Since the start of the school year is looming around the corner, we will be sharing some school-related articles from old newsletters for the next few weeks to get you prepared. The first one was written by Patty Moore, manager of Children and Family Services, a program of Alpha Resource Center. She and her husband Bob are the parents of three sons. Their youngest, Robby, was born with Down syndrome and was a junior at Santa Barbara High School at the time this article was written.
By now parents can breathe a sigh of relief when we realize that, once again, we have survived summer and its juggle of securing childcare, recreation, and social time while our children are out of school. And with that sigh of relief comes a sharp intake of breath as we gear up for our students’ return to school. I know first hand, as a parent and in hearing from parents, that Fall can be a time of high anxiety as our children transition. Be it hospital to home; Early Start services to preschool, preschool to elementary; elementary to secondary, secondary to adulthood, even new teacher and new class, transition means change. Change can create discomfort, confusion, fear, heart palpitations, sweaty hands, ________ (you fill in the blank), and this is just with the parents. What about the teachers and the students? Many times parents tell me, usually with great retrospection, that their student did great dealing with the new school year, much better than the parent themselves!
I’m lucky this year; my son will be entering his third year of high school. He will have his same special education point person, faculty will be the same in similar surroundings, and he will be seeing old friends he missed over the summer. Sure, his new class schedule will probably need revising, but that’s no different from his high school peers. After all it is inclusion! I know getting through the first week or two will take some time, patience, and communication between school staff and myself. We also know he will do his best to “push the buttons” of any new assistant who will be working with him. Staff is prepared for this, but I’ll offer a friendly reminder. While I’d like everything in place, perfect for Day One, I know that for most high school students, it’s not to be and in that respect my son is no different. Thankfully, my son has become more adaptable than he was when he was younger. And I probably am as well.
It’s no surprise than many students with special needs require strict scheduling and uniformity. Unfortunately, and despite diligent transition planning by the entire IEP transition team, there will usually be some wrinkles in every transition that will require, as always, good communication, strong partnering between parents and the school staff, and what I refer to as “Patient Vigilance” on the parents’ part. If we recognize this and expect this, we find ourselves better equipped to help our student and his/her school team become comfortable with one another thereby expediting the transition and moving on to our child’s goals and objectives. We also lower our own level of anxiety and this usually helps to lower any uneasiness our child may have as well.
There are strategies for parents and teachers to smooth the transition process. Prepared parents and teachers build their own “toolbox” of tactics. Following are suggestions based upon my knowledge learned from talking with other parents, research, and my own experience – mistakes included. I also talked with teachers who offered good suggestions of what they found helpful during the first few weeks of the school year.
Talk to your child; watch your child
If my child is happy and relatively happy to go to school, or as happy as a teen can be, my level of stress is greatly decreased. [Sometimes there are times when I think he is too happy about school, and this raises the warning flag that he is having too much fun. I can’t just leave well enough alone!] If my child seems stressed, resists going to school, or if he is just not acting like himself, I promptly contact his teacher. Those of us who have kids with limited speech know what our child’s warning signs look like and must follow up accordingly. The reason could be simply identified as not enough rest or nutrition. Or it could be something more. Once again, contact your child’s teacher and/or point person.
Discuss openly and honestly
Communicate with school staff what you want for your child. They want what is best for your child and many times parents and schools are in agreement. When you find yourselves in disagreement, agree to disagree and move forward to research other options. Try strategies that may work and build the IEP plan accordingly. Don’t be afraid to try different ideas and make adjustments. Very rarely is there a ‘quick fix’, but there’s no fix if you don’t try.
My son’s special education point person stated that it would be helpful to have one sheet of paper describing each new student from the parent’s expertise. (No essays please, just a few bulleted points.) These are the things about your child that are not on the IEP. Helpful tips to use specific to your child could include:
- When she sees an open door, she thinks it’s a invitation to run through it… don’t have her desk near an open door!
- Work on the computer is a treat for my daughter, if the day is challenging, try allocating some computer time.
- Music is very calming for my child.
- My son needs transition time between tasks or classes, allow about 15 minutes for him to finish one activity before moving on to the next and DON’T try to rush him, it won’t work!
- By 10:00 she needs a light snack.
- When my son does this, it means…
- My daughter’s favorite TV program is…
- Our childcare provider is…
- Her friends in the neighborhood are…
Teachers want to hear about your child, not his/her educational rights. All parents have an idea what works and what doesn’t for their child. The special education team knows and respects parents as the experts on their child. Still, the school environment is different than what is expected at home and the special education team will be busy determining best strategies for challenging situations that may arise for each student. Help them out and share your expertise with the team!
Determine the best form of communication
It’s important to have a regular form of communication between parent and school. Is it a notebook? Is it the phone? Many prefer e-mail. Whatever works for you, identify it early in the year and use it. I have a great fear of the unknown, some prefer to call it the “control freak” side of me. Regardless, I have learned that when I don’t have a comfortable handle on what my son’s school day is like I tend to dream the worst. Before this dream takes control and turns into a nightmare, I contact the school. Sometimes my concerns are valid and we work together to find resolution. Often times, the teacher is able to quickly dispel my anxiety with a simple explanation. Either way, the problem or alleged problem gets solved before it (or my imagination) grows too large.
When my son is ill and I leave a call with the attendance office message machine, I also leave a message with my son’s teacher. This way he doesn’t have to wonder if my son has gotten “adventurous” on his way to his first class or send out a search party. It only takes a minute and saves the teacher unnecessary worry or time away from other students. Plus he appreciates knowing that I respect his care for my son and his responsibility to his entire class.
From Day One of High School I established the drop off and pick up place on campus and stick to it to this day. This is no easy feat on a high school campus! Not only does it help my son know where he is supposed to be, but his teachers, assistants, and even security all know as well.
Talk with your student’s teacher about a “back up plan”. If this happens, here is what I’ll do, what will you do? Will this work or is there a better plan? These are just a couple strategies that work for me as our son gains greater independence. Each family, with their school team, must determine what best works for them.
Try not to waste your valuable time and energy with worry and woe on the little things. Save it for the big things that inevitably come our way. When his teachers gave our son straight “A’s” instead of “credit or no credit” and we got the letter congratulating us with an invitation to join the National Honor Society, we took our five dollars and had a good laugh in the principals’ office. Finally, an honor student in the family… his brothers were delighted! When the speech and language reports never made it home, on three different occasions, I began questioning the follow-through of the teacher, until two weeks later when I discovered all three copies— in our son’s closet… Still today, every school notice that goes on the refrigerator mysteriously disappears overnight. One day, when an instructional assistant was having trouble transitioning our son from one class to another, the wood shop instructor kindly understood that our son was determined to watch glue dry on his latest creation. They adjusted his schedule for that afternoon and we noticed no great academic loss. Relish the good times and get help through the tough times.
There’s a saying over my desk that reads, “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall never be bent out of shape.” My son’s teacher states that he appreciates our flexibility. If he doesn’t respond to my e-mail immediately, I know he is busy. If it is a matter of timely importance, I’ll give him a call and a friendly reminder to “check the e-mail when you have a minute.” If it’s a situation that needs immediate resolution, I’ll camp on his classroom door. The wisdom is in knowing the difference between “crisis”, “soon”, and “can wait”. Sometimes when parents have trouble determining the difference, it helps to talk with other parents. That’s what parent support is all about.
While it’s a parents’ job to get the best education for their child, recognize that each special educator may have 28 or more students with 28 or more parents who may be just as apprehensive as you during these first days back to school. Remember both parents and teachers are anxious to get the year off to a great start. Patient Vigilance, topped off with a healthy sense of humor can help ease the early days of transition and build positive relationships. These can be a foundation or “bank” for the future. If you need support or assistance, give us a call. We are here to help.
And don’t forget, once your child is back in school, give yourself a break and take a deep breath. After all, you survived the Summer Juggle in living and growing with your child with special needs.
- Patty Moore