Back to School with Special Needs

young school children sitting gathered in front of teacher

Within a month after this is published, most U.S. schoolchildren will begin the 2023-24 school year. Including the demographic of kids who—along with their families—find that “back to school” involves more-complicated-than-average challenges.

If your child has a mental or physical disability, preparation stresses don’t stop at deciding which fashion fads are worth the money. The concerns and checklists may seem endless. Will your children be able to keep up physically and academically? Will they be bullied or excluded? Can you really trust the school not to demand “normal” behavior?

Fortunately, today’s schools are well aware of the need for universal inclusion (as opposed to “integration,” which typically expects students to make all the adjustments—see Parenting Special Needs Magazine, especially the infographic in the p. 9 “Continue Reading” section). Unfortunately, many schools still honor inclusion more in theory than in practice. In real life, when a teacher has twenty-plus restless kids to manage or a principal is worrying about standardized tests, it’s easy to succumb to pressure of the moment: “I know this child has a disability that makes it difficult to sit still, but she has to learn self-control sometime, and I have to think of the other kids who can’t concentrate with her tapping her foot all the time.”

Your Child’s Individualized Education Plan

Under law, any student with a diagnosed disability has the right to accommodations based on individual needs—and to educator cooperation in designing and implementing those accommodations. Still, even trained individual-education planners can catch the attitude, “it’d be easier for everyone if your kid would just learn to be like everyone else,” and may start pushing approaches your child isn’t capable of or ready for. As the person who knows your child best, you will always be your child’s best advocate.

That said, parents aren’t immune to distorted judgment either, so watch out for the overprotective instinct that assumes it already knows everything. Whether your child is receiving his first Individualized Education Plan or having an existing one reevaluated, be a good listener as well as a good advocate. This is a matter of doing what’s best for your child by achieving win-win solutions.

Ask your children what they want as well—it may not always be what you expect. If possible, include the child directly in official planning meetings.

(For further details on your family’s rights regarding individualized education planning, see U.S. Department of Education, “A Guide to the Individualized Education Program.”)

Other Back-to-School Tips

Whatever the details of your child’s personal education plan, preparing her for the new school year is still primarily your responsibility. You’re the one who will manage most details of back-to-school shopping, transportation, a new morning routine, and otherwise readying your child for the transition from summer vacation to structured education.

Challenging for almost any parent, the back-to-school transition is doubly so when a child has a condition that actively resists the discomfort of change. Take steps to keep the shift from being overly jarring:

  • A week or two before the first day of school, implement daily time to plan and rehearse the upcoming school-day routine with your child. Include games and practice lessons relevant to what will be covered in the first weeks of the school year. (See “Tech tools to get you back to school ready,” p. 28 of the latest Parenting Special Needs Magazine, for apps that can help in the planning procedure.)
  • Invite your kids to share specific concerns or uncertainties—and then don’t rush to reassure them “things will be fine,” or to offer ready-made advice. Give them a chance to talk out solutions on their own.
  • Request a virtual or in-person meeting where the child can meet her new teacher(s) in advance. If the child will be attending a new school, request an advance tour of the building as well.
  • See if the school has a “peer buddy” program that pairs students up to provide the struggling ones with support from more confident classmates. (See Parenting Special Needs, p. 14, for more details on how “peer buddy” programs work.)
  • If your child might be taking a school bus, find out in advance whether order-maintaining measures are in place: riding a bus brings out the rowdiness and the bullying tendencies in many kids, which can be literally traumatizing to a sensitive child or one who stands out.
  • Even if your district’s school bus provides an emotionally safe environment for your child, consider driving him for the first few days, to provide an empathetic ear as the last thing he experiences before school and the first thing after. Once he’s comfortable with the actual school experience, you can introduce him to the adventure of riding there without you.
  • Watch your own emotions! Many parents fear releasing their “baby” to new experiences more than the child fears going. If you aren’t calm yourself, there’s no way you can prepare your child to face the change calmly. If you can’t seem to look beyond imagined worst-case scenarios, consult your family therapist for help.
  • Express confidence in your children and send them off with your blessing!

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