How to Have a Smooth Back-to-School Year for Your Special Needs Child

Everyone catches the school jitters bug before school starts. But for those of us parents and care givers of neurodiverse students, the first few days or even weeks can be nerve wrecking. Transitions to a new grade, a new teacher, and even a new school can be difficult for everyone. However, there are so many other questions that often remain unanswered for parents of special need children such as: Was my child able to ask for a bathroom break? Was he able to tolerate classroom noises? Did he get weird looks at school and how did that impact him? Will he be able to cope with frustrations adaptively or will I get a phone call about a melt down or worse? Can he make one friend this year?

Here are five tips to help make the back-to-school transition as seamless and successful as possible.

Create a Social Story
When my son was 4 years old, he needed to be bussed to the special preschool for kids with autism. Needless to say, I was ridden with anxiety about the bus ride. My nonverbal son, who was diagnosed with severe autism, rode that bus calmly, waved goodbye to me and sat in his sit for the duration of the ride without any incident. That was the case for the whole year.

The social story I made helped both of us tremendously with that process. A social story is simply a short story you write to explain a social situation to your child, including how he should behave and what to expect from that situation. It could be a three to four sentences written in a children’s book format. You can write a social story about any situation to reduce your child’s anxiety, create familiarity, and to set expectations in place.

In my son’s case, I called the school department of transportation a few weeks before school and got the name of the bus driver and her physical description. I created the following story:

1st page:
“Mara is a very nice lady with short brown hair. She will pick you up in a yellow school bus every morning at 8:30 and take you to Ms. Parker’s school.”

2nd page:
“Mara and mommy will help you put on your seat belt and make sure you are sitting comfortably. Mommy will not ride the bus, but Ms. Parker will be waiting for you at the school. She will go inside the bus and help you remove your seat belt and take you inside the school.”

3rd page:
“Riding in the yellow bus is so much fun and you will have a very good time.”

4th page:
“When you come back, mommy will be waiting for you and will give you a big hug and kiss.”

The end.

I read that story to him everyday for a couple of weeks before school started.

Know Your Child’s IEP
Your child’s individual Educational Plan is the guiding light and the cornerstone to your child’s education. Be very familiar with the document. Know your child’s accommodations and ask for special IEP meetings if you feel that he no longer needs some accommodations or if you want to add others. This is your absolute right as a parent.

Know Your Child’s Teacher.
This is the most important tip that will help your child have a great year. This is especially crucial if your child is nonverbal, and you rely on the teacher’s communications to gage his day. Set up a meeting to meet the teacher and ask for daily communication log. You can make a simple one. A simple Google search will give you a plethora of choices. Teachers will make one as well.
Be a volunteer and attend school events.

When you look back, this will be time that you will treasure. You child will absolutely love that time you spend talking about art or reading a story or even making copies for the teacher. Being able to get a glimpse at your child in the school environment will reassure you that he is doing well and will allow you to also chime in and makes adjustments for him when necessary. Also, being visible creates awareness around disability, and special need students. It will make you a better advocate for your child.

Routine, Routine, Routine
That’s right! Routine is so important for your child’s wellbeing. Create a routine and try to stick to it as much as possible. Your child will be able to predict what’s happening next and feel safer in a predictable environment. Often, special need children have high levels of anxiety. Routine and a predictable schedule lessen some of that anxiety.

I hope you found these tips helpful. If you are a parent of a neurotypical child, encourage your child to smile and say hi to that special needs child if they see them in school. That smile or kind gesture can make a world of difference for everyone involved.

Written by: Mouna El-Khadiri, PsyD. PRO Medical

Dr. Mouna EL-Khadiri is licensed by the State of Washington as mental health counselor (LMHC) with over 15 years of experience. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She received supervised training in clinical psychology during her doctoral studies, a yearlong American Psychological Association (APA) accredited internship, and a yearlong postdoctoral fellowship. Dr. Mouna specializes in individual psychotherapy utilizing psychodynamic, humanistic, interpersonal and mindfulness approaches. She examines early childhood issues that may manifest and interfere with a client’s present life and prevent them from reaching their potential. She relies on the therapeutic relationship to foster change while using mindfulness to cultivate self-awareness and change habitual maladaptive behaviors. Dr. Mouna provides a caring and compassionate environment to allow her clients to heal and grow. She is dedicated to building relationships based on trust, genuine concerns, and unconditional positive regard to allow a client’s authentic self to emerge, so that they may live a more fulfilling life. She utilizes an active style of therapy and believes that it is a collaborative process.

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