By Elizabeth Mulligan
When the page on the calendar turns to August, thoughts inevitably turn to back to school. While some parents eagerly await the return of a set daily routine, parents of special needs children can have heightened anxiety: what disruptions may come from the changes in environment and schedule?
As a teacher, site director and now Area Director of the Easterseals Southern California Child Development Centers in San Bernardino County, I have worked with a fantastic team of Early Childhood Educators the past 16 years to nurture thousands of children and dry the tears of parents and students alike as they weather the challenges that the new school year brings.
Our Child Development Centers educate children with and without disabilities, and we’ve found these tips to be helpful for any child undergoing change in a school setting.
The key to success that we’ve found for all children? Prepare, prepare, prepare.
- Talk about Expectations – The more you talk to your child about the new school they’re going to attend (or new grade level or area of a familiar school), the more you prepare him or her.
- Review the Schedule – Before the school day starts, talk about the daily schedule. Then your child will know what happens first, then next, then what happens before mommy comes back to pick up. (“First breakfast, then circle time, then nap, then mommy will come get you.”) Pictures in a visual schedule can be especially helpful for children who struggle with transitions.
- Be Positive – You want to focus on what good things may happen in the new year. Have him or her pick out a new backpack or binder to make the first day special.
- Introduce A New Environment in Advance – Visiting the campus, introductions with a new teacher, or even showing photos of the school in advance can alleviate anxiety on the first day.
- Say Good-Bye – Some parents think that “sneaking out” while their child is otherwise occupied is the best way to avoid tears. But inevitably, that child will look around, heartbroken, and realize mom or dad is gone. It is better to have a smile on your face, to tell your child gently but firmly, “I’ll be back, see you after school!” and to go. Once you leave, be sure not to come back in to class. This can confuse your child and upset him/her more. We understand it’s hard to leave when your child is upset, but they will be okay.
- Ask for a Contact at School – There should be someone with whom you can call and check in on your child during the day. It could be the site receptionist, or classroom aide, or teacher. This will give you comfort as well as your child.
- Bring pictures of the family to school. Your child can put them in his or her cubby, to look at it if s/he’s still having a difficult time. We have encouraged families to create “All About Me” boards together, then the child can bring it in to share with the class. We find it creates deeper connections between school and home.
- Volunteer in the class. If it fits in your schedule, sometimes it can be a great way to ease the transition. If it doesn’t fit into your schedule, we have had parents offer to bring things home to prep. Cutting out patterns for an art project or helping with gathering items for a lesson can make all the difference. The teacher appreciates the extra help, and the child can see how important school is for the family.
- Be present. At the end of the day, when a parent comes in with cell phone to ear, distracted, it makes for a challenging transition. Many schools have a no cell phone policy because of this. You want to show your child’s teacher that you recognize the importance of school so its beneficial to put the phone away before you come in so you can check in with the teacher respectfully about how the day went for your child and what can be done for a better tomorrow. It shows your child’s teacher that you want to be involved and keep the lines of communication open.
And while these tips are helpful for any situation, every child is different.
Some children take longer than the assumed timeframe to adjust. Sometimes, the first week goes well with new toys and new friends, and then two or three weeks into school when the “newness” has worn off, the child realizes that s/he doesn’t want to do this anymore.
We always encourage parents to partner with their child’s teacher. A positive relationship with the teacher and a positive attitude with your child will help ease this transition. Preparation, then communication, then action will lead to a smooth school year for everyone involved.