With just a few weeks before the start of school, I know I am not alone in feeling that slight anxious energy in the pit of my belly. The one where you know something big is coming but you rather not think about it and decide to put it off. Unfortunately, at this point in the summer it’s almost impossible to walk into a store or shop online without seeing the back to school deals everywhere, pressuring us to spend money and start getting ready for the return to school. Don’t get me wrong, while I am happy that they are going back to school and I won’t feel the pressure of “planning a fun summer”, I am not looking forward to that dreaded hectic always “on the run” schedule. You know what I am talking about! The attending back to school nights, PTA meetings, working on school projects, after school activities, doing HW, showers, tutoring, dinner, and if we are lucky fitting in some fun family activity all before an earlier bedtime. Phew! I’m tired just thinking about it!
While every child and family can face many challenges with heading back to school each year, for the 20% of families like ours with children who suffer from a mental health or learning disorder, back to school time can be exceptionally hard. Truth is, going back to school often demands things that summer fun doesn’t. At school kids have to sit still, stay on task, get their thoughts and materials organized, they are expected to produce work despite of invisible challenges and disabilities, they have to navigate friendships and also regulate difficult emotions in a way that is socially acceptable. For special needs parents back to school comes with additional duties and responsibilities than that of parents whose children don’t have a mental health or learning disorder. Special needs parents have to frequently communicate with teachers, make it to therapy appointments, attend IEP or 504 (Individual Education Plan) meetings, and constantly advocate for their child’s legal right to receive equal access to quality education that is already offered to their neurotypical peers (Neurotypical people are those who do not have a diagnosis of autism or any other intellectual, mental, or developmental diagnosis. Neurotypical people think, perceive, learn, and behave in ways that are considered to be “normal” by the general population).
As you already know, I am the proud mom of 2 beautiful boys, one who has both a mental health disorder and a learning disability and one who is considered to be neurotypical. For me, as a special needs mom I see back to school season as daunting but have a few things that I start getting ready long before the first day of school to make life just a little easier for me.
As I get ready to send off our boys into 2nd and 4th grade this year I want to share 9 things I have found help us get ahead of the crazy school year, aid in a smooth transition, and keep me from literally, losing my mind!
1. Be kind to yourself. Make sure you have done as much as you can to be mentally prepared for the back to school season because if you are unable to practice and model confidence, problem solving and self love, chances are your child won’t either. I like to get my nails done and make plans. So please, please, please set up your medical appointments, go do your nails, go to a spa, spend time alone, spend time with friends, or go on a date night. Basically do anything that helps you feel good, valued, and inspired.
2. Sync your calendars. Go and grab those school calendars you got in the mail over the summer and get to work. If your school doesn’t mail them out, you can probably find them on their website, or on your school districts web page. If all else fails, wait for the first day of school as they are usually sent out with all of those forms you fill out . Our boys attend two different schools, one is good with mailing the calendar while the other one is not, so I end up using the NYC department of education main calendar as a guide to see vacation days, parent teacher conference nights, etc. Once school begins and I attend back to school night/meet the teacher night, I make sure to update the calendar with any additional information they provide. For me, seeing a calendar and having a plan helps me keep my anxiety low therefore I am better able to manage the needs of my boys. I love to grab a cup of coffee and play some good music while I update our shared google family calendar. While I also use a Passion planner (I like planners and this is my favorite paper planner), our main calendar is the google one because it just integrates well with all of our devices at home and work and I love that you can set several reminders that come via email, texts, or phone notifications. No more forgotten meetings or school event. Theres a reason my boys call me “Dory brain”.
3. Organize ALL the paperwork. If your child has an IEP or a 504 chances are you have tons of paperwork, forms, evaluations, report cards, trackers, and the list goes on. Making an IEP binder for each school year is a great way to keep information organized and ready for when you need it. Having an IEP binder has made my life easier when it comes to preparing and attending IEP meetings and assisting with better communicating and collaborating with my son’s teachers and entire support team. Understood.org’s article on how to organize your child’s IEP binder is where I got the inspiration to set up ours. A saying in the world of social work is “if its not documented, it didn’t happen”. I cant tell you how much of a life saver our IEP binder has been because we know exactly where everything is.
4. Review your IEP (Individual Education Plan) or 504 Plan. It’s important to get re-acquainted with this very important document. As parents we are our child’s biggest advocate and it’s important to refresh our memories on areas where are children struggle and flourish at school. Also, reviewing and understanding the goals as well as the management needs and accommodations for your child is crucial as you meet the new teacher and get an understanding of exactly how this will be implemented and how their progress will be tracked in their specific classroom. I like to keep 2 copies in our IEP binder, one with my highlights & notes, and another one in case I need to share a copy during a meeting. These come in handy as I track the implementation and efficacy of the current plan in place.
5. Decrease TV time and Re-set sleep patterns. This one is a big one in our house. All summer we tend to let them go to bed later and get in more screen time. Around 2 weeks before school starts we start to slowly decrease screen time including video games and social media. While we are not against TV or screen time, we do limit the amount of time our boys spend on screens overall. I don’t know about your kids but if we cut screens cold turkey, oh man! It’s melt down city. So we let them know its coming and cut back significantly on screen time about 1-2 weeks before school. By the time the 1st day of school comes, we are all back on the same routine and sleep schedule and able to handle waking up earlier.
6. Relieve back-to-school jitters. Anything new always brings the possibility of worry or anxiety, its human nature. Making the transition back to school can be one of those triggering events that can lead to changes in behavior and tantrums. It’s important to start conversations about back to school to give kids a safe place to express their concerns, but also give you a chance to know where they need the most support. Something we like to do is read books centering on the first day of school. This allows our boys to talk about the character’s challenges and often their own worries come up. A quick search at your local library or Amazon can show tons of back to school books. These are our 3 favorite books that we use every year no matter what grade the boys are entering because they love them and they spark so much conversation: 1. The Night before Kindergarten, 2. First Day Jitters, 3. David Goes to School, and 4. Llama Llama Misses Mama.
7. Write a get to know me letter. No one knows your child better than both you and him/her. Don’t assume anyone at school from last year has passed on any tips, challenges or successes from the previous school year to your child’s new teacher. A get to know me letter is short & sweet and allows you and your child to share things about your child that may help the teacher understand & get to know him or her better. Understood.org has a great back to school introduction letter template that is worth checking out.
8. Get your child back on medication. (please know that I am not a psychiatrist and do not advise any parent to give or not give medication to their child as that is a personal decision for parents to make alongside their doctors. The advice I share is from personal and professional experience). As it is with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) there are some mental health disorders in which medication is prescribed to help with symptoms. Some families choose to only use the medication prescribed only when there is school. So when summer is out, many kids don’t take it as they no longer have to spend so many hours focusing and regulating their behavior. If your family was planning on getting back on medication or starting and if is an option for your family, I would strongly suggest to go back to your doctors and discuss the plan to get back on medication a few weeks prior to the start of school in order to give the child and their body a chance to get accustomed to the medication. Professionally, I can’t tell you how many of my students and clients struggled when going back to school because they either just started medication or were waiting to get medication prescribed, which meant they started medication once school already began. So, if your child is on medication or you are considering, definitely make your appointments with their doctors or psychiatrist several weeks before school starts.
9. Practice the use of any fidgets or sensory aids at home. Whether your child already uses fidgets or sensory aids in the classroom or you are looking into them, summer is a great time to try and figure out which ones are the best for your child. For us, sensory aids change year to year as our son grows and his sensory needs shift. Our son tends to chew on things, rip paper, and sometimes even make sounds as he tries to self regulate in class. Each summer we like to try out old and new sensory aids while he works on his summer worksheets (yes, I am that mom that makes our boys do work before play in the summer. No summer slide here!) to make sure they will be helpful in the classroom. We tend to put away ones that are more distracting and replace with others in its place. Since everyone’s sensory needs are so different, its important that you discuss with your child’s therapist, teacher, or doctors on whether or not they would benefit your child. To learn more, Understood.org has a great article on classroom accommodations for sensory processing issues. Here are 3 that we buy every year and make sure we give extra to their teacher are, 1. chew necklaces and pencil toppers, 2. Kick bands for the chair, and 3. Marble fidgets.
I hope you found this post helpful and that you please share it so other’s can benefit and join in on the conversation.
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