The start of a new school year is always filled with excitement and anticipation.
Students and parents scrutinize schedules. People post to Facebook to see which teacher is assigned for each subject or grade. First-day outfits are coordinated. After-school activities are discussed.
As a parent of a student with special needs, I wanted to share in this pre-September excitement with my student. But these feelings were usually accompanied by nervousness—and sometimes fear.
My daughter, Amanda, has Down syndrome, along with type 1 diabetes. She has medical issues, including requiring a tracheostomy tube from the age of 18 months until she was 13 to assist with breathing. She has a raspy voice due to vocal cord damage, which makes it challenging for people to understand her at times. To put it bluntly, she came with “stuff.”
Some of her school years sailed by uneventfully. Others seemed like an uphill battle as we tried to put supports in place, adapt strategies, or change classroom or teaching assistant assignments.
Our worst year was kindergarten. We lived in California. Our assigned teacher was in her last year before retirement. And as she stated, “I have never had one of those students in my class before”—meaning Amanda.
To say it was a rocky year would be an understatement. I was scarred for life. If an educator ever starts discussing the “red light, yellow light, green light” behavior plan, I start to twitch, and then I get very angry.
Amanda’s kindergarten year was my first school experience outside “early intervention,” where all the therapists and adults working with my child seemed caring and motivated. I thought—with a bit of preparation and discussion—school life would be the same.
While this might be true sometimes, it is not always reality.
At the end of that trying kindergarten year, I realized I needed to come up with strategies so as not to repeat that experience.
I started by implementing monthly team meetings. I invited everyone who spent time with my daughter throughout the day. I had an agenda. I requested input, prior to the meeting, from teachers and therapists about issues that needed to be addressed. I facilitated discussion regarding positive experiences or areas that needed work.
The goals were to: 1. Discuss learning strategies that worked. 2. Nip any developing, challenging behavior in the bud. (Consistency in handling these across all professionals worked best.) 3. Share success stories.
These meetings had to have value for the participants to want to attend. They had to be relatively short, packed with information and to the point. And I always brought food.
Communication and Preparation
What else works for students with special needs? I asked some other mothers (via Facebook and text message), and we all agreed that communication and preparation are the key elements in a successful school year.
We, as parents and caregivers, like to believe that every teacher or therapist has the time to prepare for our student, but given class size and diversity of students that just isn’t always the case. Usually they appreciate any support offered.
Jessica O’Donnell, mother of Jaylin O’Donnell, told me: “I always tried to meet with his new teacher(s) before the school year started. I also put together tips and strategies that would help Jaylin. Examples: 1. When he gets really ‘bouncy,’ remind him to ‘keep it under control,’ which gets him to control himself and get back on track. 2. Always try to implement ‘first this, then this’ wording with his schedule (first math, then lunch), so he can mentally prepare. 3. Jaylin is a visual learner, so if you write things down, especially changes to his routine, it helps his day go smoother.”
Another mother, Pamela Sartori, includes her daughter Rachel in the pre-year communication. “I have her write a letter to her new teacher every year. She includes things the teacher should know about her. I also write a little note to the teacher and send copies for other teachers my daughter will be with so that they know all the ‘positives’ and the challenges she brings. I might even add in some behaviors and strategies that are helpful for them to know. I have the teachers sign them so I know that they’ve read them.”
Get Your Student Ready
Preparing your student for his or her daily routine is also important. Sometimes we forget that this is a huge transition from the less-structured, carefree days of summer to the scheduled, organized days of the school year.
Doreen Wall, teacher and mom, wrote: “I visit the school beforehand and have my children walk through their schedule. I find it is helpful to practice bedtime and waking up so that the first week isn’t the first time their bodies are feeling the school year schedule.”
Practicing morning and lunchtime routines is also helpful. Good nutrition and making sure snacks and lunches allow for independence and timeliness help with the lunchroom experience.
Helen Camardella uses these strategies with her daughter: “Packets of almonds or nuts make a powerful protein snack. Water is the No. 1 reason our stomach growls; we are thirsty when we think we are hungry. Drink tons of water. Give your student fun, refillable water bottles. Buy a new one every two to three months to make them interesting and more likely to get used. Add calorie-free flavors; kids love that stuff. Also having packaged salads and grab-and-go protein bars, cheese and fruit make for easy mornings.”
Remember, others have gone before us into that big unknown of whatever grade level you are about to embark on. Not only should we communicate with our educators, but we also need to share ideas and strategies among ourselves. We are our own best resource. Plan, prepare and get ready for the adventure of another school year! It can be amazing.
Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs.