Most families know the back-to-school season as a time of fresh starts — school supplies, new shoes, photos on the front porch on the first day and maybe a few butterflies in the stomach. Families that include a student with special needs can have a much different experience, with unknowns extending well beyond the typical lunch menu or friendship worries.
Will my student be safe?
Will she be understood?
Will he have the help he needs to thrive?
Will our IEP or 504 plan work?
The back-to-school season is the perfect time for parents and guardians to take simple steps to reduce unknowns for your child, your family and the school. Together, these steps can begin to lay a foundation of trust and hope for a safe, supported and healthy year ahead.
Open the lines of communication
Every year, all students go through a lot of changes that may even come as a surprise when a new year begins. And depending on the last time your student was attending school in person or on a regular basis, the changes may be even more noticeable. Chances are, there have also been changes among the teachers, counselors and other school professionals you’ll interact with during the school year.
As a parent, you know your child best. Since March 2020, you may also have supported your student learning from home, giving you new insight into areas of strength and areas of struggle. Your perspective and first-hand knowledge could not be more important to the success of your student in the school year ahead. Plan to intentionally share it with the team at school.
“Every year at this time, I’d have my son’s list of teachers and just start sending emails to introduce myself and provide the information I thought teachers might need to connect more easily with him,” said a mom and Vitals™ caregiver whose son with Autism Spectrum Disorder is now in college. “It was one thing I could do to help set him up for success, and it helped me feel like I had a little more control of a smooth transition back to school.”
Now is the time to open a conversation with the teachers, counselors, principal, attendance secretary — anyone you think could help your student succeed. Opening these lines of communication now will build channels of support before the first day of school arrives.
And whether your student is starting in a new school, or returning for another year in a familiar school, now is the time to ask about any programs or activities that might support your student and their needs. Are there opportunities during or after school that could be a good fit for your child’s support or success? It never hurts to ask.
Document your child’s changing IEP or 504 needs
Some of the most important — and technical — communication between schools and parents of students with special needs revolves around an Individual Education Plan or Section 504 Plan. Depending on when your child’s plan was last reviewed, it’s possible that updates are needed if your child has matured or gone through other key changes.
Begin by making a list of the things about your student that have changed in the last year or so.
- Mental health
- Eyesight or hearing
- De-escalation techniques
- Learning needs or styles
- Anything else unique to your child
Next, consider what updates may be needed for your child’s IEP or 504 plan to get the best school support for your student with special needs. The Autism Society of America has helpful IEP resources for parents, including a reminder of the role of parents and guardians. Since 2004, federal law has required parental involvement for creating and reviewing IEPs, including a signature for the IEP’s final approval.
As a parent or guardian, you should seek to be active participants in the IEP or 504 process, sharing suggestions and opinions about your child’s education. Parents of students with special needs are encouraged to provide updated information about their student’s strengths or needs at school. They can also request a meeting to review the IEP at any time during the year.
Before you contact the school or request an IEP meeting, spend some time reflecting on these questions, recommended by the Autism Society. Jotting down a few words or thoughts for each will create a simple and clear way to express your ideas and concerns. It will also help the school team look for gaps in your student’s plan, or updates needed for the coming year.
- What vision do you have for your child – for the future, as well as the school year?
- What strengths, needs and interests does your child have?
- What are your biggest concerns about his/her education?
- What has and has not worked for your child at school so far?
A few simple notes will prepare you to work with your student’s school now and all year long. And working together will help make sure your child’s IEP or 504 plan will help create a smoother school year for your child.
Familiarize yourself (and your child) with school, routes and other places
One of the easiest things you can do with your student is visit school, classrooms and any other places that will be part of the school year experience. Together, practice the walking, bus or driving routes that will take them through their day.
Check with your child’s school about visiting before school starts. Many schools offer windows of time for new students or those with special needs to walk around and get to know key teachers and office staff members. If there are no specific times scheduled, ask what is needed (advance notice, special arrangements, masks or other COVID restrictions) for you and your student to make a visit.
It’s not uncommon for routes to and from school and activities to change from year to year. And even if you don’t anticipate changes this year, everyone benefits from a refresher! Drive, walk or ride the routes together a few times before the first day of school. Consider printing or drawing a map of your neighborhood or community to trace the routes together. This is especially useful if your student will be driving or riding with a neighbor or friend.
Safe routes to and from school can quickly become a worry for anyone who cares for a vulnerable child or teenager. Life can be unpredictable when students are responsible for their safety, whether walking, riding or driving. If you worry that your student’s behavior or limited communication could create misunderstandings with first responders, the Vitals™ App can help.
The Vitals™ App is a digital medical ID that bridges the communication gap between vulnerable people and emergency responders to replace confusion with calm compassion.
Practice key routines
Students, parents/guardians and families all benefit from healthy and predictable routines — especially during the changes and busy households that are all too familiar this time of year. Routines are a powerful tool for any household to reduce chaos and increase predictability and calm for everyone.
Researchers agree that the benefit of routines is even greater for many young people with special needs, including ASD. An established schedule and predictable expectations for the day can help children with special needs build self-confidence, manage time better and regulate their behavior more easily.
Start by considering the simple home or transportation routines that are involved in a school day. Then examine which ones could use additional practice after the summer months (or perhaps after a pandemic year of interrupted routines). Meal times, sleep habits, technology use and school work are all common areas for most families. Learn more about back-to-school routines for your household.