7 Ways to Prepare for School When Your Child Has Special Needs

A new school year is a busy time for anyone. But if you’re a parent or caregiver of a child with special needs, you may be feeling extra stress. Having a plan and knowing how to prepare can help ease those concerns. Here are some tips and recommendations to help set up your child (and you!) for a successful school year.

7 ways to prepare for the new school year

Many children, whether they have special needs or not, may feel anxious about returning to school. That’s especially true if they’re starting a new school or have a new teacher. As their caregiver, you may feel nervous, too, and concerned about your child’s teachers understanding their needs. Here are some things you can do to provide an easy transition back to school, whether your child has autism, ADHD, a learning disability, apraxia of speech, other challenges with communicating, or any other special need.

1 Organize all your documents

Keeping written records or creating a folder on your computer to organize everything will save you a lot of time in the long run. It will ease some of your mental stress, too. When I first started as a speech therapist, I made a binder for each child I was working with, and it made life much easier when I attended their IEP meetings. I would bring the binder and confirm information, update the child’s goals, and document what was said at the meeting.

Here is how I would organize the binder as a parent or caregiver: 

  • List all your child’s providers with their contact information. 

  • Organize your paperwork chronologically, from older information at the bottom to newer on top.

  • Write what happened at each meeting and note who was there.

  • Date and initial every page in the lower right corner with a black pen. 

  • Always ask for copies of any documents that are created after meetings or appointments.

2 Confirm that your child’s school accommodations are in place  

After sitting down with your child’s team and ironing out all the details of your child’s IEP or 504 Plan, you came to an agreement about the services and accommodations your child would receive in school. You may assume that because everything is documented, that means it’s all set up for the first day of school. Unfortunately, most schools have hundreds of children to think about, and many teachers are spread thin. As your child’s caregiver, you are their best advocate, since you have their interests at the top of your mind.

Before the first day of school, check in with your child’s team to confirm the right accommodations are in place and they’re ready for your child.

3 Meet with your child’s teachers and therapists

Your child’s teachers are more likely to reach out to you if they’ve met you before. Before school starts or early in the school year, schedule a time to meet individually with the members of your child’s team–teachers, therapists, caseworkers, and whoever else supports your child.

The most important thing is for your child’s team to know you want to be included in your child’s education.

Sometimes sending a letter or email may be helpful. You can briefly describe your child’s strengths, challenges, and interests. But the most important thing is for your child’s team to know you’re available to talk and want to be included in your child’s education. Give them your email address and phone number, and ask them the best way to connect with them.  

4 Make a communication checklist for your child’s teachers and therapists

For many special needs kids, the best way to address issues before they become a big problem is a quick communication checklist. This is a way for teachers and therapists to update you on your child’s day.

You can put the checklist in a binder that goes from school to home daily. Yes/no questions or one-line answers work well. Here’s an example:

Jason ate lunch: Yes or No  Jason went to the bathroom independently: Yes or No  Jason spoke to a peer: Yes or No  Jason had trouble with _________________ Jason did well with _____________________

5 Offer tools to help your child’s teachers and therapists

While teachers and therapists are experts in education and therapy, you are the expert in your child. You know how to keep your child calm, communicate with them, and manage tough situations. If you have tips or tools for interacting with your child or managing challenging behaviors, share them with your child’s teachers and therapists. For example, you may have created a social story that helps your child breathe before they get too upset. Or you may use certain visuals to help your child during transitions. 

Tip: It’s always best to assume that no one has shared anything from last year with your child’s new teachers or therapists. 

6 Meet with the school nurse

If your school has a nurse, it’s a good idea to meet with them. Tell the nurse about any challenges your child may face and how to best interact with your child during difficult times, especially if it's medically related. You can work with the nurse to create an Individual Health Plan (IHP) for your child if needed. 

7 Create a school schedule for your child 

We’re all creatures of habit. Most of us feel calmer when we know what to expect, and that’s especially true for children with special needs. Many kiddos need schedules to help lower their anxiety during transitions.

Talking about a schedule only helps so much; a visual schedule can be a great tool to help your child better understand what to expect. If needed, create a social story about your child’s schedule so they know what’s going to happen. A social story is a simple story that describes a situation and the right way to act in that situation.

A visual schedule can be a great tool to help your child understand what to expect.

One important aspect of the school schedule is transportation. How will your child get to and from school? What is the route, and how long will it take? Who will be driving? 

If another person will be driving your child to school, talk with them to share information about your child’s needs. Another tip: Drive the bus route or way to school ahead of time and talk with your child about it.

Heading back to school with an IEP or 504 Plan

Finally, a quick overview of IEPs and 504 Plans, which many children with special needs have.

IEP: An Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, is a legal document in the United States that’s developed for each child with special needs. The IEP is created by a team of teachers, specialists, therapists, and parents/guardians to document the goals of the child and how they will be met in a public or charter school. An IEP might include special education services and accommodations, or changes to the child’s learning environment.

504 Plan: If a child isn’t eligible for special education, but they would still benefit from some accommodations in school, a 504 Plan is put in place. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is a civil rights law that bans discrimination on the basis of disability. Under this law, schools must produce a formal plan for accommodating a student with a disability, such as providing extra time on tests. 504 plans are different from IEPs, but the goal is the same: to help students become successful in school.

If you think your child might benefit from accommodations in school, you can request an IEP evaluation.

If your child has an IEP or 504 Plan, keep in mind that their needs may have changed over the summer. The accommodations that were put in place at your child’s last IEP or 504 meeting may need to be changed. If so, you may need to speak with the school team before the school year begins.

If you think your child might benefit from accommodations in school, you can request an IEP evaluation by contacting your school district.

While a new school year may always feel a bit stressful, my hope is that these tips and recommendations can make the transition from summer to school a bit easier to manage!

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