One of the most important strategies for supporting special needs kids is an individualized, back-to-school orientation. There will be a formal back-to-school event, but that may be an overwhelming and negative for some kids. An orientation is especially crucial for kids on autism spectrum, as well as kids with anxiety related to their disability. Hopefully, this orientation has already been listed as an accommodation on their IEP. In my experience, it can provide a much improved start to the school year. Here are some guidelines:
- The classroom teacher and specialist should collaborate on the timing to reduce stress on the teacher. The classroom does not have to be in “perfect” form but the basics should be evident. Furniture, large group space, and cubbies should be organized.
- This orientation is NOT a parent-teacher conference, so parents should be careful not to use it for that purpose (which is likely to overwhelm the classroom teacher). This orientation is a way for the student to greet the teacher without the horde of parents and kids. It allows the special needs student to quietly explore the room. It’s important for the student to know the location of the bathroom, classroom sink, and cubbies. If possible, the child should already have an assigned cubby which is easily reached without climbing over other students and their gear. Some teachers will have assigned that student a desk/table, while other teachers have a few books or materials relating to that student’s special interests. The specialist can also assist with those items.
- The specialist should escort the parent/s and student to the class and remain during the entire orientation, which usually lasts 15 minutes or so. Parents and teachers typically chat while the student explores, after the student has interacted with the teacher. Again, the specialist must ensure that this does not become a conference. Please respect teacher preparation time! It might be possible to schedule a conference, but I would recommend giving the teacher some time to become familiar with the student before setting up a meeting.
- Before leaving, provide an opportunity for the student to ask questions. I have typically asked questions for most students, such as, “When can I take a bathroom break?” and “Where do we have recess?” Parents may also know of other issues which have been worrying their kids.