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Back-to-school tips for parents of children with special needs

As families soak up the last few weeks of summer vacation, they may be starting to think about getting back into the swing of a new school year. 

For parents of children with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, it can take a significant amount of preparation to create a seamless transition. Families must ease their child’s anxiety, while helping them learn how to manage a new schedule. 

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health National Director of Family Engagement Amy Kelly – and a mother to three children (one with autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities) – offers tips for families to slide back into their school routines.  

Tip #1: Set a back-to-school sleep schedule

With summer activities and getaways filling your calendar, it may be challenging to keep your child on a consistent sleep schedule. The sooner you can set a back-to-school bedtime routine, the easier it will be when the alarm clock rings on the first day of school.  

“The best way to set a back-to-school sleep schedule is to start a few weeks early – and be consistent,” said Kelly. “Make adjustments in 15-minute increments every other day (when going to bed and waking up) to allow your son or daughter plenty of time to comfortably make the transition.”  

Tip #2: Start counting down

To ensure the beginning of the school year is not a surprise, communication is key. Start talking about the upcoming school year about three to four weeks prior, and count down to the first day.  

“Families can mark off days on a calendar, create a countdown sheet or make a visual schedule to help children look ahead to events and activities – and become accustomed to the idea of the new school year,” Kelly explained. “This should be a fun activity and something you can do together.” 

Tip #3: Generate excitement

While discussing the upcoming school year, talk about it with enthusiasm to help relieve back-to-school jitters they may be experiencing.   

“Emphasize the exciting new classes, upcoming field trips and fun projects,” Kelly shared. “This is a great time to pump them up! A new school year means another opportunity to learn, grow and create new memories.”  

Tip #4: Stock up on supplies 

Make sure you have what you need to start the school year off right. Purchase supplies (e.g., fidget spinner, new backpack, colorful lunch box) to help your child remain relaxed and organized at school.   

“If appropriate, pack a small bag for emergencies, and fill it with items such as undergarments, socks and pants,” Kelly stated. “You can also include items, such as a swimsuit, for extracurricular outings. This a great way to prepare for the unexpected.”   

Tip #5: Tour the school

If your child is attending a new school, make arrangements to take a tour before classes begin.  

“Locating new classrooms, restrooms, the gym and cafeteria, and talking through any questions or concerns your child might have, are extremely important to help reduce anxiety,” Kelly noted. “Take photos of the school to remind your child about what he or she can expect, or create a social story – a widely used intervention tool that uses text and photos to help individuals with autism prepare for the nuances of social situations. You can also drive the route your kids will travel to and from school, so it becomes familiar and less intimidating.”  

Tip #6: Touch base with teachers/therapists

Before the start of the school year, set up a time to chat with teachers and therapists about your child’s summer and any new developments.  

“Share a copy of your youth’s latest education plan, and review or establish a communication log or checklist to ensure everyone is on the same page about his or her education and treatment from the get-go,” Kelly said. “You are your child’s best advocate – taking these steps can help to ensure the start of the school year is a success.” 


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