As we all know, making the transition back from a likely carefree summer to the more structured school year can be rough for many children. But, back to school season can be a particularly difficult transition for kids with learning differences. Many times, these are children who already have challenges surrounding transitions. But the fact that the transition is back to a situation that is likely the source of a great deal of stress and anxiety only makes things worse.
So, at this time of the year, we should keep in mind that the key goal should be to minimize stress and maximize the chance for success. That’s going to look different for different families, but planning to do following steps will benefit almost everyone. These tips are primarily geared toward parents of elementary school children.
(1) Preview the New Routines
Start reviewing the morning, daily, and weekly routines that you will be expecting for the new school year. If your child finds visual reminders helpful, start setting that up now. And have your child help create materials to the extent possible. So, if you use a morning checklist or an after school checklist, pull out the poster board and markers work with your child to create them.
Chart out a master weekly calendar with your child. This will help set expectations. And, it gives everyone a chance to start seeing how everything will fit together. Your master calendar should include things like homework time, include special time, play time, other social or church activities.
Have fun with it and make it a fun project. Pull pull out the colored pencils, markers, Washi tape and stickers, and let your child be creative.
(2) Start Phasing In School Routines in Advance
Over the summer, most families have gotten out of the school year routine. Parents and kids alike. To make the transition back to school smoother for everyone, start setting the foundation in place for a successful year in advance. Don’t wait until school has already started.
Take a look at your current routine and figure out the areas that are most likely to have had some major drift or shift over the summer. This could be eating and sleeping routines. It could be screen time. Or, it could be a medication regime. Whatever significant elements have changed, start methodically shifting your way back to optimal school form.
- Start limiting/scaling back on electronic usage.
- Implement designated time for mental enrichment activities. Basically, phasing in a time block that can serve as a placeholder for upcoming homework.
- Adjust bedtime and rising times.
If you can start phasing in 3 or 4 weeks in advance, great. But even a phase in period of only one or two weeks will be a great improvement over cold turkey. For any adjustments you are making, be upfront about what’s going on. That the family is easing its way back to school.
If you took a medication break over the summer, you should confer with your child’s physician to confirm dose, schedule and discuss potential tweaks. If your child had a growth spurt over the summer, some changes may need to be made. Regardless, you want to start far enough in advance of the actual start of school that you have time to make any needed adjustments or smooth out bumps.
(3) Validate Your Child’s Feelings About Going Back To School
If your child is feeling anxious about returning to school, you should acknowledge and discuss it. Brushing off with “everything will be ok” does everyone a disservice.
If your child doesn’t volunteer how he or she is feeling, make a point of having a conversation. Don’t assume that silence means everything is okay. Some potential conversation starters:
- Are you feeling excited about riding the bus?
- How do you feel about new grade?
- What do you hope will be different about new school/grade?
- Is there something that you are looking forward to?
- Do you have any concerns?
(4) Validate Your Own Feelings About Going Back to School
The back to school season can also be a stressful and anxiety-filled period for the parents of kids with learning differences. You should acknowledge it and not try to hide from it. Although you shouldn’t share your own personal anxieties about school with your child, you should at least acknowledge them to yourself. Although written by a homeschooling mom, this post at Not The Former Things also reflects feelings shared more generally by parents of kids with learning differences. Check it out, and see if you can relate.
(5) Start School Communication
In the weeks before school starts, get the ball rolling on initiating a meeting or communication with your child’s teacher and school. At a minimum, you should try to schedule a meeting or conference with your child’s teacher and make sure she knows about any 504, IEP, or other individualized learning plans.
You should also find out what the teacher’s preferred method of communication throughout the school year – email? phone calls? exchanging notes through a backpack? Don’t wait until back to school night to nail down a communication plan with your teacher
When conferring with the teacher, you can discuss classroom strategies that have worked well in the past, such as preferential seating, or distracting friends that should be avoided.
Discuss homework expectations. Confirm how will homework be communicated. Make sure that you have a way of knowing what actual work has been assigned and whether assignments have been missed or not turned in. You want to be able to learn about any problems in a timely fashion.
If you are starting at a new school, try to arrange a walk through tour with your child. You can reach out to guidance counselor to facilitate.
(6) Attend School Events
Many schools will have some type of back to school events for at least new families, if not for all families at the school. You should find out whether there is an orientation and make plans to attend, even if it is optional. And, find out whether the school or a Parents’ association will be having any picnics or social events. All of these are opportunities to start getting re-acclimated to school, and a potential opportunity for your child to interact with peers.
(7) Start Making Friends Before Going Back To School
Make plans to help your child make friends early. Try to set up play dates before school starts. One on one encounters in a low-key environment can be less stressful and less high stakes than initial group interactions at school.
Try to push aside any of your own social anxieties. Embrace the role of being your kid’s social secretary.
(8) Make An Effective Homework Plan for Back To School
Work with your child to make a plan for how his or her homework will get done. Sketch out the basics. When will it be done? Where will it be done? What basic supplies will be needed, and where will they be stored? Now is also a great time to set up a homework station.
(9) Dry Logistics Run
Do a couple of dry runs of how you’ll be getting to school. Getting from home to the bus? Getting from home to school? After school/before school program? Walking?
(10) Make Your Lunch Plan
Go over the plans for lunch. If your child will be taking lunch regularly, plan out some favorite menu items. If you will be purchasing a hot lunch at school, take a look at the sample menus.
(11) Family Organization
Getting ready for back to school means more than just getting your kid ready and organized. You need to be organized as well. Figure out what family organizational tools you will you be using during the school year, and make sure everything is ready to go. Here are some items you should consider creating, if you don’t have them in place already.
- A family calendar for the year that includes dates and information for all school event, breaks and major activities.
- A parent school or education binder for organizing all of your key papers relating to school. This includes reports for any evaluations, copies of IEPs, special notices, copies of ongoing email communications with teachers or administrators, etc.
- A communication log for tracking important communications with teachers. This doesn’t have to be elaborate or fancy. It can be as simple as stapling a printout to the inside (or outside) of a manila folder. You can keep other random papers inside the folder. This is good for keeping notes of calls, messages, or other documents.
(12) Practice Summer Stories With Your Child
Some version of “What did you do this summer?” will be a commonly asked question during the first few days of school. Help your child avoid awkward moments in the morning meeting, circle time, or other school day discussions where this topic inevitably comes up.
Take a moment to discuss some of the highlights of the summer with your child in advance. Identify one, two or three good stories that he or she would like to talk about. It could be a trip, a vacation, a special visitor, some activity at summer camp. Or, perhaps some special summer project at home. Whatever it is, identify something specific. Start practicing with your child how to respond to questions.
A similar question that often comes up is about books read over the summer. Help your child identify a book a book that she read (with or without your help), and be able to say what they liked about it.
(13) Get a Special School Item for Back To School
Let your child have at least one special item that she picked out or personalized herself. This could be a new backpack or a new lunch box or a new pair shoes. Something that will actually be needed, and preferably something that will be used daily. Something that your child will be excited about. And, if you won’t necessarily be buying anything new that fits that bill, you can take an item you already have and help your child personalize it.
For some ideas and inspiration check out the HGTV post, Back-to-School DIY: Easy Ways to Customize a Kid’s Backpack. It is a written tutorial with helpful photos. You may not want to implement any of these exact items, but they can provide you and your child with fun ideas.
The Back to School season has definitely arrived. But it’s not too late to plan ahead. Try to implement as many of the above tips as will work for your family in the remaining time available, and your family’s school year will be better for it.