ABCs and Learning Difficulties

Preparing your special needs child for school.

Starting school, whether in September or January, is a major milestone in a child’s life. But for a parent of a special needs child, it is more than a new beginning, new friendships and the gateway to great academic and social growth. Beginning school for a special needs child signals the start of a whole new community of professionals entering the family’s life.

Starting school can also mean many challenges for parents of special needs children as the parents strive to ensure their children receive proper attention, are accepted by their peers and learn and perform well. One of the best ways to overcome these challenges is through good preparation.

By anticipating and planning for a child’s needs, parents can have solutions in place to meet those needs before they become problematic. Like many schools dedicated to children with special needs, the nonprofit organization I oversee works with parents and their kids every day to overcome the challenges of starting school and thriving in the community. The nonprofit, which is known as The Arc, teaches children with developmental disabilities, and many of our staff members are also parents of special needs children. The following stories of some staffers and parents at The Arc reveal strategies to prepare children for a successful school year.

One common challenge families face is planning for a child to manage the events of the school day. For children with communication difficulties, the school bus is one of the first hurdles. Will kids have a way to communicate with others on the bus? Will they be able to make friends? Or, will they be teased or rejected by other children?

The concern is shared by parents of children with physical disabilities, as their children’s differences are readily apparent. Fortunately, certain tactics can help make riding on the school bus a positive experience. Consider having a child ride with a neighborhood friend, befriend the driver and practice traveling up and down steps.

Adhering to school routines is another concern for families of children with special needs. If a child has language delays, it impacts the way he makes his needs known— from asking to go the bathroom and requesting a snack, to telling the school nurse he’s sick. Susan Pytel, a physical therapist at The Arc, has a 5-year-old son, Matthew, with articulation delays. Matthew needs extra time to express his thoughts and ideas. Pytel’s son recently developed a stammer and is easily frustrated when he is not given the opportunity to complete his thoughts. This usually happens when people first meet him.

Pytel has made it a practice to give teachers detailed information, including strategies her family uses at home, to help her son communicate. Teachers have implemented these ideas, and Pytel’s son has become more independent and gained acceptance among his classmates.

For children who have attention and behavior challenges related to sensory needs, parents may find that establishing routines at home can facilitate a successful start to the school day. Paul Stengle, The Arc’s executive director, is the father of a child with multiple learning disabilities. Stengle began implementing a sensory brushing program every morning before leaving for school. He finds that this enables his son, Harrison, to participate more fully in classroom and school routines, such as activities that require Harrison to sit among other young children.

It is also important to make teachers aware of children’s strengths and weaknesses when they start school. Diana Polec, data technician at The Arc, started this process early for her high school-age son, Jimmy, who has physical disabilities. Polec visited prospective classes with her son and his teachers about two weeks before school started. The mother and son then practiced common school routines with teachers, such as going to class and ways her son would be participating in class. This preparation gave Polec and the teachers time to develop techniques that the boy would use to successfully navigate the school day, including how to manage his locker and be on time for auxiliary classes. The adults paid careful attention to any signs of stress Polec’s son expressed, modifying their strategies to reduce it. This approach has helped Polec’s son succeed in public school with typically developing teenagers.

Many children put pressure on themselves to perform. When a child has learning differences, this tendency can affect the child’s self-esteem and feelings about school.

Kavitha Patel, a social worker at The Arc, has a son named Vijay who has a language delay. Vijay judges himself harshly, and once he fails at a task he needs considerable reassurance to try again. To be motivated by his teachers, Vijay needs to trust their faith in his abilities. Patel has discussed this with her son’s teachers. She has had her son in both specialized and inclusive settings, and facilitated communication between his past and current schools to share information about what helps her son learn. As a result, the learning process goes more smoothly for Vijay.

Parents of children with chronic medical conditions might face the greatest challenges. Shelly Ortiz is a special education teacher at The Arc and a mother of two children with special needs. Her daughter, Mikayla, has a seizure disorder, and has been unresponsive to medication. Ortiz copes with many of the previously mentioned challenges as well as the task of educating new teachers, nurses, special class personnel and other support staff to recognize signs of her daughter’s seizures.

Ortiz has been successful. She credits her daughter’s school for its ongoing efforts to teach the signs of seizures to everyone, including the students, the administrators and the lunchroom staff.

Parents can also meet hardship regarding their child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). Stengle has had considerable experience with the IEP process. He recommends keeping communication lines open with teachers, particularly if there are issues with the child’s IEP at the start of the school year. Being able to advocate and compromise are crucial components in obtaining the appropriate resources for a child’s school success.

All of these parents were able to help their children commence school successfully thanks to two common factors. They discovered their children’s unique strengths and resilience, and school personnel were willing to adapt and listen.

When schools disappoint, it’s vital to communicate and resolve each situation as it arises. And when things work well, trust your abilities as a parent to let go and relish the outcome in making the transition to school a positive experience for your child with special needs.