Back to School for Kids with Disabilities
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
Well, it’s that time of year again, full of mixed emotions and challenging transitions… BACK TO SCHOOL! This year is different than ever before, after the past year we have had. Your child might be going to school in person for the first time ever, or for the first time in a very long time.
Whether you leap for joy or cringe with dread as this transition approaches, we have curated some tips that could be helpful in planning to get back into school this fall.
1. Get to know your child’s school team (because they are part of your team now).
From principals to lead teachers, classroom aids, school psychologists, speech pathologists, and OTs, approaching your child’s school team with kindness and welcome sets the stage for a collaborative experience for everyone throughout the school year. Ask them about their approach, things they love about their job, what you can do to support their work while your child is with them at school.
As parents, it is easy to get into adversarial situations with schools as we focus on advocacy for our child. And advocacy is vital -- we are still the people who know our children best and who love them most -- but that is only one part of the whole picture. School staff rarely get into this gig with anything less than the best of intentions (I mean, who signs themselves up for a room full of kids with significant, and vastly different, needs to face 180+ days of the potential to be hit, bitten, spit on, and kicked. Not me. Saints. Saints sign up for that work.) Remember and believe in their best intentions. They might be exhausted. They are definitely underpaid. They might be burnt out. And we might get to see that part of them far too often. But remember and believe in their best intentions and approach them from a place of compassion and collaboration. People do better when they feel better -- you, me, our kids, and their teachers too.
Please hear me: I am not saying you should take on yet another person’s burdens here. I know it is hard. I know you are exhausted too. But I firmly believe that we are better together, and kindness begets kindness. If we lay a compassionate and collaborative foundation, even the hardest times are likely to go a bit more smoothly.
2. Find clothes your kid likes to wear (and maybe can even put on and take off themselves).
Also hard. I know. Not gonna lie. But the more we can do to set the stage for a smooth morning, the better, amiright? If your child hates tags, let’s cut those suckers out, or find tagless clothes. If your child can’t do buttons, let’s find clothes with no buttons (they can practice fine motor skills with an OT using an extra shirt you send in for just that purpose). Zippers are problematic? Elastic it is!
My son went through about seven years where all he would wear was short-sleeved poly “sports” t-shirts… spring, summer, fall, and winter. Yes, winter. Snowy winter. Oh, and he hates coats.
We all know there are things that we just have to do… like wear shoes to school… but if we think strategically, those shoes can be ones our kids find comfortable, we can eliminate most of the morning arguments ahead of time, and give space for the fights we must have.
Additionally, we make toileting and changing easier at school with clothes our children have less trouble with from both a fine motor and sensory perspective. Which brings us full circle back to that collaborative relationship with the school team...
3. Practice the school routine ahead of time.
Summer got you all staying up late and sleeping in? Maybe eating breakfast on the couch at 9am and wearing pjs until 11am? Make the transition to a school schedule more smooth by starting two to three weeks early.
For us, it works best to map out what time we need to be out the door and go backwards from there. For instance, if we need to leave at 7:30, then I know we need to be eating breakfast by 7:00, which means we need to be up no later than 6:30 (NOT a problem for my early bird). Evening baths are still the thing for my littlest one, and my teenager has switched to morning showers. Both of them need at least 10 hours of sleep, so we aim to be in bed by 8pm (and hope sleep soon follows).
Sleep has always been hard for my teenager, so some nights will be better than others, but when we establish a routine that starts at the same time every night, it helps.
Other things to practice are: filling up and zipping backpacks; opening lunches (and the contents thereof); eating within a short amount of time; and practicing what to do when lunch is over. Think about whether or not you want them to discern what is trash and what is not (that’s how I lost most of my spoons one year), or just zip that lunch box up and bring everything home.
If your child is riding school transportation for the first time, find out if you can have some time before the first day of school to meet the driver, show your child where to sit, and go through any special instructions for the ride to school (and back home again).
4. Take care of yourself
Between all the prep (doctor’s appointments, shopping for supplies and clothes, meal planning, etc.) and all the preemptive worry, it’s easy to forget about what we need.
I’m not talking about big, earth-shattering things. I’m talking about taking another good drink of water, eating some carrots instead of that chocolate bar, and trying to get to bed a little earlier so you can have 8 hours of sleep too. Maybe take a few minutes to do whatever you are doing mindfully, engaging each of your five senses in the task, becoming fully present in the moment, and expressing gratitude.
People do better when they feel better, including us. We do less well (become snappy, irritable, tearful) when we are tired, hungry, lonely, or sick. Taking care of ourselves benefits everyone.
The school year always brings a mix of emotions. For me, being as prepared as possible helps relieve my anxiety and sets us up for the best possible year ahead.