Better beginnings

. January 30, 2013.

My anxiety kicks in as the countdown to the new school year begins as if the tardy bell has sounded and I’m just walking in the door. What will the teacher be like? Will the other children be nice? How much homework will there be and will I be able to do it? What will happen at recess? It’s unnerving, more now as a mom than when I was climbing onto the big yellow bus. For many children, it’s simple. Some students are naturally social, follow and understand directions easily, and enjoy a challenge. Others, however, may have difficulty following multi-step directions, have speech issues that make it challenging to banter with other students, and struggle to sit at a desk and focus on their work. For parents of children with special needs, starting a new school year can come with increased anxieties. Here are some tips for helping your child acclimate to the new routine.

Consider school routines and expectations weeks before school begins

Jean Winegardner, mother of an autistic son and blogger at, offers sound advice. “One great way to make sure your child gets a good start on the school year is to maintain a routine over the summer. If you can’t keep it up the whole summer, start a couple of weeks before school starts. Do circle time in your living room. Do fun practice worksheets. Get him/her back in the school groove.”

Introduce the school to your child before the first bell rings

As an award winning author from San Diego, Chantal Sicile-Kira has more than 25 years of first-hand experience in this field. Her autistic son graduated from high school this spring. Her newest book, 41 Things To Know About Autism provides help for families in need. “Prime your child by talking to him/her about the upcoming school year, the teacher and expectations, as well as any fears or concerns your child has. Creating
a photo album together or writing social stories can be very helpful. Even if your child does not have good communication skills or is non-verbal, he/she can learn to understand and make the connection, so it is worth the effort to take the extra time to do this.”

Introduce yourself and the disability to the school staff

Winegardner suggests getting to know the principal or assistant principal. “In my son’s case, behavioral incidents get referred to the assistant principal, so I make sure I have a good relationship with her.” She also suggests meeting with your child’s therapy team before the year starts, so they can learn about your concerns and thoughts. She offers the teacher a document outlining her son’s likes and dislikes, his strengths and struggles, and any other pertinent information.

Sicile-Kira believes in reviewing the I.E.P., and be sure services are scheduled and followed. “Review your child’s IEP document to refresh your memory about what the goals are. If you have any questions as to how the IEP will be implemented, get a list going to communicate your questions to the person responsible. If your child is to receive aide support as stipulated by the IEP, it would be a good idea to contact the administrator to insure an aide has been assigned. If specific training has been required by in the IEP, ask if the aide has been trained or when the training will take place.”

Check your attitude

Learning Specialist Diane Talbot suggests going into the school year with an informed but open attitude. “Sometimes
a parent who has had previous bad experiences brings that along with them and immediately creates a hostile
situation. There are bad teachers out there, but most of us are caring and want your child to be successful.”

Follow through with teacher meetings, but also with suggestions you are given. “If the teacher offers advice on activities you could do with your child, take the advice. Get informed and read books on how you can help your child. Make sure they eat right and get plenty of rest. Between us we can help your child achieve and learn,” Talbot offers.

For older students, consider a few more tips from Ms. Sicile-Kira: “Get a planner for your tween or teen. Many middle and high schools have a homework planner, and your teen can use this to keep track of homework assignments. Show him/her how to write his assignments
in the planner and reinforce the practice throughout the school year. If your tween or teen is fully included in a middle or high school that follows block scheduling, (one day is periods one, three, five; the next day is periods two, four, six) you may wish to consider having
two separate backpacks for the two different block days.

Though sending your children into a new situation can be unsettling, there is no reason to lose sleep. Preparing your student, whether they have a special need or not, is the best start to a great school year. The butterflies will only last a few moments for your child, and within
weeks yours will be settled too!

Julia lives with her husband and two children. She enjoys her career as an educator and as a freelance writer, but still prefers motherhood to anything else!