“Back to School” may bring joy to countless teachers, but many kids groan at this time of year. Back to school for children with special needs means the end of long days of free choice activities, and the beginning of long days of struggling and stress, as well as long nights of frustrating homework. And as much as these kids dread the back to school revelry that others enjoy, their parents, too, know the struggle their children face in the coming school year.
I meet with many parents each year during our parent-teacher conferences and IEP team meetings, and am well aware of the stress that parents deal with in raising a child with special needs. I see it in their eyes every time I talk with them. In order to make this school year a more positive one for children with special learning needs, I have compiled a few helpful tips for parents.
Drowning in Paperwork
I have been in meetings with parents who bring a briefcase full of papers pertaining to their child’s progress. I have also met with parents who pull out an envelope from their pocket on which to write meeting notes. Whatever your preference, just know that special education brings with it a great deal of paperwork. Evaluation Reports, Invitations, IEPs, Notices of Recommended Educational Placement, Reevaluation Reports, progress reports , your meeting notes, and home-school communication, just to name a few.
All of this paperwork can become overwhelming. Keep a binder in chronological order of important documents for your child, separated by school year. This will help for easy reference – and you will need to reference it – to help you stay organized.
And speaking of paperwork…
Read Your Child’s IEP
An IEP (Individualized Education Plan) is, without a doubt, very technical. There are special education laws that must be adhered to when writing an IEP, which makes the document jargon-heavy. Having the IEP explained by school staff is helpful, but will inevitably leave out some aspects that you may find important. Read it in its entirety. As an IEP team member, you maintain the right to request a formal or informal team meeting. If there is anything you find confusing or concerning, bring it to the attention of your child’s case manager (usually the special education teacher). If she is unable to clarify it to your satisfaction, reach out to the school’s administration for assistance. Being educated helps you to be your child’s advocate until he is old enough to do so himself!
Never Underestimate the Importance of Communication
I rely on having an open line of communication with parents. As a special education teacher, I want to know your concerns or questions, and be updated on any changes your child has experienced that may influence his day at school. Communication should happen at the start of the school year. A quick email to the teacher to inform her of your child’s specific learning strengths and needs helps tremendously.
*A side note: Having a support group of parents of children with special needs is vital. However, each child’s needs are unique. When discussing your child’s educational experience with other parents, keep in mind that each child’s education is differentiated based on his needs, so their experiences may differ.
Be Mindful of Your Child’s Anxiety
Many children, even those without special needs, feel anxious at the beginning of the school year. Discuss the upcoming school year in a positive manner with your child. Your child will mirror your attitude about his education. Many schools hold a “sneak a peek” event before school starts to allow students to meet their new teacher and check out their new classroom. Take advantage of this opportunity, as it will certainly relieve some initial fears your child has about the uncertainty of a new school year.
Be an Active Participant in Your Child’s School
There are many occasions when parents are invited into their child’s school. Back to School Night, Open House, Parent-Teacher Organization, volunteering, and parent-teacher conferences are a great chance for your child to see you take an active role in his education, and for you to meet the many people that interact with your child during his day.
Stick to Daily Routines – You’ll Be Glad You Did
Daily Routines are essential to maintaining a happy home. Morning routines get everyone out the door on time for school and work. Evening routines help get you through the witching hour (otherwise known as “homework”) without tears. Bedtime routines produce well-rested students ready for the day ahead.
Pack book bags and lunch boxes the night before. Keep school materials (book bag, shoes, etc.) by the door for an easy grab-on-the-go. Use simple checklists that your child can help develop and use, to work toward independence. Establish a homework area, and stock it with lots of office supplies. Set a limit of how much struggle you’ll allow before calling it a night, with a note to the teacher. Have a bed time set, and stick to it. Limit electronic screen time at least an hour before (and leave these devices, including the TV, out of the bedroom).
Routines are beneficial to everyone. As a parent of a child with special needs, your sanity depends on it!
If you are proactive in following through with these simple steps, it can mean the difference between a positive, productive school year and an undeniably unpleasant one.
Parents are the experts on their children, and I can only give advice as an observer. Have I missed anything? Let me know!