back to school

Back-to-school time can present some unique challenges for parents of children with special needs. Read on for some great tips from Marriage and Family Therapist Amelia Peck on how to start a successful school year.

Around this time of year, people fill Instagram and Facebook with photos of school supply lists and trips to Target. It is an incredibly busy time of year as summer comes to a close and families transition back into the school routine. But for some parents, school supply lists are low on the priority chain. Parents of children with special needs have a unique set of tasks before the school year begins. The time required to complete all these elements can feel like a job. Here’s a list of ways you can prepare yourself and your child for a great year.

1. Start with a solid plan for your child with special needs

While not all disabilities require special classes or additional academic help, there are standard tools that schools use nationwide. Those are to help communicate with a child’s school what the school needs to have in place to ensure a child has full access to all of their educational needs. The two plans you hear about the most are the 504 Plan and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). These plans are very common but many people don’t understand their differences.

Both apply to children who have a disability identified and are attending school. The main difference, however, is that a 504 Plan ensures that accommodations are made to support a child’s learning environment. An IEP on the other hand identifies specialized instructional needs. This can also articulate if a child needs additional services like occupational therapy, speech therapy or a specific program to target specific needs. Both plans are designed to show how a child progresses each year and are most effective when completed each year. These tools serve as a means to help increase awareness of a child’s performance and development in school.

mother daughter teacher2. Ask the right questions about education plans for those with special needs

I often advise my clients who have children with special needs to ask their school how many children enrolled have an IEP or a 504 Plan. This can offer some insight into how readily a school’s infrastructure is tailored to address these needs. While 504 Plans and IEPs are common, parents are the child’s biggest advocate help see that these plans are developed and services are linked if needed.

In addition, depending on a child’s needs, an Applied Behavior Analytics, or ABA, therapist or technician could also help a child’s experience in school. An ABA staff is someone who provides treatment to children diagnosed with language, communication, behavioral and developmental disorders. They are commonly assigned to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and can serve as a key support for a child and an advocate for their needs.

3. Pursue additional resources to help you advocate for your child with special needs

Unfortunately for many families, additional services for a child can mean additional costs for families. Insurance often covers the accommodations and services articulated in a 504 Plan or IEP. But there are frequent reports of families having to safeguard the services mapped out for their child. They also have to explain how they meet medical necessity (meaning the interventions being provided directly address the child’s diagnosis).

It is not uncommon for claims to be called into question. Since there is no question that additional support for these children help them thrive in an educational environment, organizations like the Mental Health & Autism Insurance Project are showing up to advocate for families whose insurance claims have been denied. You can read some of their amazing success stories here.

boy special needs Down syndrome nursery school teacher parent4. Connect with school staff

These plans lay out the groundwork for a child’s school year, but the next piece of the puzzle is preparing the child to go back to school. All kids function well and often thrive on a routine, but for a kid with special needs, routine is essential.

As I was looking for elements to include in this article, I reached out to my cousin, Meredith Spray. She just sent her four-year-old son who has been diagnosed with ASD back to school. She and her husband both work and have twins that just turned one. So there is a lot to tend to around their home and schedules can get complicated. I wanted to know what she felt like were her biggest considerations and challenges during this transitional season, and how do you plan on what to expect, when so often you feel like the only constant in your life is change.

“My son’s connection with his teachers is essential,” said Meredith. “He isn’t as verbal as other kids, so I have to really put a lot of trust in the system and who he is with every day to communicate with me. He isn’t going to be able to tell me if someone got yelled at for spilling their drink or that a teacher wasn’t patient with him when he was trying to tell her something. Knowing there is a good connection with the teacher is the main thing that eases my anxiety.”

5. Keep the lines of communication open

She feels fortunate this year because her son has the benefit of being with a teacher he is familiar with, but that hasn’t always been the case. “I know my son can be really difficult,” she said. “My son was paired with an ABA Tech once who quit after working with him for one day. It made me so upset.” Just as children in mainstream classes can have teachers who seem to have missed their calling to another profession, the same happens in special needs classes. “We had to talk with people at the school to make sure that didn’t happen again. It isn’t fair to him.”

Since it is possible that special needs children will interact with several different teachers and specialists throughout the day. Knowing each of them by name and how to get ahold of them is important because it allows for more open communication about the child’s needs and can also help a parent feel more connected while their child is away from them during the day.

teacher boy talking

6. Prepare your child

Meet the Teacher Day is a common back to school tradition. It can be crucial to helping a child navigate the environment amidst the transition. Even if a child is returning to a school they attended previously, reacclimating to different stimuli in the school or understanding that they will be in a different classroom or with a different teacher or staff than the previous year are important. Depending on the previous experience a child has had at a certain school or any type of facility, a parent may not know how their child will respond to the change until it happens.

If a school doesn’t offer a formal day like this, it is always appropriate to call the school’s office and ask for permission for an appointment to walk the child through the school and inquire if it is possible to meet their teachers. You can also ask the school about what a child’s schedule will be. Using stickers, colors, maps, or whatever it is that your child is drawn towards, help them create a daily agenda. So you can give them some expectation of what is to come.

7. Prepare yourself

When the only thing that is consistent with a child is inconsistency, it’s good to take a look at the routines in the home. Those can promote some kind of baseline pattern. So, if you are the parent of a special needs child, what are ways to prepare yourself to help your new morning routine? Is it a capsule wardrobe for drop-off attire? A healthy breakfast prepared in advance? Is it a simple way to fix your hair so that you feel slightly more put-together as you leave the home? If you have the gift of a child who wakes up around the same time every day, is it waking up 30 minutes earlier? The consistency parents can set for themselves and other children in the home, can help a child with special needs develop more of their own consistency and routine. Even if it comes at a different pace.

If you are the friend of a parent who has a child with special needs, know that sending them to school is one of the scariest and most vulnerable things they may do in the coming weeks. If you are a parent of a child with special needs, remember to take everything one step at a time. Ask any question you want, even if you feel like it is silly or superficial. Tell your child’s teachers and aids if there is anything about your child or their communication that can help with the transition. Little things can make big connections, and small victories are worth celebrating.

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