Back to School Tips for Parents of Children with Special Needs

As families soak up the last few weeks of summer vacation, they may be starting to think about the new school year approaching. For parents of children with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, it can take a significant amount of preparation to create a seamless transition. Families need to ease their child’s anxiety, while helping him/her learn how to manage a new schedule.

Amy Kelly

Amy Kelly
National Director of Family Engagement

As a mother to three children – including a daughter with severe autism, as well as other intellectual and developmental disabilities – I understand how challenging it can be getting back into the swing of things. A new school year can create a unique set of issues and challenges for families and youth living with behavioral health differences. The following tips, which I’ve learned from personal experience, can help guide you and your family through this transition.

Tip #1: Set a back-to-school sleep schedule (and start early!)

With summer activities filling your calendar, it can be challenging to keep your child on a consistent sleep schedule. The sooner you can set a back-to-school bedtime routine, the easier it will be when the alarm clock rings on the first day of school. Start your back-to-school sleep schedule a few weeks early – and be consistent. Make adjustments in 15-minute increments every other day (when going to bed and waking up) to allow your child plenty of time to comfortably make the transition.

Tip #2: Start counting down

To ensure the beginning of the school year is not a surprise, communication is key. Start talking about the upcoming school year about three to four weeks prior, and count down to the first day. Families can mark off days on a calendar, create a countdown sheet or make a visual schedule to help children look ahead to events and activities – and become accustomed to the idea of the new school year. This should be a fun activity and something you can do together!

Tip #3: Generate excitement

While discussing the upcoming school year with your child, talk about it with enthusiasm to help relieve any end-of-summer jitters. Emphasize exciting new classes, upcoming field trips and fun projects. This is a great time to pump your child up! A new school year means another opportunity to learn, grow and create new memories.

Tip #4: Stock up on supplies

Make sure you have what you need to start the school year off right. Purchase supplies (e.g., fidget spinner, new backpack, colorful lunch box) to help your child remain relaxed and organized while at school. If appropriate, pack a small bag for emergencies, and fill it with items such as undergarments, socks and pants. You can also include items, such as a swimsuit, for extracurricular outings. This a great way to prepare for the unexpected.

Tip #5: Take a tour

If your child is attending a new school, make arrangements to take a tour before classes begin. Locating new classrooms, restrooms, the gym and cafeteria – and talking through any questions or concerns your child might have – are extremely important to reduce anxiety. Take photos of the school to remind your child about what he/she can expect or create a social story– a widely used intervention tool that uses text and photos to help individuals with autism prepare for the nuances of social situations. You can also drive the route your kids will travel to and from school, so it becomes familiar and less intimidating.

Tip #6: Touch base with teachers and therapists

Before the start of the school year, set up time to chat with teachers and therapists about your child’s summer and any new developments. Share a copy of his/her latest education plan, and review or establish a communication log or checklist to ensure everyone is on the same page about education and treatment from the get-go. You are your child’s best advocate, and taking these steps can help to ensure the start of the school year is a success!

To learn more about Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health – and our legacy of helping individuals, families and communities in need – click here.

Amy Kelly is the mother to Danny, Annie and Ryan. Annie is diagnosed with moderate to severe autism, verbal apraxia, intellectual and developmental disabilities and general anxiety disorder. Amy is the National Director of Family Engagement for Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit providers of behavioral healthcare, and serves as a family representative on several special needs boards in the community, locally and nationally. In addition, she participates with other patients and families in efforts supported by the American Board of Pediatrics Foundation and the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network to address children with special needs and the importance of quality care.

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