How to Prepare Your Child with Special Needs for the Back to School Transition

“There’s a sale on school supplies,” I told my then 11-year-old son. “Let’s go. You can pick out all your own binders and folders.”

“Mom, you are ruining summer,” he wailed. “I don’t want to think about school. I don’t want to go to school. I hate school!”

This was not news to me. He struggled with ADHD and school demanded he be—and do—all the things that were so hard for him. They needed him to be organized, on-task, get work done and be nice about it.

Summer was both a relief and a challenge. He loved not being in school, but that meant he was with me most of the time. In some ways, I was ready for him to be back in school, have a routine and—let me be honest here—not be with me all day. But I knew we wouldn’t get there without some planning, discussion and clear expectations.

Related: Does your child have a hard time behaving at school or at home?

When Your Child Has a “Bad Reputation” at School
The bigger issue for many parents and kids is how to make this year better when last year was defined by lots of misbehavior, lots of hating school and lots of sleepless nights (for both of you).

My son had a bad reputation in school. He appeared defiant, refused to do work in class, never did homework, and was constantly moving and chattering. The teachers knew he was bright, which made it even worse for him, as they thought he should be able to control himself. But he wouldn’t—and sometimes simply couldn’t.

He was the “bad kid” in class, which stacked up more negatives against him. The teachers watched for his behaviors and quickly got on his case, even if everyone else was engaged in the same activity. As a result, he had to spend a lot of his limited energy for school on reducing the teachers’ stress about having him in their class.

It took a multi-tiered approach to start the new school year off well. Over the years, I learned to focus on what I could control. There are some things, such as how a teacher relates to your child, that are really out of your control as a parent. But you can help your child reduce his or her anxiety and stress, cultivate potential allies at school, teach them some ways to modulate their behavior and discuss solutions to deal with issues that might arise.

Related: How to teach your child with ADHD to focus and learn how to behave more appropriately.

How to Set Your Child up for Success This Year

Setting your child up for success includes identifying what sets him, like unexpected transitions, sensory triggers, work he perceives as being too hard (or sometimes too easy), desk mates that kick chairs, and needing to move around but not being allowed to do so. It’s also important to note what keeps your child on track. This might include knowing the environment and people he interacts with daily, and making sure the school understands your child’s diagnosis and/or learning needs.

Here’s how you can get the information that you need to make this coming school year successful:

  1. Collect Data: School teams gather data, and you should as well. You can take notes on your child and then share the data with the teachers. Write down your child’s triggers and what strategies work for her. Include time of day, current activity, preceding activity, and when she ate, exercised and slept. During the school year, add information about how homework goes. You may need this data to negotiate fewer (or alternative) homework assignments. Having specific and measurable data gives parents and students more control, because they have the facts of the situation, and aren’t just relying on emotions.
  2. Collect More Data: Besides what is happening in your child’s day, include the time it happens, frequency, intensity and duration of behaviors or concerns. It’s one thing to say, “He melts down all the time,” but it’s a whole lot more informative to say, “He cries for two minutes when asked to get ready to leave the house in the morning.” Expect school teams to also gather this data: it’s part of a functional behavior analysis that is used to create baselines of behavior so that replacement behaviors can be taught.
  3. Interpret Data: If your son or daughter is old enough, share some of this data with them. Teens can actually collect data on themselves, which is proving to be a powerful tool for changing behaviors. Talk about what behavior they think most interferes with their school and home lives and come up with a short list of alternatives. For instance, if they can’t get up for school and are chronically late and chronically grumpy (and you have data to show that it is three out of five days a week) you could discuss whether it makes more sense to go to bed earlier (something easier said than done for teens) or take a 15 minute nap after school using an alarm. If their moods are worsened by missing a meal, they might drink a protein shake instead of skipping breakfast, for example. The key is that they have to decide the option, and then you can support that choice if you agree with it.
  4. Develop Goals: Children are usually not able to take the long-term view and see that learning their multiplication tables will help them achieve their future goals. It falls on us as parents to persistently and consistently link the school day to their future. I know I have misused this link in the past and used it to shame my son, and say things like “You won’t ever make it if you can’t do your homework.” Not only is this not true, it’s not helpful. Instead, I have learned to say things like, “Wow, I’m really impressed with the persistence you showed in completing your science project. That’s a skill every adult should have.”

Related: How to stay calm when your child is pushing your buttons.

Making the Transition to a New Grade or a New School
Making a good transition into a new school or a new grade can set a tone for the entire school year, especially for our sons and daughters who are easily triggered, get anxious or can’t control their impulses.

When planning for a good transition, I’ve learned that you also need to pay attention to when you need to step back and let your child figure it out on her own, and when to hold the school responsible for their part of the equation.

There are three main areas you’ll want to address:

  1. Environment (The building, classroom, playground, bathrooms, and getting to school.)
  2. People (The teachers, principal, staff, school nurse and counselors, peers, bus driver, etc.)
  3. Individual needs (Stressors, accommodations, IEP, 504 plans, behavior plans, communication, etc.)

Everyone feels more comfortable when they know their way around an environment. Kids returning to a familiar school have this part down (they have other things to deal with—like their reputation. My son’s defiance, refusal to do work, constant moving and chattering were well known to the next grades’ teachers. More on how he eventually solved these problems in a few moments.)

Related: ODD child defying authority at home or at school?

Kids going to a new school, on the other hand, need some support to reduce their anxiety. This will hopefully help them get and stay on track. My daughter, who has significant learning disabilities, is starting high school this fall. The school is right next door to her middle school, so her transition will be a bit easier. We’ve already been working on it, just like we did when she started middle school. We went to visit several times after school was out so most kids were gone and some staff was still around. I did a lot of “wondering” as in, “Mmm, I wonder where this hall leads?” I used visual cues (signs, banners, flags) which included room numbers.

TIP #1: Visiting a new school with your child when school is still in session is overwhelming for most any kid, especially those who are feeling anxious. If possible, visit at the end of the school year after the kids are gone.

We’re going to visit again just before school starts in August, too. We did this in elementary as well, where my daughter knew her way around the school, but would have a new teacher and classroom. It helped her both feel comfortable finding the new classroom. Since she knew the school so well, it boosted her confidence about the new year.

TIP #2: Walk around the whole school, focusing on the building and not on the staff. Learn where the bathrooms are (and use them), find where the doors to outside are located and where the library and gym and cafeteria are too. Make a map or take a video. When you think your child is learning their way around the school building and grounds, ask them to lead you around (kind of like a scavenger hunt).

Do this as many times as needed in order for your child to get comfortable with the building. Elementary-age kids might also play on the playground throughout the summer. You may meet other families, and your son or daughter will know how to climb the jungle gym.

Related: How to teach your child to problem-solve: the top skill she needs to be successful in life.

Getting a fresh start motivates kids to be on their best behavior, but that can be hard to do in a school where everyone already knows you. Use the before-school tour to start off positively. (Check with the school to see when you might come by and introduce your child to their new teachers.) Brainstorm with your child about what they might bring to their new teacher and the staff they know such as the principal, front office staff, and janitor.

TIP #3: (For younger children) Have your younger son or daughter make or create something to bring to their new teacher on the before-school tour such as cookies, a drawing, or some flowers. Try to bring or do something that shows your child’s strengths or skills. Try to keep it short and simple.

This is about your child developing a relationship with their teachers, so keep the focus on that aspect. (Your job as a parent comes in the next section.) If it’s a new school, use the tour visits to meet as many people as possible. Consider taking a picture of them so your child can practice remembering their names and roles.

Individual Needs

When school started, my son had his folders ready, but he needed a lot more in place for a successful year. He had a Section 504 plan (a part of the Americans with Disability Act which gave him the right to certain accommodations in order to give him equal access to school). He was fortunate to attend a school where the sixth grade team talked to the seventh grade team about which student needed what accommodations. I found this wasn’t the same when he transitioned to high school, so I wrote up a one-page letter that described what his diagnosis was and the accommodations that he needed.

TIP #4: Keep the IEP or 504 at-a-glance brief, factual, and with a bullet list which includes the accommodations—then share your one-page document with the special education teacher or 504 coordinator and ask that they share it with all the teachers (including PE and electives).

You can also do this for students who have an IEP. One student I worked with actually carried a copy of the accommodation page in his IEP to be able to show his teachers. That way he didn’t have to find the right words or worry that the teacher didn’t believe him. It’s a powerful way to give your tween or teen the skills to become a strong self-advocate.

Related: ADHD child or teen bouncing off the walls and causing disruptions?

Once children have some self-awareness about their diagnosis (typically fourth grade and up, but it varies from child to child), I believe they should know that they have an IEP, what it is and why they have it. I started by showing my daughter her IEP when she was in third grade. Each year, I explained more about it. I did not talk about special needs or her disability until the end of fifth grade. I knew that this language would be part of middle school, so I wanted her to be prepared.

Summer and other breaks are good times to talk about school in a casual way. Parents can talk about their own childhood summers and transitions back to school. Share what you did and did not like and invite your child to do the same. If there are concerns that feel overwhelming to your child, write up a plan that you can share with the new teachers.

Kids who struggle at school—for whatever reason—usually want to do well. They want to be liked and to do what they’re asked. But they can’t always make that happen, and as a parent you can’t control what happens in school. IEPs, 504s and behavior plans are tools that your child’s school uses to help him learn to control his behavior and actions so that he can learn. Using strategies at home and at school can strengthen your child’s skills. Share with the school what works with your child at home, and ask your child’s teachers what works at school so you can use it at home.

It took a while, but my son did learn how to manage his behavior and get his needs met while in class. He learned he could tap his foot on a wool cap to muffle the sound. He learned that some teachers were distracted by his fidgeting, so he sat in the back of the room so he could move and they could teach. He also learned to pause and take a few breaths or count to 10 when he got impatient or frustrated. He wasn’t always successful, but he tried his best. His study skills teacher noticed his efforts and engaged him in class. She helped him organize his backpack and locker and talked to the other teachers about the skills and strengths she could see in him. That year, when the bumps came—and they did—he had an ally, and his attitude shifted. For the first time in his life, he felt like he could be successful at school…and that changed everything.

Related: How to parent more effectively, starting today.