Ways to help children with special needs get a great start to the school year

August 30, 2017 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

The start of the new school year can be an anxious time for children, who see their daily routines change overnight.

But what is the start of a new school year like for students who might have ADHD, be on the autism spectrum, suffer from anxiety or have other concerns that impact learning?

It can be a struggle, according to Mary Havlik, a school psychologist at Cooperstown Central School District.

“For many students who have difficulty adjusting to changes, the start of the school year can create worries, nervousness, and anxieties,” Havlik said. “Students who particularly struggle are those who benefit from having a consistent routine, such as children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Students with anxiety disorders can also struggle more than other students as they may worry about the new teacher, new schedules, expectations, and peer interactions.”

Bob Hage is the dean of students at Otsego Area Occupational Center, a facility of Otsego-Northern Catskills BOCES. He spends a lot of his time working with students with behavioral concerns. Many of these students have not been successful in traditional school settings. Hage described change, such as returning to school, for some students as “pulling the rug out from under them.”

“Anytime a routine is in place and it is successful and it is predictable and it is understood, breaking that pattern creates havoc for children, to a greater or lesser degree,” Hage said.

What can we, as parents, do to ease the transition?

What can teachers and school staff do?

“A lot of times, bedtime routines are later during the summer and kids have a chance to sleep in. One way parents can help kids adjust to the upcoming change in schedule, is by getting students in bed earlier and waking them up at an earlier time the week or so prior to school beginning,” Havlik said. “A lot of students experience being tired the first week of school as they adjust to the earlier times and the demands placed on them, as the increased expectations to focus is also tiring. We have to consider mental as well as physical fatigue.”

For students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, social situations can be particularly challenging. Renowned autism expert Carol Gray devised the social story concept in the early 1990s as a way help model appropriate social interaction for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Social stories help children “walk through” situations in advance by describing relevant social cues, the perspectives of others and suggested appropriate responses.

“Social stories are also helpful for kids who struggle with transitions to help them prepare for upcoming changes,” Havlik said.

One of the best ways to ease students through the transition is communication, particularly with the child regarding what the upcoming changes will be like.

It also helps to start that dialogue before the school year lets out in June, to give children an expectation of what the summer will be like. For some students, Hage said, school provides a more secured, structured and stable environment than home.

Hage suggested keeping activities similar to what students were experiencing during the school year going throughout the summer can be a big help,

Dialogue with the student can also help identify particular details of the anxiety, according to Hage.

“If the student can verbalize and recognize what is causing that nervous energy, it might give insight,” he said, adding that a root cause could be as simple as missing a friend on the bus.

Even physically walking them through the school before the start of classes can be a big help, according to Hage.

“I am working with a student right now who is actually visiting on Fridays, even though school is not in session, just to become familiarized with where his room is, where is desk is, where his locker is. If you do it for three or four weeks for an hour each week, there is a realization of, ‘Oh yeah, this is where I have been,’” Hage said.

Havlik agreed that communication is key.

“Teachers and school staff can help students transition back into the school year by providing home-to-school communication, such as welcome letters to parents, clear expectations for the school year and a description of the curriculum,” Havlik said. “Teachers and staff also help to ease students back into the school year by doing ‘get to know you’ activities and easing students into academics and homework expectations.”

Anxiety over a new school year isn’t just being felt by students. Parents who want their children to be successful are often worried about how the new school year is going to go, especially if their child has had past struggles.

My son is going into second grade. He has a diagnosis for ADHD. But he also has characteristics that place him on the autism spectrum according to some of the specialists with whom we have consulted. The testing remains inconclusive, and his mother and I have been a little frustrated over the years as we try to help him be successful at school. We applaud his school for doing as much as it can. Last June, his Individualized Educational Program, which is required for special education students, was amended at his school and we are hopeful it will lead to positive changes for our son.

An IEP details the child’s learning needs; explains how the school will provide service to the child; and it describes how progress will be measured.

Although we are nervous about the start of the new school year, we are also encouraged by our son’s principal, teachers, school psychologist and other staff members’ efforts. As both Havlik and Hage said, communication at all levels is key.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 7-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

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