Back-to-School Sanity for Special Needs

As August turns to September and the TV commercials start announcing sales on Elmer’s glue and Crayola crayons, we know that back-to-school is just around the corner. Most of us have fond memories of this time growing up (remember picking out that brand new pair of Reeboks and bouncing around the shoe store?) Most parents look forward to a fresh start and new opportunities for their children to grow, learn and succeed. For them, back-to-school is a wonderful time.

But for the parents of children with special needs, back-to-school can be an especially stressful time.  While all children get used to summer break and many have difficulty getting back into the school routine, children with special needs often find returning to a rigorous school schedule particularly challenging. Moreover, special needs parents have to worry about a mountain of paperwork, scheduling challenges and significant financial obligations that other parents need not confront.

Among other things, special needs parents need to make sure that required therapy documents are submitted in a timely fashion, that the services are paid for and that the child’s transportation to the various therapy sessions, school and doctor’s appointments are covered and coordinated. If there is another child or children in the mix facing their own back-to-school anxieties, the stress is amplified exponentially. Several studies also show that a parent’s stress can impact a child’s overall health.

This week’s post seeks to relieve some of that stress by focusing special needs parents on two simple words: organization and preparation. Organization and preparation are proven stress relievers. If you and your child are organized and prepared, you will both feel empowered and in control.  You will not feel overwhelmed and you are much less likely to feel stressed.  And there is no time like the present, so let’s get to it!

Parents of special needs children should focus on organizing just four aspects of their child’s life – contacts, calendars, communications, and expenses. With respect to contacts, parents should create and maintain a single contact list, which is an easily accessible list of therapists, teachers, and caregivers who work with your child. Be sure to have their email addresses, cell phone numbers, and mailing addresses. Parents should share this list with anyone who is responsible for your child’s care. Google Docs is a great (and free) way to create and share information.

Parents should also be sure to calendar all of their child’s therapy sessions and after-school activities.  This can be done electronically or with an old-fashioned wall calendar. The point is to know what is coming and to give yourself enough time to prepare for it. You can also create a print-out that can be posted in the kitchen and emailed to your child-care provider, spouse and one or two family members in case of an emergency.

Logging communications is also important. Parents should implement a communication notebook for their child’s teachers and therapists to use to communicate with each other and with you. This will help you manage your child’s therapies and allow for greater collaboration among all of the key people working with your child. You will be able to track progress, ask questions and inform the team of any changes or issues your child is facing.

Finally, for parents, it is vital to keep careful log of expenses. I recommend developing an actual expense log that can be used to maintain records including invoices and receipts. Be sure that medical invoices include diagnostic and CPT codes. It’s a good idea to keep receipts of all healthcare-related items, even over-the-counter supplements, as many insurance plans cover these products.

Now, it is also very important for special needs children to be prepared for the upcoming school year. It goes without saying that special needs children often have a difficult time transitioning between two different activities, let alone starting a whole new school year, with a new classroom teacher and possibly new classmates. These tips may help.

First, social stories can be very useful tools. With the assistance of your child’s therapists and/or teachers, you can create a social story using simple words and photographs in a book format to help your child prepare for the new school year. For example, when explaining how your child will get to school, the first page can be a picture of a yellow school bus and you can write on the line below “Johnny will take bus 11 every morning to school.” Many children feel comforted knowing what’s to come each day and many children also like visuals (e.g. the picture of the school bus) to make connections.

Second, parents should try to visit the child’s school before school starts in September.  Schools may not have an open house or a meet-and-greet with the new classroom teacher, but you never know if they can help set something up for you until you ask. If you can arrange it, a visit to the classroom is a good idea to help your child get a feeling for the space. It would also be great if your child can meet his/her new teacher. You should take a picture of your child in the classroom and with the teacher and incorporate them into your social story (see above).

Third, talk it out. Children generally thrive on structure and order. Children with special needs often rely on their daily routine to stay consistent to ease their anxiety and help them stay regulated. As you read the social story to your child, be sure to discuss the daily plan with your child so they feel prepared, secure and calm. Listen to what your child is saying to you. Both their verbal complaints and nonverbal demeanor may show signs of anxiety, stress and worry. All children relax when they feel comforted and loved. And at the end of the day, you as a parent can provide that for them with ease.

I hope these tips help relieve some of the stress associated with the quickly approaching back-to-school season. But if all else fails, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and remember back to your own back-to-school days and those brand new Reeboks. Good luck!

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Shirael Pollack is a pediatric physical therapist and owner of Watch Me Grow Sensory Gym and Speech Language Center in Manhattan, New York.  She is devoted to helping children with a wide variety of physical and developmental challenges by providing therapy that is both fun and effective. In addition to her practice at Watch Me Grow, Shirael is an active member of the National Autism Association NY Metro Chapter where she currently serves as the Chairperson of the Fundraising Committee.

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