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The Back-to-School Survival Guide

Knowing my son had anxieties about being in new situations, I was cautiously optimistic about his first day of pre-kindergarten. I had thought of everything – except the vacuum cleaner the custodian left in the front entry of the school.

Drew dashed through the parking lot and back to our car so quickly that it took me a moment to register it had even happened. It took two adults to pry his fingers off the door handle and get him in the building, with all of us feeling defeated.

I learned a lot that day, and I’m happy to report that Drew, who has Verbal Apraxia and PDD-NOS, is looking forward to starting third grade in a new room with a new teacher. It just takes a bit of planning and following your child’s lead. Because for some children, a new school year is an exciting time to make friends and learn new things. But for children with disabilities, the start of the school year can pose big challenges.

Children with obvious disabilities such as a hearing, visual or mobility impairment may be anxious about how others will react to them. Those with less visible learning disabilities or attention disorders sometimes worry that they won’t appear smart. Students with autism or anxiety disorders can struggle with new routines and the unknown, which can cause back-to-school panic. And of course, those of us who are parents of a child with special needs can’t help but worry about our child worrying!

Fear not: There are many simple things you can do to ease those nerves. Consider this your back-to school survival guide, based on the expert advice of author and educator Laura Riffel, Ph.D., who has 30 years of experience working with teachers and parents of children with special needs. She advises that parents focus on three things: routines, space and organization.


Some children need more time with transitions than others, so it might be wise to keep a routine all summer. For others, beginning the routine a few weeks before school starts will work.

Start the bedtime routine a few minutes earlier each day so the desired school-night bedtime is reached at least a week before the first day of school. In the morning, have your child use an alarm clock and have them get dressed and ready for the day. Taking pictures of these routines as they perform them is a good idea, Riffel says. Laminating the photographs and leaving them in an easy-to-see place will remind your child which tasks need to be completed each evening and morning and will reduce your need to remind them throughout the start of the year.

Study Area

Even if your child doesn’t have homework, setting up a study area will encourage good habits for reading, writing or quiet time. “Your child may do 20-piece puzzles in this area, but the family will call it the study area,” Riffel says. “It’s important to stress the importance of learning to your child, whether that learning is quantum physics or learning colors. There should be at least a 30-minute period each evening where everyone in the house has a study time.”

Create different areas for each child if possible. This way there is no fighting over space or supplies. Also, think of the needs of your child, whether it’s a specially designed chair, extra lighting, muted lighting or soft color tones. For some children, having pictures of appropriate activities will help them remember what the space is for. A calendar with due dates or important activities will also benefit your child.

Riffel suggests playing soft music in the study space. Research, in fact, suggests that classical music relaxes the nervous system and can be helpful for children with various disabilities, including Down syndrome and autism.

As the school year begins, observe your child’s work habits as they study. How long can they stay focused on their task? Do they need directions clarified? Repeated? Do they correct their own mistakes or ask for help often? Observe how they get frustrated and what precedes it. It might help to take notes on what they’re studying at the time, which behaviors they exhibit and how they work through their frustration. By documenting this information and sharing it with the school, you can help your child’s teachers determine what, if any, interventions might be necessary.


As the school year starts, you and your child will need to stay on top of paperwork and supplies. Having a system will help everybody stay organized. Whether it’s packed bags the night before or a crate for supplies, mornings will definitely go smoother if you sort things out in advance.

Riffel advises placing a luggage tag on your child’s backpack. On the tag, write everything that needs to go inside, such as books, homework folder and snack. Your child can use a water-based marker to check off the supplies as they’re placed in the backpack. This also helps your child become more proactive and independent.

Introducing New Teachers

Riffel suggests introducing yourself and your child to new teachers before the school year starts. Teachers are happy to meet with you; just remember that their time is also spent in meetings and workshops, so it is best to set an appointment.

Consider your goal for meeting with the teacher. If the purpose is to help your child understand who they’ll be working with throughout the year, bring them along. If there are concerns with wheelchair or mobility issues, it will help both the teacher and student to make sure the classroom is prepared with wide aisles and supplies at the right levels. If there are vision or hearing problems, the student can address these with the teacher so an appropriate seat can be chosen ahead of time.

If the purpose of the meeting is to discuss concerns about your child’s well-being or personal struggles, however, leave your child at home. There is no benefit to your child hearing you list their weaknesses and fears. This isn’t helpful to the teacher, either, unless you have some solutions to offer.

In my son’s case, I called his teachers to schedule a time for Drew and me to visit. While some teachers are trained to assist students with autism, most teachers know nothing about Verbal Apraxia, a disability that impairs Drew’s ability to perform the movements needed for speech. So while his anxiety about new and chaotic situations was understandable, his inability to communicate was more confusing.

We brought some coffee cake to the school one morning as we met his teachers and showed him his classroom, where he’d hang his backpack and what materials he would be using. We kept this meeting short, but it served its purpose. I went back alone later with information about Apraxia, the contact information for all of his therapists and a short list of my concerns. I made sure to let the teachers know I was open to suggestions and looked forward to learning from them. Again, I kept this visit short.

Many websites that offer support for parents of children with specific disabilities provide resources for parents to give to the teacher that explain the disability. In my case, apraxia-kids.org had great materials that I would occasionally print off and bring for his teachers. It helped them understand his needs.

Review the IEP

Of course, a new school year brings a revised Individualized Education Plan. While careful consideration has gone into creating the IEP, it’s important to remember things can be changed throughout the year. While IEPs are often created in the spring, take some time to review it in the fall. If a fall meeting with the instruction team hasn’t been scheduled, you can request one. If you have any questions or concerns, have them written down and make sure to bring them up during the meeting.

Make sure you understand the services your child will be getting, as well as what time those services will take place. Will your child receive help from an aide or a special education teacher who will be co-teaching? If your child is receiving help from the aide, what expectations are given to the aide? What do you want them to focus on? Also, keep in mind that your child needs to learn some independence and that there is such a thing as too much help.

A New Building

If your child is starting in a new building, one of the best strategies for success, Riffel says, is to walk her through the school day in its entirety. Choose a day or two during the summer to go to the school and walk through it as if it were a typical school day. Bring along a camera to create a video or PowerPoint for later.

Recordings of the child, teachers, peers and sounds from the school can be added to the PowerPoint and saved as a PowerPoint show. Have your child watch this PowerPoint once a day all summer long. “When school starts,” Riffel says, “the child has the picture in their mind of what school is going to be like.” They will recognize the doors, the halls, the cafeteria and so on. One caveat, Riffel says, is that not all school days are the same. If your child has issues with broken routines, she suggests making multiple versions of the PowerPoint.

Videos are easier to make and can include models of appropriate behavior. Using voiceover functions, talk about rules for the classroom, art room and other situations. Maybe some model students can serve as “actors” to illustrate certain procedures in school. You might include clips about peer relationships and appropriate behaviors, such as how to join in a conversation or ask a child to play.

While this might seem like a lot of work, I’ve done it myself and it’s worth it. It wouldn’t be an unreasonable request for the special education teacher or aide to create a PowerPoint or video for or with you. Consider asking for this at an IEP meeting.

Is the Year Going Well?

Communication with teachers can be placed on the IEP as well. For Drew, we made sure to put the daily communication folder on his IEP to ensure his teachers would use it. We requested Instructional Support Team meetings once a month so we could all discuss his progress as the year went on. This was particularly helpful the first semester, when his various therapists and teachers were getting to know him. We could talk about progress and regression, and as his parent, I could tell them which behavior patterns were carried over at home, as well as learn how I could reinforce routines and academic requirements. As the year went on we chose not to meet, but these early meetings significantly impacted the school year as a whole.

In the beginning of the year, we would learn when he was getting inattentive or frustrated. We adjusted bedtimes, breakfast choices and routines at home, which helped him during the school day. We would also write in the folder to update teachers about sleep schedules or if we had a bad morning. This allowed his therapy team to adjust or talk with him about his morning when they met him at school.

Though sending your children into a new situation can be unsettling, there is no reason to lose a full night’s sleep. Preparing your student is the best bet for a great school year. The butterflies will only last a few moments for your child, and within weeks yours will be settled too!

Laura Riffel, Ph.D., has extensive training in special education. You can hear her on blogtalkradio.com or visit her website at behaviordoctor.org. She was raised in Abilene, Texas, and lives in Kansas.

Julia Garstecki is an educator and freelance writer dedicated to helping parents raising children with special needs. For more information, visit juliagarstecki.com.