The beginning of the school year brings new transitions and the fears that can accompany them. A child’s cognitive or speech delay can add to the difficulty if they cannot adequately express their needs. Luckily, there are some simple steps that can be taken to help your child navigate the first days of a new class or school and set them on the path to success.
Get to Know Everyone at the School
Often, providing a community for your student is the most successful way to ensure their safety. Introduce yourself and your child to as many key players at your school as possible—the principal, secretaries, school nurse, building site supervisor and any aides or support staff will be responsible for your child in your absence. The greater your child’s risk of becoming disoriented; the more important it is to have informed staff. The first three days before school are usually staff orientation days and making an appointment with your child’s principal or the school psychologist can make a huge difference in first day success.
Introduce Your Child in Writing
Sometimes teachers just need to discover for themselves the weaknesses and strengths of your child. Other times, especially in the case of medical necessity, you need to let the teacher know. As a mom of a youngster with special needs transitioning to first grade, I have found that an opening letter complete with picture, caretaking requirements, likes and dislikes, daily toileting needs and social/emotional set-offs can really help a teacher get a grasp of student’s need. Most teachers may never have the time to read the full 20 page Individual Education Plan (IEP) for every student in their class. A brief summary of your child’s needs and preferences will make it much easier. Make copies and have the office staff distribute to any therapists as well.
Provide Your Own Augmentative Communication for Your Child
The speech delays of some children make it even harder for them to get their needs known, and it can also lead to them misunderstanding where they should be at any given time in their day. Happily, “there’s an app for that!” Proloquo2go is an application that has been rapidly replacing augmentative communication devices because of it ease and price. At just under $200, this program uses PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) to let a child draw his needs and present it to any adult that needs to help. Easily portable and totally accessible, this new application for Iphones is even being carried by some schools.
This system or a printed PECS schedule can also help your child be guided through their day. Once their class schedule is in place, have the support team build a PECS chart of transitions for your child. Your child’s teacher may already use a system like this one in elementary school. The charts are usually placed predominantly in the front of the class and have titles like “Library” or “Recess” with Velcro backing that can be removed as the task or activity is completed. Some of these same boards just need the addition of illustrations to help your child understand when a task is ending. When faced with difficult transitions away from preferred tasks, teachers may even ask the student to retire their favorite task strip as a means to ease the pain of the transition.
Older students may benefit from printed roadmaps of their school with time schedules. These often are not available until the first day of school, but introducing yourself to the staff in the days prior to opening may get you the schedule a little sooner.
Help Organize Your Child’s Homework Folder
Ever have a teacher who had you purchase a special folder for their class and organize it just-so? This technique works especially well for students with special needs. A large three ring binder with an attached pencil pouch can be easily found at most office supply stores. The first page should be a photo and medical info for the child with a number to call if it is found somewhere out of the ordinary. The second page should be the child’s printed schedules; and the third should be a printed page of emergency numbers (mom and dad’s cell, back up plans, doctors, etc). Dividers for subjects should be labeled and arranged by class schedule so that your student can find them easily and begins to understand the order of their day.
Offer to Help
With ever-increasing class sizes and shrinking budgets, teachers have many tough challenges meeting the needs of all their students. Student with visual deficits may require work with larger fonts and the time required to change all these work pages is great. Inserting yourself into your child’s class may not be the best thing for you or your child, but offering to help in another area (making copies, cutting out pieces for art projects, class organization during PE or library) can take a little pressure off your child’s teacher so they have the time to spend on preparing for your child. You might be surprised at how much even a working parent can do from home to increase teacher efficiency.
As your child grows more self sufficient, many fears about school transitions fade away. The solution to most of those initial problems is almost always rapport-building and communication. Getting ahead of the problem will set your student on the path to academic success and provide you with the confidence to know that he is being taken care of!
Emily Dolton is a parent, Co-Chair of Involved Exceptional Parents’ Day and muralist based in San Diego. www.InsideEmilysHead.com.