Back to school season seems like it’s growing into a bigger and bigger thing each year, fraught with stress and hopes for the year ahead.
Add a child with special needs to the mix and things can become even more complicated and challenging.
My family navigated the change to a brand new school this year, as well as the introduction of a school minibus instead of us handling all of the school runs ourselves. So far (and it’s VERY early days!), things are going well.
Here are some of the things that have helped us with the transition to back to school for a child with special needs:
INVOLVE YOURSELF IN THE PROCESS:
Depending on the schools involved, the transition from class to class, year to year or school to school can sometimes feel as if it’s a paperwork process you’re not involved in. Hopefully the school will make it easy for you to be involved, but if they don’t, be prepared to push your way into the process.
Things like IEPs and EHCPs are great paper-based overviews of your child’s needs, but they can be a little dry.
I’m a fan of doing whatever I can to humanise my child for everyone who supports them. Wherever possible, these people should have met your child (the idea that anyone would be supporting a child they haven’t met but have read about baffles me), and that includes the new class teachers and teaching assistants – before term starts.
There’s nothing stopping you getting in touch with the school and asking to speak to the new teacher to put together a transition plan for your child. There’s an argument to say you shouldn’t have to control this process or lead it, but if you’re not happy that others are doing it correctly, step in and do it properly.
I was very fortunate in this regard. My daughter had around four transition mornings at the new school, and then there was a summer disco that all new students could go to with their families. We attended with around seven of my daughter’s relatives, and she really enjoyed showing her family her new place. Hopefully, it helped build those positive associations for her with school.
MAKE THE EXPERIENCE REAL:
We do whatever we can to make transitions part of our life in the lead up to them. This can include story boards, visual timetables and calendars, run throughs of wearing the new uniform, making the journey to school, chatting about the teachers by name over the summer break.
You’ll of course need to decide how much or how little to do this based on how your child handles the idea of waiting for things in the future to arrive.
For us, we had photographs of the school that we looked at together when my daughter chose to. I conveniently left the photos around the house and made myself ready to engage with her about them whenever she felt like it.
We did three visits to the school over the summer, even though it was all closed and locked up. We looked through the fence and talked about where the main door was, which playground she wanted to play in, etc. After each visit, we did something fun close to the school so that (hopefully) she would associate the school visits with lots of fun. On one occasion, we bumped into two members of staff from the new school, and chatted to them, which was a really lovely surprise!
When we finally found out that transport would be provided, we did a fourth visit to the school to see the minibuses parked outside the front of the building. My daughter loved the idea that she would be travelling on one of those buses and, again, it made an obscure notion real.
REMAIN FLEXIBLE FOR THE START OF TERM:
Regardless of all of these preparations, the start of term could go well or not, and there’s just no way to know which it will be.
If you’re working, you may want to consider giving yourself a light schedule for the first week or two of term. Try working from home, avoiding meetings or even taking leave if you can.
This year we had applied for transport to be provided but didn’t find out until two days before the start of term that it would be provided. As my daughter has moved to a school around 40 minutes away, I had planned ahead and changed my work role so that I didn’t have to be office-based. I’d looked into available office space in the town where her new school is and, if transport hadn’t been provided (or if it isn’t something she is happy with after the initial novelty has worn off) my plan wast to rent an office space near her school and work there each day.
If you’re not your own boss, you may not have the option of shifting your work role and being able to be based from home. You may not need that, though. A few days of working shorter days, being home-based or having an empty schedule so you can slip out easily if your child is really struggling, may all be realistic options for you.
There’s every chance you’ll find that your employer is more open to these suggestions if you give them plenty of notice. Don’t get to the last week of August and realise you need some adaptations. I mean, if you get to the end of August, ask then – it’s better than nothing.
But a better plan might be to sit your boss down and explain some of the challenges that back to school represents for your family. Don’t assume that your boss has an understanding of the extra challenges that go along with having a child with special needs. Break it down for them, in however much detail you’re comfortable to and is appropriate.
Then explain what would help you and, while you’re at it, broach it as an annual thing.
“It would really help me if I could spend the first three days of term working from home each year.”
“My child isn’t going to be able to handle transition to a new class and still have energy for after school club, not in the first few weeks. Could I possibly work a split shift for those first two weeks, leaving at school time and finishing things up in the evenings from home?”
PLAY IT COOL:
The temptation after those first few days of school is to overload your child with a heap of questions about what they’ve done and how it’s gone.
Proceed with caution!
Unless your child loves to come home and chat about their day, they’re probably going to be a little tired as the term begins. They may want to return to the safe space of home and forget about school.
I’ve realised it’s better for me to welcome my daughter home, do something fun together, and then a little later (maybe over dinner) start talking to her about my day. It’s then easier for her to voluntarily open up with snippets about her day, and she might even let me ask her a question or two. I try to listen when she makes it clear she’s done talking and doesn’t want to be quizzed any more.
If this is particularly hard for you, introduce a way for you to get your updates from the school. A Home School Book that you and the school fill in each day is a great tool, or you might be able to arrive at school a minute or two early and have a chat with the teacher or teaching assistant before setting off home.
At my daughter’s last school, at one point she had two teaching assistants who split the day between them. I’d chat with the morning one and the afternoon one, and over time we became so friendly both would message me on Facebook if there was an issue. It wasn’t often, but if they remembered at home in the evenings that my daughter needed more wet wipes sending in or if they wanted to help me out and remind me it was sports day or a cake sale or something the next day, they’d send me a message online.
Clearly, that’s not the norm. Those particular ladies went above and beyond for my daughter and, even though they’re both in different jobs now and my daughter is in a different school, we are now officially Facebook (and real life) friends and see each other regularly.
It is worth, however, considering what forms of communication may be possible and would work best, especially if your child is nonverbal or otherwise not able or willing to provide you with those updates you crave.
ASK FOR HELP:
Back to school is gut wrenching for families with able-bodied, neurotypical children.
I don’t know the numbers but I feel like it must be some multiplication more complicated for families of SEN children.
You have all of the worries that other families have: are they making friends, are they eating lunch, do they know where to go, do they feel safe, are they being teased…
And then you have all of the unique worries that come with your child’s specific additional needs.
Will they be too anxious to use the toilet? Have you sent enough sets of spare clothes? How will the teachers ever get to understand your nonverbal child the way you do? Did you do the right thing moving them from mainstream to special school? Did you do the right thing keeping them in mainstream? Will the journey be too long? Will they hit a child, or a teacher?
Will today be the day you get *that* phone call?
It’s exhausting carrying the mental load of these worries with you, and it’s a load that other families simply won’t see and won’t understand.
You might have to be selfish and ask for help for yourself in those early weeks (and the rest of your life… LOL, no joke).
Try and get some time for you in your schedule. A coffee shop morning. A trip to your favourite art gallery. A walk in the park. An exercise class. A catch up with a friend. A date night with your spouse. A day when you get your child ready for school and then go straight back to bed and read until it’s time for them to come home.
You’ve survived the summer, and that’s its own kind of accomplishment when your child may have been too loud, too close, too everywhere. And now you need to survive the change of a few hours each day being too quiet, too lonely, too empty.
I hope these tips will be helpful for you. If you have another tip that’s worked well for you, leave a comment and let me know!
And, good luck to you and your special family as you make the transition back to school.