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Written by:  Julia Garstecki
Date: August 1, 2011

My anxiety kicks in as the countdown to a new school year begins, as if the tardy bell has sounded and I'm just walking in the door. What will the teacher be like? Will the other children be nice? How much homework will there be, and will my child be able to do it? What will happen at recess? It's unnerving, more now as a mom than when I climbed on to the big yellow bus myself.

For some children, it's simple. They might be naturally social, follow and understand directions easily, or enjoy a challenge. Others, however, may have difficulty following multistep directions, have speech issues that make it challenging to banter with other students, or struggle to sit at a desk and focus on their work.

For parents of children with special needs, starting a new school year can come with increased anxieties. If the difference is physical, the student often has to deal with alternate equipment and the understanding that they may incur limits. Other students might have an aide that stays with them or they may be pulled out of the general education classroom periodically. Students with food allergies may not be able to enjoy birthday treats or food from the cafeteria.

These differences can make for an apprehensive start. The good news, however, is many of these issues resolve themselves, and parents tend to worry about things more than children do.

One thing I know for sure is I never let on to my son that I have these anxieties. I'm all smiles until he's gone, which is when I break down and panic.

Here are some tips for helping your child with special needs acclimate to the new school year:

Consider school routines and expectations weeks before school begins.

Jean Winegardner, mother of an autistic son and blogger at www.stimeyland.com, offers sound advice: "One great way to make sure your child gets a good start on the school year is to maintain a routine over the summer. If you can't keep it up the whole summer, start a couple of weeks before school starts. Do circle time in your living room. Do fun practice worksheets. Get him or her back in the school groove so the transition is easier."

Stephanie Mihalas, psychologist and founder of The Center for Well-Being: Psychological Services for Children, Youth and Families, agrees about reinforcing school behavior at home. "Sitting 'crisscross applesauce' and walking in line will be expected at school," she says. "Practicing these behaviors at home is easy and helpful for your child."

Introduce the school to your child before the first bell rings.

Author Chantal Sicile-Kira has more than 25 years of firsthand experience with children with special needs. Her autistic son graduated from high school last spring. Her newest book, 41 Things To Know About Autism, provides help for families.

"Prime your child by talking to him or her about the upcoming school year, the teacher and expectations, as well as any fears or concerns your child has," she recommends. "Creating a photo album together or writing social stories can be very helpful. Even if your child does not have good communication skills or is nonverbal, he or she can learn to understand and make the connection, so it is worth the effort to take the extra time to do this."

Another strategy Sicile-Kira found useful was taking her son to school and pointing out landmarks he could use to navigate around campus. The school will look different when hundreds of students are there, and a child who may get distracted or struggle with locating classrooms will benefit from this simple trick.

Introduce yourself and the disability to the school staff.

Winegardner suggests getting to know the principal or assistant principal. "In my son's case, behavioral incidents get referred to the assistant principal, so I make sure that I have a good relationship with her," she says.

She also suggests meeting with your child's therapy team before the year starts to express your concerns and thoughts. Winegardner offers the teacher a document outlining her son's likes and dislikes, his strengths and struggles, and any other pertinent information.

Many websites, such as www.apraxia-kids.org, actually provide letters to print and hand to teachers and faculty that explain the disability and offer suggestions to use with students who have particular special needs. For illnesses or disabilities not widely known, creating a short list of facts and resources can help teachers understand how they can help your child adjust to the classroom.

Review the IEP, and be sure services are scheduled and followed.

"Review your child's IEP (individualized education program) document to refresh your memory about what the goals are," Sicile-Kira says. "If you have any questions as to how the IEP will be implemented, get a list going to communicate your questions to the person responsible. If your child is to receive aide support as stipulated by the IEP, it would be a good idea to contact the administrator to ensure that an aide has been assigned. If specific training has been specified in the IEP, ask if the aide has been trained or when the training will take place."

Check your attitude.

Diane Talbot, a learning specialist, suggests starting the school year with an informed but open attitude. "Sometimes a parent who has had previous bad experiences brings that along and immediately creates a hostile situation," she says. "There are bad teachers out there, but most of us are caring and want your child to be successful."

Follow through with teacher meetings, but also with suggestions you are given.

"If the teacher offers advice on activities you could do with your child, take the advice," Talbot says. "Get informed and read books on how you can help your child. Make sure they eat right and get plenty of rest. Read, read, read to them. Did I mention read to them? Play games and talk to them. Cook with them, make art projects, kick back and watch the clouds together. Between us, we can help your child achieve and learn."

Although sending your child into a new situation can be unsettling, preparing your student, whether he or she has a special need or not, is the best bet for a great school year. The trick is to not go overboard. Be sure to enjoy the rest of the summer with your child and remain positive. The butterflies will only last a few moments for your child, and within weeks, yours will be settled, too.  n

Julia Garstecki enjoys her career as an educator and freelance writer, but prefers hanging out with her two children.



Tips for starting school with older students
Chantal Sicile-Kira, author of 41 Things To Know About Autism and the mother of a high school graduate with autism, offers the following tips for parents of older students who have special needs:

*     Get a planner for your tween or teen. Many middle and high schools have a homework planner, and your teen can use this to keep track of homework assignments.

*     Show your teen how to write his assignments in the planner and reinforce when he does this throughout the school year.

*     Designate a spot in your child's backpack for forms, notes and so on that come home from school, and make sure your teen and the school staff know where that is.

*     If your tween or teen is fully included in a middle or high school that follows block scheduling by day, you may wish to consider having two separate backpacks for the two different block days.



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