Nerves and butterflies don’t just happen to school-bound students once autumn approaches and the streets fill up again with big yellow buses. Nope. We parents get the jitters, too—especially parents of kids with special needs. We worry: Will his new teacher “get it?” Will the academic and social supports work? What will happen at lunch and recess? Will my calls be returned? And it all boils down to the question: Will my beloved child be OK?
As the mom of an autistic son, a former school board president and a special needs advocate—roles I had before becoming a children’s author—my life revolved around these questions for many years. So let’s imagine we are sitting down for a chat over coffee (maybe decaf, since we already have the jitters). Here’s some stuff I’ve learned about prepping for the new school year and easing nervous jitters of the parental variety.
- Organize the bureaucracy.
Gather all the forms. Scan everything into your computer so you have digital copies. Find a method that works for you—journal, notepad, Word doc, spreadsheet—and use it to log every conversation you have with school staff, doctors, etc. My system had columns for date, time, notes on conversation and action items, but customize your log in a way that works for you.
- Find a mentor; be a mentor.
I was lucky enough to meet Mrs. J at a PTO meeting one year. Her autistic twins were two years ahead of my son, and she was a veritable fountain of knowledge on everything coming up for us at school. She’d say, “We’re paving the way for you, Mrs. P!” Special-needs parents with kids a grade or two ahead can be great resources and become great friends. Consider paying the knowledge and advice forward by helping parents of younger kids.
- Review the IEP.
We check to see what clothes our kids have outgrown, so we should also check to see if that IEP still fits. Is it time for a reevaluation? It’s a good question to ask before school starts.
While there are many different strategies for scheduling an annual IEP meeting, I found that having it a month into the school year worked best for us. It gave teachers enough time to get to know my child, so their suggestions were attuned to his needs, but was still early enough in the year that new strategies could be implemented.
Having your child attend his own IEP meeting—even just for a few minutes at the beginning—gives him great practice in self-advocating. It helps develop a comfort level and healthy sense of openness. It also helps focus the team on the visible, physical reason for everyone’s efforts: your child, who everyone wants to succeed.
- Think teamwork.
Although every situation is a bit different, I have lived by the rule that kindness, respect and appreciation to teachers and staff—even if I’m not sure how I really feel about them—is of utmost importance. There’s a big difference between confronting a teacher with “Here is a problem. What are you going to do about it?” and a more engaging approach such as “We both want what’s best for my kid, so what can we do to fix this problem?”
If you are the kind of person who makes teachers and staff smile and want to talk when they see you in the hall, you’ll benefit in the long run. Try not to be that parent who makes teachers cringe and want to hide in the custodian’s closet. We need all the allies we can get for our children. And as my grandma used to say, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
- Preview the routine.
If your child feels comfortable, you will feel comfortable. Visit the school a week or two before school starts. Bring the teacher a gift of back-to-school supplies. Help your child understand the classroom set-up and learn how a typical day will unfold. Chat with teacher, the gym teacher, the custodian and the lunch lady. Tell everyone how much you appreciate them. Visit more than once if you can—meet everyone! Hang out until it feels like a safe, familiar place full of friendly faces.
Warmest wishes for a wonderful safe, happy school year. Don’t you worry—it’s going to be fine. (Oh, and until we get through September, maybe go easy on the caffeine!)
Sally J. Pla is an award-winning children’s author whose books include “The Someday Birds” and “Stanley Will Probably Be Fine.” She lives in North County San Diego with her family.
Great Back-To-School Reads for Kids, recommended by Sally J. Pla
Ready or Not, Woolbur Goes to School by Leslie Helakoski
Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex
Middle Grade Novels
Hoot by Carl Hiassen
How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
Stanley Will Probably Be Fine by Sally J. Pla (Set here in San Diego.)
How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart
We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen