8 Tips to Help Kids With Special Needs Adjust to a New School Year
Kids with autism and other special needs can have a tough time getting used to new routines, people and places. And of course, a new school year includes all of the above.
This year, your child may need extra help with transitions. After all, they aren’t just adjusting to school after summer break. They’re also adjusting to new classroom rules as COVID-19 guidelines change yet again.
Ease your child into new surroundings.
For lots of kids with special needs, it’s easier to embrace a new setting like school when they’re introduced to it gradually, by talking about it and looking at it before going in person.
If your child is attending a new school this year, or returning to the classroom after a year of remote learning, you might start with a picture of their school building. Spend a few days looking at the picture together and talking about how your child will go there for classes. Then drive by, and encourage your child to point out everything they notice. Finally, ask your child’s school if they can take a tour and visit their classroom before the school year begins.
2. Gather information about changes at school.
We all feel more comfortable when we know what to expect and how to act in new situations. That’s particularly true for kids with autism and other special needs. For this school year, many rules and routines are changing again – so start with a fact-finding mission.
Talk to your child’s school. What will be different this year? What will stay the same as last year? What’s the plan for your child’s class schedule, and transition times like lunch, recess, and pick-up and drop-off?
3. Explain changes to your child both verbally and visually.
Images and verbal reminders help your child get used to new ideas.
Maybe this year, your child is returning to full in-person classes. As the start of the school year approaches, show your child a calendar, and explain that they’ll get to go to school five days a week. Count down the days until they start.
4. Create picture stories to teach your child about key situations.
First, think of all of the things that your child needs to know about that situation. Write down “facts” about the situation – both ones that are positive to your child, and ones that may be perceived negatively. For challenging aspects of the situation, write down what your child can do to help themselves. Encourage your child to also add statements to the story.
Here is a story about recess: When it’s time for recess, I will go outside to the playground with my class. I can choose to go on the swings, go down the slide, or play with a ball. The playground might be noisy. This is okay. The playground is noisy because kids are having fun. I may hear noises that hurt my ears. I can put on headphones so that the noises are more quiet and they don’t hurt my ears. I can also ask the teacher to move away from the loud noises.
Add pictures to the story, like a photo of your child at the school playground, and one wearing headphones. As the first day of school approaches, review the story regularly with your child.
5. When possible, practice school routines at home.
This may take some imagination.
For example, if your child will be eating lunch at school this year, think about what they could start getting used to now, while they’re still on summer vacation – like having a packed lunch.
Invite your child to help prepare their lunch the night before, and put up a picture at home to remind them to put their lunch bag into their backpack each morning. When it’s time to eat, have them practice getting their lunch bag to eat, then repacking the empty containers and putting it all back into their backpack when they’re done.
6. Establish helpful home routines, too.
Having a predictable routine at home can set your child up for success at school. To get started, check out our 10 steps to a better morning.
Add extra support for kids with special needs by incorporating pictures, visual calendars, visual timers and social stories. Establish a system to record and celebrate successes.
For example, if your child’s goal is to pack their backpack every night before bed: Post pictures of the things that need to go into your child’s backpack. Encourage them to cross out or remove each item as it is put into the backpack. Create a wall chart with a picture of a backpack on it, and have your child add a sticker every time they complete the entire task.
Decide in advance how many stickers earn a reward, like choosing a favorite snack or getting to play with a special toy.
7. Give your child choices.
Choices help kids feel in control, which is especially comforting for kids with autism and other special needs.
When you’re building your child’s morning routine, you might ask whether they want to get dressed first, or brush their teeth. Each evening, have them pick out their clothes for the next day. Let them choose a toy to bring in the car for the ride to school.
Look for other opportunities in your child’s before- and after-school rituals, and while they’re at school.
8. Start now.
The more time your child has to get used to new information and routines, the more comfortable they’ll feel when the first day of school arrives.
If you need information or support, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s doctors and teachers. We’re here to help your child have a great school year.
Back-to-School Tips for Students with Special Needs
Back-to-school means back to schedules, back to learning, and sometimes back to stress. With new supplies and clothes, plus new classrooms and teachers, sending your child back to school can often feel like walking into a war zone.
But it doesn’t have to be so. With a bit of planning, and keeping your child’s sensory needs as well as special learning needs in mind, you can provide your child with a smooth transition back to one of the most positive experiences possible.
The most important thing is to get organized! If you are a less-than-organized parent, start early getting schedules, clothes, and school supplies in order, not only for your child but for yourself as well. You may need to reorganize the school supply list to minimize shopping excursions.
Do you want your child with you selecting from a plethora of supplies or might it be better to head out on your own? Does your child need to take in 50 pencils the first day, or can it be one or two to get started? More is not always better.
If your child is has an IEP, be sure you’ve scheduled a meeting with teachers so everyone is clear as to expectations and goals, including your child.
Children pick up on your mood, expectations, frustrations, and disappointments. Of course, they also pick up on your excitement, pleasure, anticipation, and gratitude. Be sure you are starting the year off in a positive manner.
If you do have concerns, take them to the school, not to your neighbor or friend, and definitely not to your child. Clear, articulate, and kind communication skills are learned at home and will help your child self-advocate from an early age.
Dress for School Success
Is your child a sensory seeker, or in need of special clothing? New is not always a great way to start off. Be sure clothing is soft, comfortable, and provides pressure if needed to calm and comfort. Tagless shirts, compression vests, and other sensory-savvy clothing items can help kids adjust and perform at their best. By applying compression to the joints, a compression shirt or garment can provide an all-day hug to calm, engage, and help with focus.
Weight Them Down and Let Them Move
If your child has a hard time sitting still, try a wiggle seat, weighted vest, or lap pad. Your student might also like a wiggle cushion or ball chair for school or during homework at home. Sensory filters such as weight and movement can really help children transition well to school and not lose touch with their physical needs.
Behavior and Rules
Talk to your child about school expectations—and yours as well. Be sure your kids know the rules. Have them repeat those rules back to you, so you are clear that they are aware and understand. Give them space to voice any concerns as well.
If your child needs assistance with emotional intelligence, regulation, or social communication, be sure to discuss this with the teacher and to give your child ample opportunity to express himself or herself.
Providing a healthy breakfast, lunch, and snack can make a huge impact on how kids perform, as well as on how they feel as they manage their day. Be sure to stock up on easy-to-access fruits and vegetables. In addition to edibles, some students can benefit from a chewy or fidget to have throughout the day to help ease stress.
Keep in mind that your child’s well-being is the most important back-to-school preparation. Addressing sensory, physical, and psychological needs as kids head back to school can help ensure that everyone has a great back-to-school experience. Be sure to address your own as well!