Guy concentrating on pushing buttons that light up to test reflexes.

A few years ago, when summer was coming to a close, my son prepared to go back to elementary school. Typically, he struggles with transitions to new environments, but I thought to myself, “He’s going to be in the same school building as last year, so the first day of school shouldn’t be a big deal.”

By the end of the first day (and two phone calls from the school later) I had learned my lesson. Yes, he was in the same building, but he had a whole new classroom to explore! His natural desire to discover his environment turned into a rough first day for him and his teacher (and me).

Instead of trying to stop him from exploring, we now set up a time to visit his teacher and classroom a few weeks before school starts to check out the room. He can ask tons of questions without interrupting the first day of class, and he can explore everything that catches his eye. This also allows me to talk with his teachers and help them get to know my son better, so they can be better prepared on some things to expect from him.

I know my family isn’t alone: lots of kids have a tough time with the transition back to school.

Throughout my over 10 years as a Case Manager, I’ve learned many ways to help children thrive at school: from small tips on having a good first day, to navigating the formal supports provided by the school. I hope the ideas below will inspire you when it comes to helping your child make the most of their time at school.

Visit the Classroom by Yourselves:

  • Kids with special healthcare needs may benefit from seeing their classroom in a quiet setting (not just the usual open house with 30 other kids and their parents). Ask your child’s teacher if there’s a time you could visit before school starts. Be open and honest about wanting to help your child start the year off on the right foot. Teachers want to see their students succeed and will likely be willing to accommodate this kind of request.

Use Social Stories:

  • It can be hard to wrap our minds around a big change in our lives. Things that seem small to you might seem huge to your child. Social stories were designed to help kids with autism navigate unfamiliar settings and interact appropriately with others, but the clear communication they provide can be helpful for all kids.
  • Social stories break events or activities down into bite-sized descriptions and steps, and describe what will happen from your child’s perspective. Social stories are especially helpful when your child has to transition from an activity they like to one they dislike. You can create a version for all kinds of activities – from your school day morning routine to bathroom etiquette. For an example of a social story check out the story the Des Moines Community Playhouse shared for kids planning to attend one their community programs.

Connect with Other Parents:

  • Learning from each other is the key to success. Every parent has experienced something you can learn from. Even small moments like the story I shared above can help you avoid trouble spots and set your child and family up for success. Not sure where to meet other parents? One place to start is to consider a support group. A second tip simply is getting used to asking, “What’s worked for you?” and listening closely.

Stay in the Loop about Formal Support Options:

  • The 504 plan and Individualized Education Program are two different options that help schools make learning accessible to kids with disabilities. These personalized programs help teachers adapt the school setting to be the most effective for your child. Your child might not need a formal support plan right now, but as the demands of school increase each year, it will be helpful to have a bird’s eye view of these options in case you need them later.
  • If you’re new to the idea of a formal support, the following descriptions will be a good starting point. However, organizations like ASK Resources and Understood.org are outstanding places to dive deeper.
  • A 504 is a plan that schools make to give kids with diagnosed disabilities the support they need to access the same learning opportunities as their classmates. Providing accommodations in school is actually part of our country’s civil rights law, which is where the 504 gets its name (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). There aren’t laws regarding exactly what a 504 must include, though most schools have a written outline they follow. The more you speak up on behalf of your child, the better your school can partner with you to provide the right supports.
  • An Individualized Education Program (IEP) sets specific learning goals for a child and describes the services the school will give him or her. To qualify, a child must be diagnosed with one or more of these 13 disabilities.
  • After an evaluation and meetings to create an appropriate program, your child might get accommodations like extended time on tests; related services, like speech-language therapy; or supports like assistive technology. If you think your child might benefit from an IEP, this helpful “road map”  from understood.org will help you learn even more about the specific process involved in building an IEP.

Most importantly, I encourage you to take this journey one day at a time. Helping your child have the best school experience possible is a worthwhile goal – but it isn’t something you can accomplish in a month or even a year. It’s an ongoing experience that takes a team, and everyone is learning and discovering together. Each time you read articles like this, explore resources, and ask questions, you’re making progress on an important mission: helping your child live a great life!

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ChildServe improves the health and well-being of nearly 4,500 children each year through specialized clinical, home, and community-based programs and services. We serve children with developmental delays, disabilities, acquired injuries, and other special healthcare needs.

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