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Preparing for Back to School: Ideas to help ease your child (and you!) into the new school year

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Governor Maggie Hassan recently proclaimed August 4th-8th as ‘Back to School Preparedness Week’ in the state of New Hampshire.  In hearing this, the team at Constellations began to wonder;  “What is the best advice we could give parents for preparing their child with special needs for the upcoming school year?”

One of the most important things to consider is avoiding ‘guilt by association’.  In the world of Applied Behavior Analysis, we refer to this as ‘stimulus-stimulus pairing’.  This is when two stimuli (changes, events, items, actions) are presented at the same time- typically for repeated trials or presentations.  The end result is that one stimulus will typically acquire the function of the other stimulus. 

For a relevant example, think about your child on his or her first day of school.  All summer, you have been allowing him/her to wake up naturally, play or watch cartoons while you make breakfast.  Perhaps he or she is even able to lounge in their jammies for a while before getting dressed to go play outside.  Structure and routine have not been your priority this summer and it feels so nice! 

Before you know it, the morning of the first day of school arrives.  This morning feels different.  Your child is woken up by an alarm you set for him or her or perhaps by you, your spouse or even a rushed sibling.  You prompt your child to sit at the table and eat their breakfast- no time for TV or playing.  Breakfast is cold cereal- not the yummy pancakes you have been whipping up!  Now it is time to get dressed, out the door and onto the bus!  What a hectic, potentially stressful morning for your child!  (Stimulus number one).  Your child then arrives at school and is held to a routine and expectations which he or she was not prepared for.  There a lot of people, bright lights, loud noises, funny smells, and other sensory experiences that could also add to what your child now thinks of as ‘school’.  (Stimulus number two).  This occurs over and over.   A few weeks into school, you find yourself telling a friend that mornings in your house have become so tense and that your child is extremely difficult to get out of bed and to the breakfast table.  You wish you knew what to do.

To avoid this sort of scenario in your home and to promote a smoother transition for everyone involved, here are some things you can do ahead of time to make that first day of school more comfortable and perhaps even associated with familiar and fun things. 

1)         Begin practicing your morning routine now.  This does not have to be done all at once, but could be introduced gradually.  If your child has been eating the same breakfast every morning but you know it will not be an option on rushed mornings, introduce other things from time to time.  If you are going to require your child to be dressed before coming out of their room in the morning, help them by laying out their clothes at night.  If waking up much earlier is a concern, begin introducing the alarm you plan to use but at the time your child has been waking up naturally.  You can then slowly set the alarm for earlier and earlier times over the course of a week or two until you have helped your child adjust to waking at an earlier time. 

2)        Visit the school.  Part of your child’s comfort level in their new classroom could be directly related to a great experience you have with them there.  Contact your school to find out when it would be a good time for you and your child to go see their classroom.  Allow your child to look around and perhaps even help you take some pictures!  (These could be used later for a social story.)  If your child’s teacher is available, remember the pairing we talked about!  Ask the teacher if he or she would be willing to read a favorite book or even share a favorite snack with your child when they come in.

3)      Plan your routines.  Help your child feel more comfortable by providing predictable routines to the extent possible for the times right before and after school.  If your child benefits from picture activity schedules, written lists or calendars, provide those and help him or her use those tools until they become more independent and/or comfortable with the routine. 

4)      Organize and involve your child.  Your child will have an easier time finding things in their backpack and knowing where to put things away if you involve him or her in this process.  Have your child help you pack their backpack for school, now he or she will know what they have and where they can find it! 

5)      Brush up on the IEP.  Be familiar with your childs IEP so that you can be mindful and observant of their progress and/or any difficulty they might have.  Be sure to bring any questions to the team and communicate often.  Remember that you can call an IEP meeting at any time to discuss progress, ask questions, etc. 

Here are a few helpful links for preparing for school and communicating your childs needs with the school team:

http://featsacramento.org/Portals/0/Document%20Library/Teacher%20HandBook%20Downloadable%20Documents/2009TeacherHandbook.pdf 

A handbook for teachers which parents can print and fill out for their own reference as well as to send to school ahead of time to provide additional information to the teacher about their child.

http://specialchildren.about.com/od/specialeducation/ht/teacherpacket.htm

Step by step tips and resources for creating a back to school packet to send to your child’s teacher and team ahead of time.