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.
It’s time to purchase school tools, which range from book bags to calculators. Depending upon your child’s interests and tolerance for shopping, this can be an opportunity for gently reminding kids that school is approaching. Your school probably has a supply list available. If not, it’s still important to shop early for a couple of items which have social and personal significance: backpacks and lunch boxes. Kids usually have a sense of preferred colors and styles, so shop before the selection is limited. If your child can only tolerate a short expedition, make it a backpack and lunch box outing and complete the rest on your own. Did I mention those awesome metallic Sharpie pens? Again, based upon their abilities and interests, you might give your child an opportunity to label these two items. I would suggest practice on a piece of paper first and limit marking to a single edge. Having these items labeled will make them easier to distinguish for both students and teachers. You’d be amazed at how many kids end up with identical lunch boxes. You should label both with their name, even if your child does not. Consider adding something distinctive to the outside, just as you would a piece of luggage at the airport. Believe me, a cafeteria is worse than any baggage claim area!
As your child gets ready for school, it’s time to dust off the file folders and review paperwork from the past school year, at least. What paperwork? Your copy of the IEP or 504 plan, printouts of all emails and correspondence, invitations to conferences, evaluation results, and any other notes related to school. I suggest filing materials by year, with sections for legal documents, correspondence, and other notes.
Why review the paperwork? You want to start off with your child’s goals and progress clearly in mind. Assuming you have an individual back-to-school orientation planned, you’ll want to be prepared for a brief Q & A with the teacher/s. (More on that in a later post.) You also need to be very clear about what accommodations and modifications are in place. Evaluate their effectiveness based upon last year’s outcomes.
This is also a good time to set your own goals for the school year. List what worked well last year and what you’d like to see happen this year. Set up a school calendar and note important dates: IEP annual review, reevaluation (if it’s due this year), parent-teacher conferences, report cards, etc. Make notes to ask for a draft of the IEP a few weeks before the meeting. Remind yourself if you want the OT and SLI involved in your conference with the classroom teacher.
Decide what form of home-school communication would best support your child’s outcome. As a special educator, I wrote in a journal daily for some students on the autism spectrum. For others, I sent regular emails or even communicated with a team through a wiki. It could be that you want feedback on certain activities, such as current topics for social skills groups. Or perhaps you want to know with which students your child is making connections so you can arrange a playdate. Did your child have a meltdown? Was he or she sent to the office? Problems at recess? A short checklist can also make it easier for staff to provide feedback; in fact, that’s probably the most effective way to get classroom feedback on a regular basis. I have created a sample if you are looking for ideas.
As the new school year approaches for students on a traditional calendar, it’s time to start watching the clock! Now is a perfect time to begin acclimating your child to a school schedule for bedtime and waking. Some parents never planned to change their schedule during the summer, but it’s easy to slide into a different time zone. Although an earlier bedtime usually provides an oasis for parents, who wants to start getting up at 6:30? Take it from me: it’s worth the effort. Every year, I see kids (and teachers) stumbling through their first week of school, groggy and often irritable. Help your kid start off alert and refreshed!