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Preparing Your Child with Special Needs for School

Helping them adjust to classroom expectations and time away from their parents

Starting school can be a difficult transition for any kiddo—and when your child has special needs, there are additional factors to consider. We connected with local administrators for schools that specialize in special education as well as a mom who has been through it (twice). Here is their advice.

Prepare them at the right time. This depends on your child. If you know they would have a lot of anxiety, perhaps wait until about a month out, suggests Maude Pampel, director of the Ashford Rise School of Dallas, which serves kids ages 6 months–6 years, with and without disabilities. For kids who thrive on routine and would get accustomed to the idea over time, you may start earlier.

“Also, focus on where they are going, not being apart from you,” Pampel adds. You can do this by:

  • Driving by the school
  • Playing on the playground, if possible
  • Visiting the classroom and other locations on campus
  • Asking for a photo of the teacher and a brief bio to share your child
  • Setting up playdates with other students

Carmen Fernandez, principal of the Notre Dame School of Dallas, which educates students with disabilities ages 6–23, also suggests putting together a visual schedule, with pictures related to the subjects they’ll be studying (e.g., a book for reading, a child running for P.E.) to help with conversations about the change in routine. Your child’s classroom will likely have a visual schedule posted, and you can mimic that or even make a copy for continuity at home.

Fort Worth mom Lindsey Garner, who has two boys on the autism spectrum, recommends the website teacherspayteachers.com for resources in this area. “You can find downloads for social stories about going to school as well as visual schedules,” she notes. “Many are customizable.”

Attend official school events. Garner says her family makes a point to attend open house events and meet-the-teacher nights. “We’ve also made sure to inquire each year about any summer programming, activities or camps offered by their schools,” adds Garner, who is the CEO of Communities In Schools of Greater Tarrant County.

Find out how your campus will help kids adjust. “Our teachers start the year with ‘all about me’ activities,” says Fernandez. “Because our students have low communication skills, it is vital that teachers communicate often about family events and favorite activities.”

The Ashford Rise School asks students’ families to send in photos, especially of the parents. Photos are posted in each classroom’s “safe space,” which also includes pictures illustrating various emotions, such as sad (that Mom and Dad aren’t with them) and happy (when they look at their family photos).

“Because we are a preschool, we take pride in supporting our students social-emotional development, by affirming and recognizing their emotions and then supporting their self-regulation to allow them to get back to the classroom activities,” Pampel explains.

If your child’s school doesn’t have a similar classroom space, Pampel recommends attaching a small family picture in their backpack along with a slogan or special saying for encouragement—“creating a portable safe space for them.”

Look into therapy support. Early therapy interventions can be extremely useful for helping kids reach their potential and milestones. ABA therapy allowed Garner’s sons to practice skills that would be useful in the classroom: sitting in a chair or on a mat, transitioning between activities, following multi-step directions, walking safely (not eloping), social communication and so on.

She notes there have been school years where she and her husband worked with the school to send a therapist to campus for additional support. “This was especially helpful during times such as lunch or recess, which can be less structured during other parts of the school day,” she explains.

Keep communication going. Open communication between families and educators are also key. Garner advises meeting your child’s teacher before school starts and making sure they are aware of any unique challenges your child might face. You can use that opportunity to advocate for what you know works for your kiddo.

“Before our older started kindergarten,” recalls Garner, “we met with his teachers and worked with them to create a token board. The first square had a picture and said something like, ‘Walks nicely into the classroom.’ The second square said ‘Sits nicely in his chair.’

When the child is caught doing these things, they can be rewarded with tokens that can be turned in for a prize. Parents should think creatively, in partnership with school staff, about ways to encourage and motivate the child in ways that are unique and meaningful to them.”

Ask your child’s teacher the best method for ongoing communication. The Notre Dame School of Dallas uses an app for messaging and posting photos (private for families). “This benefits parents by giving them a view into their child’s day and allowing them to make conversation about what happened at school,” says Fernandez. And the more school becomes part of your everyday conversations and routine, the more comfortable your child will be.

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Image: iStock