is the “go to person” for different concerns or questions that may arise.
Environment: The guidance or front office staff should be able to arrange a tour of the grounds—buildings, classrooms, recess/gym area, parking areas, restrooms, and the routes leading to and from the school building. Make note of areas that are off limits to students and explain why. If construction is taking place around the school, let your child know what to expect.
Personal Needs: Meet with instructors before school starts or during the first week to go over your child’s triggers/stressors, IEP, behavior plans and communication strategy between home and school.
2. Share Data. If anything has changed since the end of the previous school year, update your records and share this information with the school nurse, counselor or educators who will work most closely with your child. For example, coping strategies that may have worked during fifth grade but have changed in the months leading up to grade six. If there is any new testing data for your child, bring that to the school rather than relying on your healthcare team to fax it over.
3. Establish Goals. You may have long-term goals for your child (e.g., graduating middle school), but even typically developing teens don’t take the long-term view of what they need to accomplish and why. Break large goals into small, manageable objectives and celebrate their achievements along the way. Help your child connect objectives to the bigger goal by reminding them of how they are related. This can be done for each subject/class or for sports they enjoy. For example: Math homework may seem like busy work and pointless to your student. Help them understand how multiplying larger numbers will help them solve real problems like how many jerseys to order for 17 players who each need two jerseys in two different colors.
4. Share Personal Experience. Grown-ups forget what it was like to be an adolescent. Sure times may have been different, and we tend to see our past through rose-colored glasses. If you think about it long enough, you’ll recall experiences where you struggled, failed, overcame a challenge, etc. Even if you grew-up without the challenge of learning or other developmental challenge, you can find experiences to relate to you child to convey that you empathize and have, even walked in similar shoes as they are in now.
5. Make a Transition Book. During your meetings with teachers, take pictures of the rooms, hallways, and exterior of the school grounds. Work with your child to create a book with these pictures, label each area and what typically takes place there. Use a school map to reinforce special event procedures such as assembly, dances, and fire drills.
6. Review the Routine. Once your child has a schedule, review the routine for each day the night before. This is especially helpful if your child has a rotating A-B schedule, and changes classrooms/teachers during the day. Use the school map to label the location of classrooms, teacher’s name, etc.
7. Arrange Peer Socials. Before school starts and during the school year, arrange social outings so that your child can connect with friends they will be going to school with as well as friends from their old school. These can be simple get-togethers at the mall, movie night, meeting for an ice cream, or having a pizza at your home.
8. Go Digital; but Keep Hard Copies. Keep up to date print copies of IEPs, emergency procedures and other important documents on hand for times when you can’t access digital data. This also is a good idea for your child’s homework.
9. Expect Mistakes. Every child is going to forget homework, bring home a poor test grade, and struggle with peer relationships. Every situation has to be examined individually and determined if it’s an isolated event versus part of a bigger pattern. Yelling rarely works with any teenager. Talk through what did or did not happen that resulted in the situation. For example, did your child not study for the test? Did they express something in an inappropriate way? Were they caught in the crossfire with other kids? ~ Schools and teachers are going to make mistakes as well. Keep calm, be diplomatic, gather the facts, and know what you expect to happen before you show up at school with demands.
10. Reward Success. When your child (or their teacher or other school personnel) does something well, let your child know how you feel about their achievement—even if its as simple as bringing up a grade by few points or winning an essay contest. Point out specific things about their achievement that really stand out to you. Likewise, when the school is doing things right, they need to hear from you.
How to Prepare Your Child With Special Needs for the Back-to-School Transition (empoweringparents.com)
Tips for Helping kids with Special Needs Change Schools (childmind.org)
School Transitions for the Elementary Grades (autism-societ.org)